Similes and You

Have you ever noticed that when people ask you about an experience you’ve had that they haven’t, they say, “What was it like?” “What did it taste like?” “What did it feel like?” That’s because they’re trying to get into your head, see out of your eyes and live the experience through you.

Writing, at its best, should allow your readers to do that. The writer/reader relationship should be a true meeting of the minds, a connection of two (or more) human beings. You know that thrill of recognition when someone shares a thought or feeling in such a way that you get chills and say, “I know exactly what you mean.”

When that happens in writing, it’s very often thanks to a deft simile.

So what is a simile, anyway? It’s a figure of speech that compares two things, commonly using the words than, as or like (and no, I don’t mean by writing something along the lines of “It was, like, really, really hot.”)

Similes can be simple, plain and literal:

“Yellow butterflies flickered along the shade like flecks of sun.” — William Faulkner

Or ponderous, frilly and figurative:

“Solitude is like Spanish moss which finally suffocates the tree it hangs on.” — Anaïs Nin

The job of a simile is to convey a feeling, a sense, an ambiance. For instance, Leo Tolstoy wrote “The trees wavered their stark shadows across the snow like supplicating arms.”

How great is that? Can’t you just see that in your mind’s eye, and doesn’t it make the point much more viscerally on an emotional level than if Tolstoy had written, “The shadows of the trees were angular, moving across the snow…” See, I can’t even go on with this because I’m thinking, Yeah, but what do they look like? Tolstoy’s simile doesn’t just describe what the trees’ shadows looked like, it also imparts mood.

You’ll find, most likely, that as you write you can’t help but make similes when you describe something. But if not, the next time you’re trying to describe a scene, close your eyes (not if you’re driving or operating heavy machinery) and imagine: what does this look like? What does it feel like? What does it sound like? What does it remind me of?

When should you use similes? When you’re trying to explain the unexplainable:

“Jubilant as a flag unfurled.” — Dorothy Parker

This simile gives an invisible emotion a visual counterpoint–maybe an American flag in Times Square on VE Day.

Or when you’re trying to describe something that no one has ever lived to tell about:

“Death has many times invited me. It was like the salt invisible in the waves.” — Pablo Neruda

Or when you want to shake things up a little, wake your reader up:

“Exuding good will like a mortician’s convention during a plague year.” — Daniel Berrigan

Of course, like most writing tools, similes can be overused. Example: Kinky Friedman, the country singer and writer of quirky mysteries, uses similes like most people use the word “the.” (That’s right! If you recognized the rather lame and clichéd simile I just slipped in there, you win…nothing!)

Ahem…where was I? Oh, yes. Kinky. Here are a couple of his similes for your enjoyment:

Trouble followed the guy like a tornado homing in on a mobile-home park.

Outside the kitchen window winter had entirely enveloped the city, white as Rosinante, cold as the ashes of Jean Harlow’s honeymoon.

Abbie’s probably got more imaginary demons after him than Linda Blair.

He was a burned-out, paranoid guitar picker with a dark streptocumulus cloud the size of Bangladesh hanging over his head.

Now, that last one doesn’t have like, as or than, but it does use a comparative phrase.

As you might imagine (or already know), much of the fun in reading Kinky is that he comes up with some hilarious similes. However, after about 70 pages of rapid-fire, non-stop similes, you start to tire. You begin to view the similes as spoiled kids screaming, “Hey! Look at me! Aren’t I clever?” (Yup, there’s another one…)They begin to detract from the writing rather than adding to it. And, as I keep reminding you, when your writing calls attention to itself, that’s a bad sign.

Okay, so don’t go overboard with the similes–check. But your similes should also be subtle. They should sneak up and slide on by without arousing the notice of the reader. (Most of the time. Sometimes it’s fun to slip in a sledgehammer simile that renders your reader helpless with laughter or gasping in horror.) But your similes should leave a definite, if subconscious, impression–evoke a sense memory, remind him of a long-forgotten childhood experience or even become a part of her personal lexicon of description.

One last multi-part caveat: don’t use more than one simile in a paragraph, and you definitely don’t want to use more than one in a sentence. Finally, for the love of Webster, don’t pile one simile on top of another one, saying something was like something that was like something else. Okay? Don’t be like Ron Popeil, saying over and over again, “But wait! There’s more!” (I can’t stop! Someone help me…)

I’ll leave you with one of my all-time favorite similes, which comes from a non-fiction book by Stephen King. His On Writing is a great practical manual that mixes in a little autobiography, and if you haven’t read it, you better run right out and get yourself a copy. The simile of which I write has stuck with me since I first read it, six years ago.

King writes of getting stung on the ear by a wasp thusly:

“The pain was brilliant, like a poisonous inspiration.”

I can feel that venomous pain, can taste it even, much better than if King had written, “It hurt like the dickens,” or “Oy! Such pain you should never know,” or even “I screamed in pain.” His simile sings, the words are so vivid, and that’s the point. I would have never connected a wasp sting on the ear to a poisonous inspiration, but…

I know exactly what he means.



  1. Great post and excellent advice. I often have trouble using similes in my writing because I tend to create fantasy worlds and then have the issue of wondering why my narrator would compare one thing to something that doesn’t exist in their world and kind of have to be very careful but I love reading a good simile in books. This is because, as you said, it helps me to understand , to feel and experience something I may not have been able to really feel because it was so different from anything I knew. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Brilliant Conan. As surely as the mouse that smells cheese, I’ll be back. Sorry about that – best I could think of on the hoof.



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