14. Control the Comparison

If you were using a metaphorical to describe something your reader had never seen or experienced, you would pick something familiar that was as much like the unfamiliar thing as possible. (Then you might note differences.)

That rarely happens with metaphoricals.

Men are like cliches.

Um, a character in my story said that, not me. Let's think for a moment about similarity. Men are very similar to women, less similar to giraffes (but still both mammal!), less similar to plants (but still both alive with cells and DNA), even less similar to spoons (but still objects with volume and mass and a location in space), and even less similar to ideas.

So, literally, men are not like cliches at all; they are close to being the opposite. But of course, everyone understands that – they understand that the similarity is to one feature (or a few features) of cliches.

The advice here is simple.

Manage the Comparison

A metaphorical can fail simply because you have one thing in mind and your reader another. Or you know what feature is relevant for the comparison and your reader does not. Some ambiguity is sometimes tolerable, the point is for you to realize you have it.

So, will your reader know what features you are talking about? Often you just say the feature of interest.

She carried a black imitation purse the size of a Buick... (Cairre, page 2)

People have always gone around shedding information like they shed dead skin cells -- constantly, and without even noticing. (Walt, Wangerski, page 72 trade)

The door buzzer interrupts me, jerking me upright like a marionette. (Three Little Lies, Marshall, page 5)

1. We are like fighters before a fight.
2. We are still glaring at each other like fighters before a fight. ("Criticizing")

There is also what I call metaphorical meaning.

Bill was like a gorilla

Yes, they both have a heart, DNA, volume, brains, etc. But the distinctive feature of gorillas is being really strong. That's the metaphorical meaning of gorilla and probably why Bill is being compared to a gorilla (instead of being compared to a giraffe or mouse).

When you are using the metaphorical meaning, there is less reason to explicitly say which feature is similar.