I’m currently involved in a Twitter thread with fellow writer and blogger, Sarah Fiddelaers, which began when we were lamenting the difficulty of writing vivid and original similes.
It seemed to me that writing similes came easily to other authors. All the novels I’ve read recently, many of them by Australian writers, include similes that wouldn’t be out of place in a classic poem.
Sarah suggested we come up with 100 similes during May and tweet them, using the apt hashtag – #searchforasimile.
We soon realised that wasn’t going to work, as it’s now mid-June and I still haven’t thought of one (Sarah has written a few fantastic ones – follow her on Twitter to check them out). Instead, we’ve been using the hashtag to tweet some of our favourite similes from books and lyrics, as part of our mission to find out what makes a good simile.
And Sarah included a few favourites from her dad.
A simile compares two things that are usually not alike, often using ‘like’ or ‘as’, and uses their interplay to enrich what is being described, whether it be a characteristic, object, action, emotion, moment, or otherwise.
Here are some examples of similes from literary greats:
“Butlers can creep about as soft footed as cats.” – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
“Mrs. Reed was rather a stout woman; but, on hearing this strange and audacious declaration, she ran nimbly up the stair, swept me like a whirlwind into the nursery, and crushing me down on the edge of my crib, dared me in an emphatic voice to rise from that place, or utter one syllable during the remainder of the day.” – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
“Emma bit her wan lips, and rolling between her fingers a piece of coral that she had broken, fixed on Charles the burning glance of her eyes like two arrows of fire about to dart forth.” – Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
These examples evoke much more feeling than simply stating that butlers can move quietly, or “Mrs. Reed ran up the stairs, picked me up and hurried me into the nursery.” A well-written simile can reveal information about character, setting and the themes of your story.
Refusing to be perplexed any further by the elusive simile, I’ve researched far and wide (i.e. I’ve done a few Google searches) and have devised a list of things to consider when composing your simile
1. Similes should enrich your story
Like other figures of speech, similes should conjure vivid imagery in the reader’s mind, lifting otherwise simple descriptions from the page and making them come to life. That’s why it’s so important to get it right. Take time to think about the idea you want to express and make sure it’s clear. If the simile isn’t serving your story in any way, leave it out.
2. Beware the cliché!
Clichés are as dull as dishwater and they stand out like a sore thumb. In some situations, clichés may be appropriate, such as in a humorous story (or blog post). One or two will probably go unnoticed, but if your story is drowning in clichés, you run the risk of losing your reader’s interest. Think of ways you can say it differently and be creative, and original.
3. Use sparingly
Speaking of clichés, less is more when it comes to similes. A few subtle similes peppered throughout the story will add colour. A story littered with similes and metaphor is like asking all of your friends to bring cheesecake to the party. Cheesecake is great but after a few slices, you’ll be getting sick of it. Save some of those similes for the rest of us (or for your next manuscript).
4. Sometimes metaphor is stronger
A metaphor is an implied comparison of two things that are usually unrelated. Where a simile is ‘like’ something else, a metaphor ‘is’ something else. Consider the following metaphor:
“I was staring directly in front of me, at the back of the driver’s neck, which was a relief map of boil scars.” – The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Another popular example is Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage”. The suggestion that something ‘is’ something, is often more powerful than saying something is ‘like’ something. Imagine if Shakespeare had said “all the world is like a stage”. Consider which has more impact.
5. Stealthy similes for the win
A simile shouldn’t break the illusion created by the story world. This may happens if the writer is comparing two ideas that are too dissimilar for the reader to understand, or where the simile is too elaborate. In both examples, the meaning is lost and the reader is knocked out of the story. So if you’ve spent two days crafting a simile and the reader passes over it unnoticed, then congratulate yourself for blending beautiful imagery with the world of your story.
With these tips in mind, you should be able to keep your publishers as happy as a clam. Of course, the actual crafting of the simile is up to you. While it might not be as easy as pie, with practice you’ll soon be churning out similes as quick as a wink.
Clearly, I still need to do some work.
Do you have a favourite simile from literature? Or perhaps some proud prose from your own work in progress? Please share in the comments, or tweet them and use the hashtag #searchforasimile.