A simile, as our fourth-grade English teachers intoned, is a comparison of two, usually dissimilar, objects, with the use of “like” or “as.” To enliven our writing, similes can evoke the particular sense we want to transmit.
Many of our most now-trite similes were fresh when first used—Burns’ “my love is like a red, red rose,” Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” But repetition and endless assignment in freshman English classes has made them as shopworn as the bargain table after a sale.
It’s easy to succumb to overused and by now boring similes. You know the ones: eyes like stars, fits like a glove, swim (or smoke) like a fish, fierce as a lion, dead as a doornail, sleep like a log, dry as dust, smooth as silk, white as snow, cute as a button. When we write, they seem to spring up like spring flowers, I mean, like groupies at a rock star’s world tour.
I’m not against similes, although they’re less elegant than their more subtle, no-like/as cousins, the metaphors (her eyes were stars, he was a fierce lion in battle, the air was dust in my nostrils). But notice in the examples of similes above, and many more you can probably think of, that some of the objects compared make little sense today.
How dead is a doornail? Why is it deader than a screw or a staple? How does a log sleep? Does it twitch, snore? How cute is a button? What if it’s a button on the jumpsuit of a prisoner? Or the black coat of a funeral director?
I encountered the tired-simile syndrome with a recent passage in a novel and, desperate for freshness, developed a method to create better similes. Describing the arms of a middle-aged mother, I first wrote, “They were like . . .” and several barely passable similes spewed out: “like bowling pins,” “like tree trunks,” “like sausages,” “like pieces of wood.” Each of these felt either too old (bowling pins) or not quite right (tree trunks were too big, sausages needed adjectival spice, pieces of wood felt stagnant).
Reaching for Surprising Similes
I wanted the simile to convey more than a striking image. The mother’s arms should evoke the bulk of her body and, more subtly, underscore the theme—her strong-armed ways tyrannized her family.
So I did what I’m suggesting to you below. And found the right simile: “Her arms were like the thick ends of baseball bats.”
When you avoid the cliché similes like the plague, I mean, like mud after a downpour, and choose imaginative ones, you can write effective description, heighten the reader’s experience, and deepen your theme.
Have you read any similes lately that surprised you?
Choose a description of an object, either something that fascinates you or from a piece you’re working on. To describe the object, write out all the similes you can think of. Start with the ones that come easily. Get at least three or four. You’re purging your system of commonalities.
Then visualize the object; see it clearly in front of you. Even better, set it out before you (unless it’s a skyscraper or an orca). Ask yourself:
- How does it look, feel, smell, taste?
- How would a friend, sibling, stranger react to it?
- What else is this object like?
- What does this object make me think of?
Write your responses to each question. And wait and listen. Something, or several things, more will come to you. Write them all down. When your insides cry “That’s it!” you’ll know it’s the perfect, rare simile. Like my woman’s arms.
When you’re finished, share a few of your favorite similes here in the comments section.