If you’re looking for a way to sharpen your descriptions, pull your reader in closer to your character, and build a more relatable world in your story, a prose tool you should consider using is simile.
What is a Simile
A simile is a type of metaphor and a common literary device utilizing figurative language.
A metaphor compares something to another thing to give a more emphatic description, and a simile is a metaphor that specifically uses the word “like” or an equivalent term for the comparison.
Similes basically come in two forms. One form is common cliche phrases you likely hear often. The other is original, poetic metaphor use. We’re going to look at examples of each.
Common similes you’ve likely heard:
- Cute as a kitten
- Happy as a clam
- Tall as a tree
- Hard as a rock
- Tough as nails
- Sweet as honey
- Dry as a bone
- Stuck out like a sore thumb
- Like shooting fish in a barrel
Cliche similes have their place in writing in certain circumstances, and I’ll talk about that later. Here are some excerpts from famous authors with excellent use of simile.
Examples of simile in literature:
“They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.” — The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“. . . she tried to get rid of the kitten which had scrambled up her back and stuck like a burr just out of reach.” — Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
“She entered with ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop.” — The Adventure of the Three Gables by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
“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.” — The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
“The café was like a battleship stripped for action.” — The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
“The sink-hole was set in the arid scrub, at the core of the pine island, like a lush green heart.” — The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
These similes make the descriptions more compelling and interesting! Fitzgerald’s, gives the reader a clear image of the women’s dresses and the mood of the action and scene. Doyle’s gives the reader a visceral feeling of annoyance.
Similes used effectively are a strong addition to a story’s description.
Simile vs Metaphors
You’ve probably been corrected or corrected someone about incorrectly calling a simile a metaphor or vice versa. I got news! A simile is a type of metaphor. All similes are metaphors, but not all metaphors are similes.
The distinction that makes a simile a simile is just one word—similes use “like,” “as,” or an equivalent.
So if anyone has ever corrected your calling a simile a metaphor, you can let them know that you were still right. 😉
How to Use Similes in Writing
Even though most similes you’ve heard regularly times are cliches (such as the first list of examples), that doesn’t mean you can’t use similes in your writing!
Here are some guidelines you might want to consider when writing with similes:
Make sure you aren’t writing them as cliches!
Just like any cliche, you should only use it if you’re putting an original and intentional spin on it, or if using them is one of your character’s traits. Otherwise, they can make your writing read as amateur or lazy.
Don’t overdo it!
An extended metaphor is one that stretches past one sentence. Sometimes it’s a paragraph, sometimes it’s a theme in an entire book. Extended metaphors can work. Shakespeare used them often:
“But Soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun! Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, Who is already sick and pale with grief. That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.”
Tragically, not all of us can be Shakespeare. Be careful that the simile has not over-stayed its welcome. If you drag it on too long, it might get annoying to read.
Keep it clear.
If your metaphor makes the subject matter harder to understand, it isn’t doing its job. Metaphors connect an idea or description to the reader by means of something they might find more familiar or more tangible. If it’s making your writing harder to understand, it’s hurting you.
Similes are a great way to spice up your writing. There are no rules to writing, so just like with any literary device, use similes in an intentional and creative way, and you’re golden!