Show Vs. Tell: On Using Comparisons (Author Toolbox)

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As part of my ongoing blog series on how to show, not tell, I’m posting about a little-known trick to showing: USE A FRIGGIN’ METAPHOR.

Or a simile. I won’t judge.

Note: For easy reading, I will refer to metaphors and similes collectively as “comparisons” in this article.

Using Comparions

Happiness is the china shop. Love is the bull.

– H. L. Mencken

Side note: Be aware that you can have too many comparisons. You’ll rarely want more than one in a single paragraph, and often not more than one on a page.


For the love of God, do we readers tire of the list. “In the left corner there is a chair and a desk, to the right is the bed, and the walls are painted dull brown.” This is so boring. In order to have a fun setting, drop the list and instead throw in some cool images and fun verbs:

The desk crouched in on corner like a homeless man, shabby and layered with dirt.

The bed was as wide and blue as an ocean; the rippling silk bore the color of sun over water, and I couldn’t wait to drown myself there.

The walls are as neutral as the best friend who thinks your husband is better than hers is. “You’re overreacting,” the walls tell you. “There is perfection here. You’re just too blind to see it.”


Nothing is lamer than a character description where someone’s eye color, hair color, height, and (if I’m lucky) skin color are all laid out in the first moments we meet them. “He was tall and burly. There was a gun at his waist. When he spoke, the authority was clear in his voice.”

You can do better. Evoke the character by choosing a comparison that suits them.

Tall and burly: The man was built like a storage locker. Not the ones you find at gyms and amusement parks, but the lockers you keep guns in. Big guns, and lots of them. He was built like one of those.

Gun at his waist: A Glock wriggled against his belt as if it were trying to escape down his pants.

Spoke with authority: When he spoke, I was transported to Congress. Flags rose behind him, and fireworks burst overhead. Every word felt scripted.


Whenever people are doing things, they sometimes get reduced to simple verbs. “Angrily, he said, ‘I don’t think so,’ as he pulled back his arm to punch. The punch put me in a coma.” While this is passable, imagine what a comparison could do for any one of those lines:

He said angrily: “I don’t think so,” he growled, and my mind jumped to the History channel, the roars of leopards as they guarded their territory.

He punched: I could see the tension in his arm as he drew back – a trebuchet without a projectile.

The coma: Waking up felt like a hangover after drinking ten margaritas a day for ten days straight. When I woke up from the coma, I could still taste the salt.


NOTE: This article is a part of the 5/17/17 #AuthorToolbox blog hop. It’s been so fun! Join up if you’d like to increase your blog reach and have a blast networking with other writers.


  1. I love metaphors! This is great advice. “A trebuchet without a projectile” reminds me of the year it seemed like every NaNo participant worked a trebuchet into their story. That was my introduction to the concept of plot bunny adoption.

      1. I built a 6ft one once with a group of friends. (One of them was doing it for a project for a history class.) Firing a watermelon out of a trebuchet was awesome. When we ran out of watermelons we started moving through whatever other produce we could find. The onion left peels at each bounce. It was an amazing day.

  2. I’ve been struggling with an aspect of my memoir and people have suggested it may be easier (and more interesting!) to use metaphor to get the message across. This came just in time, thank you!

    P.S. Does your new Free Writing Events newsletter include information on this part of the site, too? (Say yes, say yes!)

    1. Hi Lynn! Glad this is reaching you in time to help with your memoir! My newsletter will have image teasers for all of my articles with links to each article written over the past month or so. I’m planning to send the first newsletter Friday so please let me know if you like it or what can be improved!

  3. I love that you provided examples of metaphors for setting, characters, and action. I naturally create metaphors for setting and character descriptions but have to work harder to create metaphors for action. Great examples although I am a bit terrified of that wriggling gun.

    1. Yeah, a wriggling gun just looks like it’s ready to go, or makes the man himself look silly. So much connotation! I’m glad the examples helped. Seems like the best way to drive a point home, in my opinion. If you are already using metaphor for your settings and description, you are more than halfway there already! Way to show, not tell!

    1. My pleasure! The trick is to watch how many items you describe, and if they’re all described in the same way or not. I try to describe people with three items or less when we meet them, and then sprinkle in more descriptors through action and dialogue.

  4. I absolutely adore the gun storage locker. This type of metaphor (or simile) always feels like it tends to work best with a first or close third person PoV, and I always forget that there are ways to incorporate it even with a more distant 3rd person. Thanks for the reminder! 😀

  5. Zaireen Lupa

    What a fun read! I loved how unabashedly you argued your case.
    And I agree on getting the balance right on the amount of metaphors and similes to use. I wrote a review on my blog a month or so back where the author used these devices on every other sentence throughout the book. Her creativity got so exhausting that I found it lazy to not try any other way to describe things.

    1. Agreed. You can easily have too much of a good thing. So much of writing is just finding the balance between all the different elements and rules. Comparisons are great, but they use brainpower to read and visualize, so if you are making your reader do that every other sentence, they are going to get overloaded!

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