Savory similes

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?

This entry was posted in Growing as a writer, Rhetorical devices. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Savory similes

  1. Loren Eaton says:

    Oooh, I like this game!Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely: "Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food."William Gibson, Neuromancer: "The road in from the airport had been dead straight, like a neat incision, laying the city open."Ray Bradbury, "The Next in Line," The October Country: "She shuddered, a convulsive motion, like a fish trying to free itself from a deep-swallowed hook."Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere: "The man in front … was a little shorter than Richard. He had lank, greasy hair, of an unlikely orange color, and a pallid complexion; as Richard opened the door, he smiled, widely, and just a fraction too late, with teeth that looked like an accident in a graveyard."

  2. Jake Strawwalker says:

    Like sand through the hourglass, so flow the Days of Our Lives – from the old (or is it still on) Soap Opera.

  3. Jake Strawwalker says:

    I’ve been laying on my back, Like a freight train off a track."Lookin’ At Tomorrow" by The Beach Boys on Surf’s Up

  4. Jake Strawwalker says:

    Being a contract engineer is like working for the Dread Pirate Roberts.

  5. Jake Strawwalker says:

    Most all the descriptions of God in the Bible are like similes.

  6. Jake Strawwalker says:

    Waiting for Barak to announce his Afghanistan policy is like waiting for Generalissimo Franco to die.

  7. C.I.Coral says:

    I actually post a simile nearly every day to people through gmail/gchat and the social networking sites. It’s becoming quite popular. My favorites so far include: "And it rained like a slow divorce." (Robyn Hitchcock, "Balloon Man") "We are just like Romeo and Juliet / Happy young and hemorrhaging blood." (Kevin Murphy, Reefer Madness: The Musical) And a truly inspiring one from Alice Steinbach’s Without Reservations: "What if more of life could be like that? Like the last slow dance where, to echo T.S. Eliot, ‘a lifetime burns in every moment.’"

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