Metaphor and simile are mainstays of poetry and lyric. They are freight trains of description that work by drawing a comparison between two seemingly unrelated things (like freight trains and descriptions). They are infinitely better at getting your message across than simply describing something...and it's time you got on board.
Leaving the Station
We were all taught in school that you can tell similes and metaphors apart by looking for the words “as a” or “like a” in the phrase - similes use them and metaphors do not. See the following examples:
Dry as a bone.
Sly like a fox.
Or more interestingly:
His face was as wrinkled as a trombone player’s sleeve.
She cried an ocean of tears.
Turn the pages of my mind.
Or more interestingly:
I’m a prisoner in the chamber of your heart.
However, for us songwriters there is a more important difference between similes and metaphors. Because similes use the qualifiers “like a” or “as a”, they always seem literally true and leave the phrase feeling resolved. This makes them good for one-time use in a lyric without distracting from a different central idea. Metaphors, on the other hand, are always literally false and may consequently feel unresolved. Often this means they require further explanation. It is not uncommon to see a metaphor used as the central theme for an entire song, as in the Kansas classic Dust in the Wind, by Kerry Livgren.
Building up Steam
Creating interesting metaphors and similes is something many songwriters struggle with. Once again, it is paramount that you leave your editor’s hat in the closet during this process. If yours is on, it’s going to tell you that every metaphor you come up with sounds dumb. Editing hats just don’t understand that some of the best metaphors are between the two most disparate things imaginable, like a heart and an anvil, an old man and a question mark, or an improper fraction and an SUV. After all, what on earth could an anvil and a heart have in common? Well…they can both be heavy. An old man and a question mark? They are both hunched over. An improper fraction and an SUV? They are both top-heavy. The key to creating good metaphors and similes is conveying the unexpected third thing which the first two things have in common. The more unexpected that thing is, the more interesting it will be. Oddly enough, creating metaphors is easiest when you start by knowing the first thing and the third thing, and then look for the second thing. It’s like solving a maze… it’s often easier starting from the end. Let me show you what I mean:
Let’s say you want to create a metaphor for the moon. Your first object becomes: the moon. Now, decide which of the moon’s qualities it is that you want to describe. Maybe its brightness, or its roundness. Maybe its texture, or its revolution around the earth. Whatever the quality is, it will become the third, unexpected element in your metaphor or simile. So let’s say it’s the roundness that we want to describe. Great! Now… forget about the moon completely! Put it out of your mind and list only words that describe "round". Possibilities might be: a wheel, a hub cap, an old 78 LP, a tennis ball, a pizza, a zero, a donut, a man-hole cover, or the rim of a coffee mug. I’m sure you could go on listing things that are round all day. Once you have your list, pick the one that seems most unusual. Ever hear the following line?
When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza-pie that’s amore.
That’s how Harry Warren and Jack Brooks chose to describe the moon in their classic song That’s Amore. You could also say:
The moon rolled across the sky like an old hub cap.
I spent the night under heaven’s man-hole cover.
Both comparisons are so unusual that they immediately get your attention and make you think about the similarities. Also notice that because “heaven’s man-hole cover” is a metaphor, it begs further explanation, whereas the simile “the moon rolled across the sky like an old hubcap” is more self-contained.
Creating metaphors and similes is one of my favorite songwriting activities. You can sneak them into your songs like a hobo in a box-car and then turn them loose. They out-describe adjectives or adverbs with ease because they don’t just tell a listener what to think… they prompt each listener to search their own experiences for a description. I love a good metaphor.....got any?
*Photo by 844steamtrain