Like A Simile

8 Feb

When I was a junior in high school, I wrote a (terrible) poem about a boy I liked that ended with the line “I love you like a simile.”  I never gave the boy this poem, maybe because I realized that “I love you like a simile” didn’t actually mean anything.  Just like all of those meaningful glances he gave me in Biology apparently didn’t mean anything, either.  And all of those beautiful words he spoke to me … if you can’t assume that a boy loves you when he says, “Hey, you’re in my seat, will you move?” then what can you assume?!

The simile is a rhetorical device that–if used well–can make your writing bright and sharp, like a new knife (see what I did there?).  Most people know what a simile is (a comparison between two things using the words like or as), but few are confident enough with similes to use them well or effectively.

With the exception of some very specific Creative Writing assignments, similes aren’t an item you’re going to generally find on rubrics.  Devices like similes are rarely a requirement of collegiate level writing.  I never expect to see a rubric that says “Write a fifteen page paper explaining the logic behind the Microsoft model.  Make sure you use 1″ margins, cite all sources, and keep those similes coming!”  That’s not a real assignment, but here’s one simile for fun: “A Microsoft computer is like Communism: it should work, but for some reason, it just doesn’t.”

However, just because similes aren’t a general “requirement” of writing, it doesn’t mean that knowing how to use them won’t improve your writing.  It will.  Writers who never use effective similes are like American Idol without Simon Cowell: just really boring.

Like I said, the simile is a simple concept.  Take one thing and compare it to something else, using the words like or as as the hinge of the sentence.  But why do it?  Because it breathes life into words that may otherwise be dull.  Tell me that the ice broke and it was loud, and I’ll think, “Okay.  Those are all words I’ve heard before.  The ice cracked.”  But tell me that the sound of ice breaking was like knuckles cracking, and I can hear it.  There’s nothing wrong with saying that the ice cracked and that it was loud, but unless I’ve actually heard ice crack, I have to sort of imagine it for myself.  But by taking the crack of ice and tying it to the crack of knuckles (with the word like), all of the sudden, I’m in the scene, hearing the ice cracking, because it’s been compared to something I understand.

Too often, writers use cliched similes.  Sharp as a tack, quick as a fox, happy as a clam; tight as a drum, clean as a whistle, as easy as pie.

Boring.  Boring boring boring.  As boring as a flesh-colored TV playing C-SPAN floating in a dish of vanilla ice cream being eaten by a khaki-wearing Droopie Dog as he tells you about his kid’s nap schedule.  If you’re ever tempted to use one of these cliches, don’t.  There’s no leeway.  Don’t.  No–stop arguing–don’t.

A simile should bring something fresh and new to a sentence.  A cliche does the opposite of that.  Many of these were at one time interesting comparisons, but their status as cliches disqualifies them from ever being interesting again.

Writers also get tripped up, I think, because they think that all of their comparisons have to lofty and ethereal.  Her eyes don’t need to look like the sun (by the way, that would make her a yellow-eyed cat person), and his teeth don’t need to sparkle like diamonds in the moonlight (unless he’s Kanye West … except that in his case, his teeth would be literal diamonds sparkling in the moonlight of his ego).  Forget about all the similes you’ve heard or think you’ve heard, and think of commonplace events or things in your life that appeal to the senses.  Maybe her eyes don’t look like the sun … maybe they’re milky and brown like the milk in the bowl after you’ve finished all of your Cocoa-Puffs.  Sure, that’s a little weird, and there’s nothing particularly mystical about Cocoa-Puff milk, but the image I see when I read that is much stronger than the one I imagine when I hear that her eyes were like the sun.

Always bring your similes home to commonplace things.  Make comparisons no one has made before.  Tie images together that have never before been bound, and your writing will sparkle like a vampire’s skin in a Stephenie Meyer novel.

Speaking of which, let me say once more that if you write that the beautiful girl sparkled like the sun, then she either has yellow cat eyes that you cannot look into directly, or she is a vampire, and then either way, you’re only safe during an eclipse.


One Response to “Like A Simile”

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