Writing advice blog: One hundred wonderful metaphors

Susie Helme

Photo by Andreea Popa on Unsplash

Susie shares her favourite metaphors from literature and film. Which will inspire you to craft some wonderful metaphors of your own?

shuddered as if something multi-legged and primal had stalked across his spine[1]

a man of low birth whom Providence has thrown like dice[2]

feels the soft, warm parts of herself being removed like fish from a barrel[3]

(seems out of place, having) the air of a bird of paradise chained in a privy[4]

Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.[5]

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.[6]

Buckle your seatbelt, Dorothy, ‘cause Kansas is going bye-bye.[7]

Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.[8]

Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.[9]

the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt[10]

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.[11]

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still.[12]

She looked playful and eager, but not quite sure of herself, like a new kitten in a house where they don’t care much about kittens.[13]

The tree of nonsense is watered with error, and from its branches swing the pumpkins of disaster.[14]

Delia was an overbearing cake with condescending frosting, and frankly, I was on a diet.[15]

I said nothing for a time, just ran my fingertips along the edge of the human-shaped emptiness that had been left inside me.[16]

The water made a sound like kittens lapping.[17]

Mr Neck storms into class, a bull chasing thirty-three red flags.[18]

The parents looked upon Matilda in particular as nothing more than a scab. A scab is something you have to put up with until the time comes when you can pick it off and flick it away.[19]

I will burn you and everything in our life like a cane field in high wind.[20]

He burns through that [500 a year] with his gambling faster than stoat down a burrow.[21]

Pull [the rigging] like you’re pulling a Frenchman off your mother.[22]

[He] thought of her as one of those puffed white spiders, bleached by the dark, feeling along the threads of her trap from her central lair.[23]

The [ex-lover’s] tormented bed rose again in her mind’s eye, like old whipped eggs, like dirty snow.[24]

The [Yorkshire] air is like summer colts playing on the moors.[25]

[The green tinge in her silver-gold hair was] not the copper-green of decay, but a pale sap-green of vegetable life, streaked into the hair like the silvery bark of young trees, or green shadows in green tresses of young hay.[26]

[Another character describes her hair as] silvery-fair, almost metallic in its sheen, a little like winter butter made from milk of cows fed on sunless hay, the gold bleached out.[27]

[The knights at table] squabble like washerwomen[28]

[an old man debilitated with grief] withered as an apple in autumn[29]

as welcome as frost in May[30]

[His pregnant wife’s] every little twinge and ache was watched as a windhover hangs in the air and watches the slightest movement for a vole in the grass.[31]

She could step into a grander hall [remarry a man of higher station than her deceased husband].[32]

a man who couldn’t see beyond the end of his own pizzle[33]

[Not knowing the whole story about a matter is] like havin’ threads left hangin’ from a darned hole.[34]

sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind [took advantage of prevailing conditions only to later pay the price][35]

[clerks love keeping records] They hoard parchment like magpies gathering tinsel.[36]

[The minister and his identically dressed family] pressed together like barrelled mackerel.[37]

[They would sleep in bunk beds in the tiny ship’s cabin] stacked like crockery.[38]

[He looked at her] the exact same way Imke would regard a salmon held up by a Haarlem fishmonger.[39]

[He says the name Joss Hurley] as if he’s really saying ‘knob pox’ or ‘road traffic accident’.[40]

[He was caught by the ship’s propeller and lost the top of his head] tapped open like an egg.[41]

Silvia gets up and starts to clear the table, like a bartender in a Western who senses trouble ahead.[42]

[Pelgrom] trades nuggets of hearsay as if they are sweetmeats.[43]

[two boys] The bigger boy sulks at her side, the smaller orbits like a gnat.[44]

[The outbreath in meditation should be slow] like a whisper to a trusted universe.[45]

He had returned to the desert in order to better understand both sides of his heritage. Could he ally their strengths within himself? Or could they be alloyed, like copper and tin to make bronze? … Or maybe they couldn’t alloy, but had to stay separate in layers, like the two-toned rocks of the fire ring a few feet away.[46]

He saw the dragonflies as little sharks darting through an ocean of air, smelling the blood cargo of mosquitoes.[47]

The gigantic boulders that roofed the caves were adjacent to one another like the last few apples in a bowl.[48]

[He is talking about the characteristics of whales] in some unsounded depth of his mind, he was aware…his mind trawled for an answer.[49]

Well, if he refuses, instead of breaking my heart at his indifference, I’ll only break my glass for its flattery, set my cap to some newer fashion, and look out for some less difficult admirer.[50]

Her husband had been released from this mortal coil and his wife’s double-edged tongue over a decade before.[51]

He embraced him like a Frenchman greeting a D-Day liberator.[52]

The silence of collective indecision in the hall was so loud it drowned out coherent thoughts.[53]

She [the Taíno girl] hoped he hadn’t noticed her, but unfortunately, stood out like a red-orange mango in the middle of a bowl full of green ones.[54]

David shoots off like a sneeze.[55]

[He ponders his fat body in the mirror] the innocent stupidity of swelling in gut and rear[56]

[He watches his wife walk cheerfully up the path for a date with her lover] How disloyal of the unoiled garden gate to squeak in the same old way.[57]

a facility for basic research in need of a mortal at its head sprinkled with Stockholm’s magic dust[58]

The M4 demonstrated a passion for existence which he could no longer match.[59]

[looking down on London from a plane] as richly stuffed with varied humanity as Babel, as historical as the Nile Delta, teeming like a charnel house with ghosts, in public discourse as dissonant as a rookery in full throat[60]

[on a plane, after musing upon how the leftover dinner in his flat had probably gone all mouldy, he notes that the humans below] appeared, at this height, like a spreading lichen, a ravaging bloom of algae, a mould enveloping a soft fruit[61]

While his back was turned one of his own sperm, as brave and cunning as Odysseus, had made the long journey, breached the city wall, and buried its identity in her egg.[62]

Beard’s past was often a mess, resembling a ripe, odorous cheese oozing into or over his present, but this particular confection had congealed into the appearance of something manageably firm, more Parmesan than Epoisses.[63]

[just before dawn of a big battle] when tongueless dead men peopled the night hours like living ghosts[64]

He was like a man who had grown frozen with horror once and had never come completely unthawed.[65]

Doc Daneeka roosted dolorously like a shivering turkey buzzard beside the closed door of the medical tent.[66]

He saw dozens of new mushrooms the rain had spawned poking their nodular fingers up through the clammy earth like lifeless stalks of flesh, sprouting in such necrotic profusion everywhere he looked that they seemed to be proliferating right before his eyes.[67]

They were both superb creatures with pulpy, bright pointed tongues and mouths like round warm plums, a little sweet and sticky, a little rotten.[68]

She has a tongue on her that’s sharper than a cheese slicer.[69]

His low voice curled around them like a tendril of smoke from a cigarette.[70]

[describing a first kiss] God, my head spun, and a big, old mist gathered round me head like a big, floaty cloud.[71]

She beamed irresistibly at him, and he followed her, like a lion that had been tranquillised.[72]

Then the horses were off, a cantering herd, hooves sounding like an army of bohdran players.[73]

Whenever I look into Matthew’s eyes I see dappled sunshine in a woodland glade, but in Jamie’s I see the cold dankness of rotting leaves.[74]

In three days they all depart for five nights of skiing in Courchevel—and I’m the wet lettuce who has to liaise with the hotel public relations team to ensure everything is organised.[75]

Every face on every boat is looking at this one bold landmark [the Eiffel Tower], watching as its elevators slowly rise through the heart of the metal structure like mechanical bugs chewing their way to the top.[76]

Where there is sufficiency, there is stability, and where there is stability, there is religion…Hunger is too hard a stepmother to learning.[77]

They [the band of thieves] sprouted up all around us, like baleful shoots of an unholy plant.[78]

Pope Clement’s voice [was] profound and wise, stepping out the words like a traveller choosing where to place the stones to make a path over a river.[79]

In the depths of a man’s being there was something that responded with a quack to such [feminine] perfume. Quack![80]

How lovely she could be!…Very different from the terrifying menstrual ice of her rages[81]

seated on the edge of the pompous old tub, the enamel wreathed with hairlike twistings like cooked rhubarb[82]

There is a distant garden, where curious objects grow, and there, in a lovely dusk of green, the heart of Moses E Herzog hangs like a peach.[83]

[discussing self-awareness] The spirit, released from servile dumbness, spits dung and howls with anguish stored during long ages. Perhaps the fish, the newt, the horrid scampering ancestral mammal find their voice and add their long experience to this cry.[84] (Is this a metaphor? I don’t know, but isn’t it gorgeous?)

a tired, short woman whose breath had the ashen flavour of fatigue[85]

She could see someone ahead. It was Rajah, standing like a mythical monster in the middle of the junction.[86]

Female adulation seemed to him to be only natural—something that he neither encouraged nor discouraged; it was just there, following him around like an attendant micro-climate.[87]

Nicola shook the dice, but did not spill them on the board. The rattle was like a drum-roll that precedes a theatrical revelation.[88]

Guilt. That was the problem. It lay across Scotland like a blanket. It was as invisible as an isobar, but it was there, and one corner of that blanket, it seemed, was reserved for him.[89]

She should have given the speech from a chariot, Terise thought, like Roman generals did before their triumphs.[90]

A memory of voices in an echoing hall, her name caught like moths in her hair, far, fading away.[91]

The trees below were clad in the light green of spring, shimmering from this distance like a Monet canvas.[92]

the news-paper business was in the midst of a four-alarm blaze and their boss was no more a fireman than Mickey Mouse holding a hose in an old one-reeler[93]

Private property rights in Britain had roots as strong as an ancient oak and probably as old as Stonehenge.[94]

Winston was trying to keep the teakettle of his temper from whistling.[95]

Was this [using a honey trap for corporate espionage] going to be the accepted Russian way of doing business, using bed-sheets and not spreadsheets?[96]

The sun hung low on the horizon, mostly hidden behind the trees that lined

the trail like a row of rustling guards.[97]

The jukebox had paused again, and the slapping of the sea sounded to Joanna like a giant hand clapping.[98]

Once inside they tiptoed and edged around each other like visitors to a sickroom, neither wanting to upset the delicate truce between them.[99]

As the men stepped into the light, they were swallowed up, plucked from above by some gigantic hand.[100]

[1] ibid

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

[6] William Wordsworth

[7] The Matrix

[8] Shakespeare, Richard III, Act I, Scene 1

[9] Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5, lines 16–27.

[10] Shakespeare, Henry V, Prologue.

[11] Emily Dickinson, Hope is the Thing with Feathers.

[12] Maya Angelou, Caged Bird

[13] Raymond Chandler, The Lady in the Lake

[14] Nick Harkaway, The Gone-Away World

[15] Maggie Stiefvater, Lament: The Faerie Queen’s Deception

[16] Haruki Murakami. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

[17] Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling

[18] Laurie Andersen, Speak

[19] Roald Dahl, Matilda

[20] film Secret Window

[21] Timothy Ashby, Ranger

[22] Master and Commander film

[23] AS Byatt,Possession

[24] ibid

[25] ibid

[26] ibid (throughout the book the poetess is compared to the fishy, green fairy Melusina)

[27] ibid

[28] KM Ashman, In Shadows of Kings

[29] ibid

[30] Sarah Hawkswood, A Taste for Killing

[31] ibid

[32] ibid

[33] ibid

[34] ibid

[35] AJ Mackenzie, The Fallen Sword

[36] ibid

[37] Jess Kidd, The Night Ship

[38] ibid

[39] ibid

[40] ibid

[41] ibid

[42] bid

[43] ibid

[44] ibid

[45] M. Stillman, In a Joshua Sea

[46] ibid

[47] ibid

[48] ibid

[49] ibid

[50] Oliver Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer (1773)

[51] Jean Fullerton, A Ration Book Victory.

[52] Anthony Bassett, Murder of a Doctor.

[53] Martin J Bird, The Seeds of Heimdall

[54] Olivia Castillo, Daughter of the Boricua

[55] Frances Ohanenye, Daughters of the Soil

[56] Ian McEwan, Solar

[57] ibid

[58] ibid

[59] ibid

[60] ibid

[61] ibid

[62] ibid

[63] ibid

[64] Joseph Heller, Catch-22

[65] ibid

[66] ibid

[67] ibid

[68] ibid

[69] Ann McTaggart, On the Cusp

[70] ibid

[71] ibid

[72] ibid

[73] ibid

[74] Marilyn Pemberton, A Teller of Tales

[75] Jade Beer, The Last Dress from Paris

[76] ibid

[77] David Flusfeder, John the Pupil

[78] ibid

[79] ibid

[80] Saul Bellow, Herzog

[81] ibid

[82] ibid

[83] ibid

[84] ibid

[85] ibid

[86] Rajes Bala, The Banks of the River Thillai

[87] Alexander McCall Smith, The Bertie Project

[88] ibid

[89] Ibid

[90] Elaine Graham-Leigh, The Caduca

[91] ibid

[92] Jeffrey Marshall, Squeeze Plays

[93] ibid

[94] ibid

[95] ibid

[96] ibid

[97] Judy Goodrobb, Jamaica Transit

[98] ibid

[99] ibid

[100] ibid

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