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Similes used in creative writing

Using Similes and Metaphors to Enrich Our Writing (Part 1)

Dr. Richard Nordquist is professor emeritus of rhetoric and English at Georgia Southern University and the author of several university-level grammar and composition textbooks.

Consider these two sentences from Leonard Gardner’s novel Fat City:

The stooped forms inched in an uneven line, like a wave, across the onion field.
Occasionally there was a gust of wind, and he was engulfed by sudden rustling and flickering shadows as a high spiral of onion skins fluttered about him like a swarm of butterflies.

Each of these sentences contains a simile: that is, a comparison (usually introduced by like or as) between two things that are generally not alike–such as a line of migrant workers and a wave, or onion skins and a swarm of butterflies.

Writers use similes to explain things, to express emotion, and to make their writing more vivid and entertaining. Discovering fresh similes to use in your own writing also means discovering new ways to look at your subjects.

Metaphors also offer figurative comparisons, but these are implied rather than introduced by like or as. See if you can identify the implied comparisons in these two sentences:

The farm was crouched on a bleak hillside, where its fields, fanged in flints, dropped steeply to the village of Howling a mile away.
(Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm)

Time rushes toward us with its hospital tray of infinitely varied narcotics, even while it is preparing us for its inevitably fatal operation.
(Tennessee Williams, The Rose Tattoo)

The first sentence uses the metaphor of a beast “crouched” and “fanged in flints” to describe the farm and the fields. In the second sentence, time is compared to a doctor attending a doomed patient.

Similes and metaphors are often used in descriptive writing to create vivid sight and sound images, as in these two sentences:

Over my head the clouds thicken, then crack and split like a roar of cannonballs tumbling down a marble staircase; their bellies open–too late to run now!–and suddenly the rain comes down.
(Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire)

The seabirds glide down to the water–stub-winged cargo planes–land awkwardly, taxi with fluttering wings and stamping paddle feet, then dive.
(Franklin Russell, “A Madness of Nature”)

The first sentence above contains both a simile (“a roar like that of cannonballs”) and a metaphor (“their bellies open”) in its dramatization of a thunderstorm. The second sentence uses the metaphor of “stub-winged cargo planes” to describe the movements of the seabirds. In both cases, the figurative comparisons offer the reader a fresh and interesting way of looking at the thing being described. As essayist Joseph Addison observed three centuries ago, “A noble metaphor, when it is placed to an advantage, casts a kind of glory round it, and darts a luster through a whole sentence” (The Spectator, July 8, 1712).

Why do we use similes in writing?

Well, I have to say I love similes. They add so much to your writing in what we call imagery. In other words, it helps the reader see, in his or her mind’s eye, what the writer is trying to describe.

So, what is a simile anyway?

A simile describes something by comparing it to something else.

You use the words ‘like’ and ‘as’ in a simile so that you create an image of what you’re trying to describe. They are really helpful when describing what something might feel like, taste like, sound like etc.

I’m not talking literal comparisons like, for example, ‘the athlete was as fit as someone who trained non-stop every day’.

In this sense, you would use the simile to give an impression of the strength or speed of the athlete:
‘The athlete sprinted down the track like a cheetah chasing its prey.’

You’ve watched wildlife programmes, haven’t you? You’ve seen cheetahs when they bolt after an impala? The speed, the focus, the agility. That’s the impression you want to give about your athlete. Saying that they ran fast just doesn’t have the same effect, does it?

Let’s look at some examples from literature. See what you think to the way these authors have used similes to describe the character’s feelings or actions, or the settings.

– The corridor was like the throat of a terrifying beast and he was sliding down it into the big belly of the school hall.
– I tore into the wrapping paper like a wild animal.
– The sun hit me smartly on the face, like a bully.
– Here and there over the grass stood beautiful flowers like stars.
– The pattering increased till it sounded like sudden hail on the dry-leaf carpet spread around him.
– Johnny was white as a ghost and his eyes were wild looking like an animal in a trap.
– My throat felt like a trap had snapped down on it.
– If you get on the wrong side of Miss Trunchbull she will liquidize you like a carrot in a kitchen blender.
– Before us the narrow, sun-splotched road wound like a lazy red serpent dividing the high forest bank.

With each of these examples, you get an instant image in your mind of what the author is describing. You know immediately what they are trying to say. I love the one about Miss Trunchbull, don’t you? It tells you so much about her character. Can you guess which book that is from?

Now, as ever, it’s over to you. Here are some examples of similes that are over-used to the point that we call them cliches.

Can you think of some more interesting ways of describing them, coming up with your own ideas instead of using ones that have been written a million times over?

1. As good as gold.
2. As white as a sheet.
3. As pretty as a picture.
4. As cold as ice.
5. As flat as a pancake.

I’ve given you five to have a go at. Keep them with ‘as’ in the middle, or rearrange it to say, for example, ‘the picture was like…..’.

Next time when you’re writing, see if you can include a simile and note the difference it makes to your story.

20 Great Similes from Literature to Inspire You

Similes, metaphors, and analogies are turns of phrase that help readers conjure images in a narrative, whether in fiction or nonfiction, but it is in the latter form that they bloom more profusely. And what’s the difference between each of the three literary devices?

A simile is a comparison between one thing and another. If you refer to a figure of speech blooming like a flower on a page, you have created a simile. If you more directly say that the figure of speech bloomed before your eyes, you have employed a metaphor. An analogy is a more practical, didactic description: “Imagine that the figure of speech is like a flower blooming on the page.” Analogy is more common in nonfiction, but simile and metaphor are found there as well.

Strive to create engaging similes and metaphors, but insert them in the service of your prose, as stars in the sky, not entire moons. They are foot soldiers, not field officers, in your campaign to inform and/or interest your readers. They are chorus members, not ingenues; extras, not stars. They are — OK, enough with the metaphors, already.

But before I share with you 20 top similes from great literature, I offer a few tips, like lanterns that serve to light your way:

  • They should be simple and clear: The ones you will read below are literally outstanding, but they’re also removed from their context, where they are mere flowers in fertile fields of great writing. Similes and metaphors should be useful, concise, and then perhaps memorable as well, in that order. And if the task of creating one becomes toil, you’re trying too hard, and your exertions will show.
  • They should stir, but they shouldn’t be mixed: When you adopt a specific theme, stick with it. A mixed metaphor is a missed opportunity, and a distraction rather than a delight.
  • They should be original: If a simile or metaphor doesn’t rise head and shoulders above a more functional description, it won’t fly. Make sure the imagery is worth the effort of creating it.
  • They should entertain: A simile or metaphor, to return to a previously employed metaphor, is like an actor with a bit part who utters a single line, but that line should be trenchant or ticklesome.
  • They should be visually arresting: Similes and metaphors are intended to paint a picture for the reader in order to endow a person, place, or thing with resonance.

Herewith, lessons in incandescent imagery:

1. “. . . she tried to get rid of the kitten which had scrambled up her back and stuck like a burr just out of reach.” — Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

2. “Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.” — The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

3. “Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East . . .” — Peter Pan, by J. M. Barrie.

4. “. . . and snow lay here and there in patches in the hollow of the banks, like a lady’s gloves forgotten.” — Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor, by R. D. Blackmore

5. “I would have given anything for the power to soothe her frail soul, tormenting itself in its invincible ignorance like a small bird beating about the cruel wires of a cage.” — Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad

6. “In the eastern sky there was a yellow patch like a rug laid for the feet of the coming sun . . .” — The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane

7. “. . . when I laid down the paper, I was aware of a flash — rush — flow — I do not know what to call it — no word I can find is satisfactorily descriptive — in which I seemed to see that bedroom passing through my room, like a picture impossibly painted on a running river. — To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt, by Charles Dickens

8. “. . . utterly absorbed by the curious experience that still clung to him like a garment.” — Magnificent Obsession, by Lloyd C. Douglas

9. “She entered with ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop.” — The Adventure of the Three Gables, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

10. “He looks like right after the maul hits the steer and it no longer alive and don’t yet know that it is dead.” — As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

11. “Past him, ten feet from his front wheels, flung the Seattle Express like a flying volcano.” — Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis

12. “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

13. “The very mystery of him excited her curiosity like a door that had neither lock nor key.” — Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

14. “Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed toward me like towers of Pisa.” — Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

15. “Camperdown, Copenhagen, Trafalgar — these names thunder in memory like the booming of great guns.” — Mutiny on the Bounty, by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall

16. “It was Françoise, motionless and erect, framed in the small doorway of the corridor like the statue of a saint in its niche.” — Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust

17. “The water made a sound like kittens lapping.” — The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

18. “Kate inched over her own thoughts like a measuring worm.” — East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

19. “He swung a great scimitar, before which Spaniards went down like wheat to the reaper’s sickle.” — The Sea-Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

20. “. . . impressions poured in upon her of those two men, and to follow her thought was like following a voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one’s pencil . . .” — To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

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18 Responses to “20 Great Similes from Literature to Inspire You”

  • Cate on April 13, 2011 9:04 am

Exactly what I needed this morning. Thanks!

What a great way to begin my day! Thanks for sharing.

What would literature and writing be without metaphors and similes?

My all-time favorite:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes

I enjoyed reading your list of similes. I got a laugh out of the one from The Handmaid’s Tale. Makes me want to read the book! I’m careful when using both similes and metaphors in nonfiction, but fiction is another matter. Thanks!

13. “The very mystery of him excited her curiosity like a door that had neither lock nor key.” — Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

This one is stunning!

Great similes! My favourite, though, is a Discworld one.

“His mighty steed was fast as the wind, on a fairly calm day, say about Force Three”

Nice collection. thanks for sharing it. Looking forward for more

Lolita (included in this list of similes) also contains one of my favorite literary metaphors: So I tom-peeped across the hedges of years, into wan little windows.

I enjoyed reading your list of similes. I got a laugh out of the one from The Handmaid’s Tale. Makes me want to read the book! I’m careful when using both similes and metaphors in nonfiction, but fiction is another matter. Thanks!

Hey…..great similes, please could someone post me some fantastic nouns and adverbs i could ponder on. Lovely and many thanks. Amy.

I really enjoyed reading these.
Great job!

A few hour after reading this post I came across this simile from Mary McCarthy’s How I Grew (208): “I wonder what other practices … folded their tents like the Arabs and silently stole away.”

I meant ‘hours’ instead of ‘hour’ and ‘the following simile’ instead of ‘this simile’. That’s what happens when one forgets to proofread (even the shortest of texts) …

That was fun to read, I cam here as I can never remember to spell Similes. This is minr for the day, A chapter in my dark fantasy:

The woman paused, her red rimmed lips parted into an odd smile, much like that of a dragon looking down at it’s next meal; she brandished two gleaming rows of delicately pointed teeth. “Then I will skin you alive.”

(excuse the use of ‘The woman’ she hasn’t been introduced yet.)

Not bad I’ll tinker more with it later, right now the words rush out, so later.

Most of these are perfectly awful similes. The fact that they appear in celebrated works of literature makes them none the less so. Even great authors drop the ball sometimes, and it is in the creation of simile that they most often do so. Great simile is difficult.

Ohhhhhh wordsssss! These are such beautiful examples of similies. I’ve been trying to stretch myself in creating more beautiful and imaginative similies for my creative writing. I use to help prompt me with interesting, out of the box words. It’s a challenge at times, thought it’s actually helped my imagination a lot!

Do you have an analogous page of sample metaphors? If so, please forward it to me.
The grandest of all time, of course, is by Shakespeare. It is universal, transcending its context. I discover a new, apropos application of it about once a week:
“…It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

I’m with Brian (December 06); most of these similes are pretty dire. My all time favourite comes from Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana: ‘A big wardrobe stood open and two white suits hung there like the last teeth in an old mouth.’ If you want a novel packed full of original similes try Rachel Kushner’s Telex From Cuba. Here’s one: ‘Paris resituated to the tropics, with its humidity, deluges and brine, was like a transplanted organ a body had begun to reject.’ And yes, I am into novels set in Cuba. I’ve even written one.