Most people know what a simile is—a direct comparison between two unlike things—and we use them all the time.
In fact, we use them so freely that many of them have become clichés. For example, “stiff as a board,” “white as a sheet,” or “slept like a log” are well-known, worn-out phrases. They’re like spices that have been in the cupboard so long they no longer have any flavor.
But now and then, a writer ignores the old and stale similes, puts together some ideas that haven’t been coupled before, and creates an image that makes you pause and just savor the simile they’ve created. Like this:
Writing is hard and often painful, and sometimes feels like pulling coils of rotted old rope out of our brains.
That’s from copywriter Katy Evans-Bush, and for anyone who has struggled to express their ideas on the page, it encapsulates our feelings in a vivid, albeit impossible, image.
Feel like you’re ready for a simile makeover?
First, identify the similes in your writing—they’re often introduced with like, as, and than (as in more than, bigger than, faster than, and so forth).
Ask if they’ve become too familiar. If wrote it without thinking about it, it’s probably too familiar.
Now here’s a key step: Identify the primary idea that the simile represents. If you’ve written that someone was “as white as a sheet,” why was the person pale? Fear, shock, or illness? Decide whether you want to focus on the surface characteristics or the underlying impression that you are trying to convey for a moment, and then think of other ways to illustrate that thing. “She was as colorless as the face of the moon.” “He looked like a college student whose mother just showed up at the kegger.”
Consider your audience, whether they will be familiar with the image you’re evoking. “He was drawn to it like anarchists to a World Trade Organization meeting” will work with one audience, while other audiences will relate better to “She was drawn to it like tweens to a Jonas Brothers concert.”
Your turn: What are your favorite similes?