I love me some good wordplay. This should come as no surprise to you. :)
In particular, I’m fond of similes. A well-turned simile can add clarity or lyricism, imply irony or sarcasm. It can be taken seriously or add levity to a piece. A simile can make you laugh … or cry.
My favorite dictionary says a simile is “a figure of speech comparing two essentially unlike things and often introduced by like or as (as in cheeks like roses, a heart as hard as flint).”
The simile’s cousin, metaphor, is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase denoting one kind of object or action is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in the ship plows the seas or in a volley of oaths): an implied comparison (as in a marble brow) in contrast to the explicit comparison of the simile (as in a brow white as marble).” (Bold emphasis mine.)
I particularly like a simile if it has meaning within the story itself. I mean, sure, you could say a character was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. It’s a vivid picture (if a bit hackneyed; Your Editor will suggest you try something else). But if one of your characters is a budding cook, you could say, “The tension in the room was as thick as Mr. O’Callaghan’s pudding” (as Jenny B. Jones did in There You’ll Find Me). It just adds that extra layer of rightness—and a little humor, in this case, as Mr. O’Callaghan was still learning the culinary arts—to the mix, you know?
In a Newsweek article about the melting icecaps Sharon Begley wrote, “Around the world, nearly 1 billion people live in low-lying river deltas … that will be reclaimed by the sea, forcing tens of millions of people to migrate. It threatens to be a trail of human misery that will make the exodus after Hurricane Katrina look like a weekend getaway.” Now there’s a simile that gets your attention and is contextual to boot. In the same issue of Newsweek, I read that Rep. Eric Cantor is as hungry as a Russian soldier at the Battle of Stalingrad. Obviously similes aren’t just for fiction.
Readers will appreciate this one I saw in Entertainment Weekly: “James Patterson is so prolific he makes Stephen King look like Harper Lee.” (Well, it made me laugh.) In Frank Delaney’s Shannon, I read, “[The starving man] concentrated on his food like a scholar translating a text,” which I think is quite lovely and a little sad. Definitely sets a mood, no? In the same book, another character pours himself “a tumbler of whiskey large enough to kick-start a shore leave.” Make mine Jameson, please.
See? A good simile just gets the imagination cranked up. It adds a little color. So just for fun, here are some I’ve come across recently. (I failed to note the sources, so if you recognize any as copyrighted material, let me know.) Most of them make me laugh:
• She’s looser than a thrift-store turtleneck. (From the television show Glee.)
• I was bawling like a two-year-old in the candy aisle.
• He was as out of place as a spaceship in a cornfield.
• The moment broke like a bubble in the breeze.
• That statement was as pointed as a Cuban missile.
• In an argument: His face was as neutral as Sweden.
• It was scarier than an M. Night Shyamalan movie.
• Well, that idea went down like Jacques Cousteau. (My friend Conor Hogan.)
• She was drinking cough meds like Slurpees in July. (My friend Toni Birdsong.)
• He was as square as a saltine cracker.
• That argument is as watered down as a beer in a Utah bar.
Remember the principle here is a word picture. You don’t always have to use than, like, or as. I recently worked on an indie sci-fi manuscript in which one character “examined me with the blankness I had come to expect—a vulture’s inspection of the world in which food and foe deserved special attention and everything else was greeted with indifference.” (Read more by Jay Nair here.) While this isn’t a classic simile, I think the spirit of simile is there … and the imagery is quite nice.
Remember an effective simile is about context, current culture and events, and frame of reference. And it could make your prose as lively as a singles bar on Saturday night. Or the church nursery on Sunday morning. :)
UPDATE: There’s more on this subject here.
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