Metaphor and Symbolism in Fiction

Metaphor v Simile

Why use metaphor, similes or symbolism in fiction? Because they are just some of the useful tools available to a writer to add extra dimension to their work, to make it interesting, more palpable and more entertaining.

A metaphor is an analogy, a figure of speech, to convey an idea or object. It compares dissimilar things without using ‘as’ or ‘like’

This shouldn’t be confused with similes, which are used to convey something that is very much like, whereas metaphors state that something is.

With metaphors, you don’t have to write ‘like’ or ‘as’.

For example:

‘His eyes were fireflies’. (Metaphor)

‘His eyes were like fireflies’. (Simile)

Both examples tell us the character’s eyes glittered or glowed like fireflies in the dusk, because the fireflies are used as an analogy.

‘John was a tank’. (Metaphor)

‘John was like a tank’. (Simile)

Both of these tell us that John is very strong and stocky. Used correctly they can add a bit of flair to the narrative, but if used poorly, and too often, they can spoil the piece entirely.

How do metaphors help?

Metaphors and similes have the ability to create mental pictures and imagery with a limited number of words. They can enhance your novel or story by adding depth, colour and powerful imagery to your narrative, and it’s a useful way of drawing in your reader and keeping them hooked.

As with most fiction writing, however, you need to find a balance when using metaphors and similes. Misuse or too may will bore or confuse your reader and may ultimately weaken your writing. Use them sparingly.

While there are advantages to sprinkling your narrative with them, there are some disadvantages of using metaphors, too. Be careful you don’t make them into clichés. For instance:

He was a brick wall.

Her face was thunder.

These are well-worn metaphors way past their sell-by date. The idea is to think of new ones, something fresh the reader hasn’t read before. The other thing to avoid is mixed metaphor. A mixed metaphor combines incompatible metaphors, creating an illogical comparison. Here are a couple of examples:

Stick that in your pipe and chew it.’  You can’t chew what’s in your pipe, but you can smoke it...

Or what about this famous one...‘Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

The inflated use of similes and metaphors might also lead to hyperbole, which is an obvious form of exaggeration. They are similar to similes and metaphors but are overly exaggerated for effect and sound too much like clichés.

The bag weighed a ton.’ This is not only exaggerated, but also cliché.  Or what about this overused hyperbole, ‘I laughed so hard I nearly split my sides...

Try to avoid hyperbole and mixed metaphors. Think clearly and carefully before choosing a metaphor or simile to help enhance your narrative. Remember to remain new and fresh in the way you want to enhance your writing.


The use of symbolism is an important tool in fiction. It’s a way of creating depth and meaning to your narrative, and it takes the story beyond simple plot or character development. It illuminates the narrative, gives the reader something extra to think about as you sprinkle the story with symbols. Used correctly, they act as clues and hints of what may happen further in the story.

But how do you find the right symbols? That depends on the theme of your story and how you want them to work in relation to the story. A romance story may want to use colours, or flowers. A thriller might use certain people, or repeated objects or words.

Symbols can be anything from words, colours, sounds, objects and similes.

Symbolism is about the relationship between the symbol and the character and/or plot and how this shores up the story as a whole, if properly used. You should introduce a symbol in a way that delicately underscores the story's emotional core and enhances the story.

Shakespeare uses symbolism to good effect in Macbeth. He uses blood as a code to the reader; as a representation of the deep guilt felt by Macbeth. He also uses a raven, which usually represents foreboding and ill fortune, to inform the reader of what is to come.

In my own novel, I use the ocean and the tide as symbols by equating tidal movement to thoughts and dreams and life rushing in and out and crashing over rocks. I planted them sparingly throughout the story, so each time they appear, the reader understands the hidden meaning of the main character’s true emotional state.

Symbols don’t have to be complicated in construction, because even simple ideas work. My favourite symbolism is the gathering of dark clouds to foretell something awful and ominous is about to happen. It’s simple, concise and effective.

The colour red is very evocative. It can symbolise love and romance, sex and death. Black is a dark brooding colour which could be used effectively in the surroundings, or as part of character’s description to represent fear.

There are limitless options. You have to know how the symbols will affect the plot and the character and how it will trigger a response in your reader to know which one to use. Generally, have the symbol appear early in the story, then perhaps at key points in the novel, and maybe towards the end to emphasise the theme.

Always try to be inventive and avoid cliché. Symbols are a way of association and hidden communication with your reader. They say so much in so few words.

Next time: Revealing character through dialogue


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