As a writer, you create visual images in readers’ minds through word choice, description, dialogue, and a host of literary devices like the simile.
When you directly compare two unrelated things using either like or as to bridge them together, you’re using a simile. Similes are an awesome tool to paint a vivid picture of a person, place, or thing for your reader.
However, some similes have been used so often they’ve become clichés, like, “he knows this street like the back of his hand” or “she’s as sly as a fox.” The key to using similes is to find fresh and unique comparisons between two unrelated objects.
Let’s look at a few examples.
What is a simile?
A great story is like the prize in a Cracker Jack box: you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s going to be fun finding out.
That was a simile comparing a story to the prize everyone looks forward to in the Cracker Jack box. You could use the following simile to evoke a different meaning and emotion to the same concept:
A disappointing story can be like the surprise hidden in the box of cereal: you stick with it to the very end, only to find a cheap plastic trinket.
Why you should use similes.
Similes can be found in all types of writing, from journalism to fiction to advertising. They’re creative ways to bring more attention and clarity to your meaning than straight narrative.
If you want to give your reader a thoughtful mental image while they’re reading, a simile is a great place to start. When you compare your main character to an animal or even an inanimate object like a giant sequoia, you’re exposing your reader to another way of looking at something that’s fresh and new.
Similes and metaphors are different.
Don’t confuse a simile with a metaphor. Similes compare two objects using the words like or as, and metaphors make a direct comparison between two very dissimilar objects.
Simile: John was like a giant sequoia, massive and sturdy.
Metaphor: John is a giant sequoia, massive and sturdy.
Sometimes it makes more sense to compare two things with a like or as than it does to insinuate John is a tree.
Similes tend to be more direct in their comparisons, while metaphors can be more subtle. For more information about creating awesome metaphors, check out How to Create Fantastic Metaphors.
Famous examples of similes.
You don’t want to trot out the trite similes that have been overused though. Try to create a comparison that’s unique and fresh. Here’s a list of some similes that have lost their charm from too much playing time:
Perhaps one of the easiest remembered similes, this one from Forrest Gump’s mom points out life can be haphazard. Much like choosing a chocolate from a box, you never know until you bite in whether you’re getting a cream-filled one or a cherry in the middle.
- “Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
Another of today’s mainstream similes, “as dead as a door-nail” was probably a revolutionary description when Dickens wrote it.
- “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore—and then run?”
Langston Hughes penned the above simile in his poem “Harlem 2,” opted by Lorraine Hansberry for the famous play A Raisin in the Sun.
Shakespeare is the king of similes, thanks to the amazing collection of comparisons in his sonnets and plays. There are far too many to list here, and you probably know them all, anyway!
Not all similes are created equal. Let’s take a quick look at the good, the bad, and the ugly to determine when and how to use them.
The good: painting pictures with similes.
These two sentences have the same meaning:
Which one lets your mind create a better mental picture? The one with the simile, of course. That first sentence is pretty bland, wouldn’t you say? But the second one helps readers see Marcus in an imposing light.
The bad: similes to avoid.
How many times have you seen these?
- different as night and day
- stood out like a sore thumb
- clear as mud
- memory like a steel trap
- as alike as two peas in a pod
- as big as an elephant
- as blind as a bat
- as cool as a cucumber
The next time you want to describe your character who’s received a shock looking “as white as a ghost,” find a fresh way that’s all your own. It’s handy to know the common similes out there, but only use them as a springboard to something uniquely yours.
The ugly: be careful with your similes.
Similes can get awkward if you reach too far for disparate comparisons. For example:
- Her face was like a dessert at a Mexican restaurant, fried on the outside and gooey in the middle.
For a little fun, click here to read some of the worst similes ever.
Similes let you find creative ways to appeal directly to your readers’ senses. Use them wisely so readers see a vibrant mental image of whatever it is you’re describing. Readers love to use their imagination to understand what you’re trying to say, and a simile primes the pump. But the best similes offer something new to readers so they see the world differently.
Looking for more to read about similes? Try this article.