What makes a good simile? What comprises a bad one? How often should you use similes in serious prose? How do you use them well?
In this overview post, I'll show some examples of different metaphors people have used, the pros and the cons of each one, and a few tips on when and how to use them in your own writing.
Okay, let's take a look at some Really Bad ones to start. A quick internet search of "examples of really bad similes" brought me these laughable and yet artistically depressing results:
- He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a land mine or something. [source]
- Her parting words lingered heavily inside me like last night’s Taco Bell. [source]
- The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while. [source]
- The red brick wall was the color of a brick-red Crayola crayon.[source]
The first two examples are so ridiculous and hysterical, it's impossible to me that they were not intended to be seen as humorous rather than poetically descriptive, but who am I to say for sure?
As far as commentary on these similes of duck and Taco Bell is concerned, I will refrain from continuing at length. It is possible, after all, that the writer of #1 is expressing from a personal history of such an occurrence, this connection between their character and an honest-to-goodness lame duck who may very well have stepped on a land mine - it being unclear as to whether the duck or the man is the one who experienced this misfortune.
As for the pining lover with questionable dietary exploits in #2... admit it, Taco Bell can have that affect.
(I tried to find a Taco Bell meme to add but I don't allow that kind of content on my blog, so here is a completely benign Sign which grows vaguely but increasingly ominous the longer you look at it.)
If your intentions are to amuse your reader, 1 and 2 are not a bad road to go, but don't consider them in a serious scene. Avoid using similes that detract or distract from the drama of a scene.
Look at examples 3 and 4 now.
Both "hungry look... from not eating for a while" and "red brick was the color of a brick-red" are just lazy.
If you have written similes that sounds like these, DON'T WORRY, you have two very easy options to choose from to help you which shouldn't dampen your aspirations as a writer.
Option number one is that you consider taking them out and refrain from using analogies to the best of your ability - not every bit of prose has to have them, at least not complicated ones. Option number two is the longer road of learning to simile with style, while not drowning your reader in comparative description.
If you have a hard time thinking up a simile, it's okay. Similes are designed to invoke the senses with your description, but they aren't the only way to go. Instead of wrestling with "Her golden hair was like spun gold," find something else that is interesting and say that instead: "Her dour expression was not made more likeable by the appearance of her golden hair."
Let's take a closer look at some more types of similes before we jump to the good examples:
Aside #1: Commonplace Similes and how to use them wisely
- "he was pale as a ghost"
- "her eyes sparkled like jewels."
Do I recommend using the phrases which have been melted into gray obscurity? Not really, but it isn't something I will fervently preach against either. If you're concerned with them being boring, drop a few synonyms or an extra adjective in there: "his pallor was the same bloodless tint as that of a long-dead spirit" and "they glistened there in the way an emerald necklace shines in a jeweler's case" are the exact same old similes, but a few tweaks with the help of a good thesaurus can help bring them to life in a way your reader will be able to experience in the story and remember afterward. This can get a little verbose, though, so moving on...
Aside #2: the Superflous Simile and when to use it without sounding like a drunken Shakespeare enthusiast
- A breath of melancholy made itself felt like a chill and sudden gust from some unknown sea.
- A glacial pang of pain like the stab of a dagger of ice frozen from a poisoned well. [source, which is also an interesting article on the matter]
On their own, these are poetically beautiful, and once in a while, this kind of description is a welcome boon, but don't start writing high-schooler conversations with that tone and vocabulary.
Being a writer of prose as well as a writer of poetry makes me want the former to sing in the same way as the latter. If you are writing an Epic or Period Romance this is usually all well and good. If, however, you are writing a crime thriller, a middle-grade mystery, a modern comedic romance, a hard science fiction, or the rough and tumble life of a historical cowboy, you want to cut out as much of the long-winded fluff as possible, and that especially applies to the metaphors you use.
At the end of the day, just be practical about it. A naval sailor isn't going to wax eloquent about a dessert having the consistency of chiffon and silk, but an heiress (or even a thief) might linger a minute on a strand of pearls whose milky iridescence puts them in mind of the stained glass windows and ivory-bedecked facade of the local palace.
So that brings us to finally examine Really Good similes. Metaphor, analogy, simile, or whatever other term you want to use, it doesn't matter; this form of speech is one of my favorites and is well-beloved and well-used by pretty much everyone. You can communicate a myriad of images and emotions with comparative dialogue in ways you can't achieve otherwise. Behold:
- “Warmish-cool, with a faint taste like the hot July wind in cedar trees smells.” As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner.
- “Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East...” Peter Pan, by J. M. Barrie.
- “The water made a sound like kittens lapping.” The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
- “Her father had inherited that temper; and at times, like antelope fleeing before fire on the slope, his people fled from his red rages.” Riders of the Purple Sage, by Zane Grey
- "Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors." Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J. K. Rowling
- “Holmes looked at him thoughtfully like a master chess-player who meditates his crowning move.” The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- "Like two doomed ships that pass in storm / We had crossed each other’s way." The Ballad of Reading Gaol, by Oscar Wilde [some more Oscar Wilde similes because they are almost as fabulous as Wilde thought himself to be]
See how these descriptions have interesting angles and definition without using over-the-top speech patterns that distract you from what they're talking about?
- Faulkner remains focused in analogy on the very nature he is describing,
- Barrie reflects at an intellectual level,
- Rawlings is still talking about water,
- Gray uses fierce adjectives and verbs in consistency,
- Rowling uses Mrs. Dursley's appearance to talk about Mrs. Dursley's actions to paint Mrs. Dursley's character,
- Doyle doesn't stray from the cunning and tenacity of the stakes,
- and Wilde uses both foreboding and sad images to conjure the end of a relationship
***This post is in no way an exhaustive piece on similes and their usage. Many articles and books have been written on the subject. This is merely a practical overview to hopefully help point you in the right direction.***
Alright then. To sum up and round out this post, here is a checklist of little things to consider in using similes in your writing:
will get your point across, but try to spice them up a bit if you can
is a general rule, and may keep you from losing your reader's interest
mainly stick to a recognizable parallel unless it's a comparison by opposites
this is most important - use imagery that hearkens back to the image, emotion, or idea you started with
As always, I would love to hear from you! Leave a comment down below if you have any questions, discussion, or would like to share some of your favorite metaphoric examples! :D