How to Use Similes
Of all the literary devices in a humorous fiction writer’s arsenal, similes can be hit-and-miss. Usually weaponised in the form of a figure of speech to highlight a point of direct comparison, or to point out resemblances by deploying a metaphor, it’s easy to rely on them too heavily and only repeat clichés (‘like a bull in a china shop’ etc.). For this reason, particularly in the realm of comedy, similes can sometimes seem a bit predictable, trite, perhaps even a little old-fashioned.
Tellingly, similes were the backbone of many traditional music-hall comedy and variety show monologues, later influencing gags used by the likes of The Two Ronnies and Morecambe & Wise. In fact, part of what made the BBC sitcom Blackadder so funny was the way writers Richard Curtis and Ben Elton upped the ante when it came to using similes, pushing them further and further to the point of sheer outrageousness (‘Baldrick, your head is as empty as a eunuch’s underpants’). By and large, this seems to have been part of the alternative comedy movement’s drive to satirise the old way of doing things.
Is there still a good reason for writers to embrace similes, or are they just old hat? Has their time long since passed their sell-by dates? Are they as dead as a dodo? As a writer, I would argue there are reasons beyond mere humorous invective to use similes; chief among them being the benefits of poeticising your prose. Comparisons and resemblances can help you delve under the skin of your characters and really get to the marrow of what your story is trying to say. To give you some examples, here’s some of the ways how you can use similes to your advantage.
1. Portray the environment
Don’t just think of similes as being self-contained punchlines your characters use in dialogue—instead, start using them to suggest something deeper and more meaningful about the environment your characters inhabit. Perhaps try to personify the environment in subtle ways—finding expression in the local geography to embody the underlying themes of your story.
The very shapes of the trees were like frozen screams.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
As a historical fantasy novel centred on the practice of magic, Clarke’s simile was perfect at giving a metaphorical tint to its everyday observation of the outer world which rather poetically foreshadows the dark, twisted game of high stakes to come, conjuring a sense of jagged otherworldliness that the novel explores so brilliantly.
2. Evoke your character’s inner psychology
There’s a whole world inside your characters’ heads which won’t necessarily be expressed verbally, so similes can help. How exactly are the characters feeling at certain points in your story, and what can their emotions be compared to? As with the first point, you can explore this in prose—think how you visualise your character comparatively and frame a metaphor around it—as Jonathan Franzen does here:
[H]er mind was like a balloon with static cling, attracting random ideas as they floated by[.]
Purity by Jonathan Franzen
Franzen’s simile crackles with the tingling familiarity of balloon static in a way which not only conveys the character’s airy nature, but also gives voice to how she ‘floats’ through life in a much more discreet way than a heavy-handed fragment of descriptive prose would do.
3. Add weight to character-based interactions
This is where we find ourselves in the familiar territory of using similes in dialogue again, or at least in character interplay. Admittedly it’s difficult to avoid this—and it’s hard to do it well 100% of the time—but the best way for writers to approach it is to tinker with interactions between different characters to make their behaviours (or their hidden motivations) more apparent.
Kristen is looking at me like I’m a plume of smoke in the kitchen, right before you yell fire!
All the Dirty Parts by Daniel Handler
Handler’s simile has a slightly poetic flourish (‘plume of smoke’) and in the midst of an argument captures the simmering rage billowing between the two characters without having to directly spell it out in the dialogue itself. It’s effective, as all good similes should be, particularly if done well.
All in all, similes still serve a very useful purpose for writers, no matter how clichéd they might seem. However, what should unite all similes is that they should be an attempt to uncover something honest. This is largely why it’s a device so popularly used in humour and in satire; it gives writers a license to be imaginative with their use of comparisons and metaphors to unearth a truthful observation. As the author Mark Haddon wrote in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, ‘a simile is not a lie, unless it is a bad simile.’ In other words, good similes should come to you as naturally as colostrum from a teat, provided you stay truthful. That’s all it takes.
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© 2018 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.