Even if you just took the basic English language classes in high school, you were likely bombarded with literary terms like similes, metaphors, and analogies. After a while, they can all start to jumble together—but knowing the differences and how to use them correctly is crucial to improving your own writing craft and providing the best possible experience for your readers.
When it comes to similes, they’re relatively simple once you get the hang of them. Today, we’ll discuss all things simile, the different types of similes, and some helpful examples from literature.
What is a simile?
A similes is a literary device in which the writer makes a direct comparison between two things using a word such as “like” or “as.” For example, “her feet were cold as ice” is a simile that compares how her feet felt to the coldness of ice, heightening the intensity of the sensation. Similes are the key to effective descriptions, and they give the reader a deeper and more vibrant understanding of the subjects being compared.
The word “simile” comes from the Latin similis, which means “like”—in other words, a simile is something that is like another thing. Out of all the many different literary devices, the simile might the one that you’ll come across most often.
When using a simile in a story, the second item (the thing that comes after “like” or “as”) doesn’t need to be something that exists in that particular scene, or even in the book at all. You can use anything as a descriptor as long as the second item is something that most readers are familiar with and can understand.
For example, if you write that “her hair shone like gold,” most readers will understand that gold is yellow, bright, and shiny, and that that’s what you’re trying to convey about your character’s hair; there’s no need for gold to be mentioned anywhere else in your story in order for the simile to be effective.
The one exception? If your simile feels anachronistic or out of place in your story world. We’ll look at this exception in more detail below!
Why do we use similes?
You’ll find this type of figurative language all across literature, music, and even advertising slogans. Similes are one of the most popular literary techniques because they’re universally effective.
Often, a simile compares two different things that might not normally be connected. (When do you usually ever think of feet and ice in the same sentence?) By using similes to make comparisons between seemingly unrelated things, a writer can create a more vivid image of what it is they’re trying to describe.
Her feet just weren’t cold. They weren’t just chilly or frigid. They were cold as ice.
Her hair wasn’t just blonde or shiny or bright. Her hair was a very specific color and practically gleamed.
Similes can also evoke emotion and set a mood. If you say “the room was like a coffin,” the reader understands that the room is small and cramped—but they’ll also understand that this small, cramped room is nothing cozy. There’s a distinct sense of foreboding in a room that’s like a coffin. Using “coffin” in this simile is far more effective than using other words that would’ve conveyed smallness, like “box.”
The two main types of similes
There are two types of similes you might use in your writing:
Traditional similes are what you find most often in creative writing. A simile is a simple figure of speech that uses “like” or “as” to make a comparison between two things in order to create a lasting image: one thing is like, or as, this other thing.
A type of simile that you’ll find less often is the Homeric, or epic, simile.
Homeric similes are derived from the works of Homer and are typically a bit more complicated than a traditional simile, weaving together longer and more fleshed-out descriptions, or several similes at once, in order to create one nuanced description.
Here’s an example of a Homeric simile from the man himself, in The Odyssey:
“Its crackling roots blazed and hissed—as a blacksmith plunges a glowing ax or adze in an ice-cold bath and the metal screeches steam and its temper hardens—that’s the iron’s strength—so the eye of Cyclops sizzled round that stake.”
In this example, Homer might have just said “the Cyclops’ eye sizzled like hot metal in cold water.” But instead, he goes through the trouble of more thoroughly describing that hot metal in the cold water, for greater overall effect and more powerful imagery—even though it’s a bit wordy, and in a style that might not be favored by today’s writers or readers.
What’s the difference between a simile vs. metaphor?
The simplest way to differentiate between a metaphor and a simile is to look for the words “as” or “like”. If the phrase you’re looking at makes a comparison using “as” or “like”, then it’s a simile. Unlike similes, metaphors don’t use those words to make a comparison.
Like a simile, a metaphor is a figure of speech that describes something using a comparison that the reader will be able to relate to. But unlike a simile, a metaphor makes a more direct, equal link between two things in your story, by omitting the “as” or “like.” To turn our above simile examples into metaphors, we could say “her feet were ice” or “her hair was gold.” Notice how we didn’t use “like” or “as”!
What’s the difference between simile vs. analogy?
An analogy plays a similar role to that of a metaphor or a simile in that it compares one thing to another, but analogies are generally more thorough. Analogies are longer phrases or sentences (or even multiple sentences) that gets into the why behind the comparison you’re making. The purpose of an analogy is not solely to set a mood or tone for your story; instead, an analogy must make a clear point.
For example, take this well-known analogy from the movie Forrest Gump: “Life is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get.”
This analogy starts like a simile because we see the word “like”. But unlike a simile, the analogy keeps going after the comparison has been made. The main character Forrest isn’t saying that life is like a box of chocolates because it’s sweet or to get you in the mood for a feel-good story. He’s making a greater point about life in general and, as is always the case with analogies, he explains what that point is.
Literature examples of similes
Similes are such a big part of everyday language that you’ll find them in pop culture, song lyrics, and even in slogans. These examples are all from works of classic literature.
1984 by George Orwell
He sat as still as a mouse, in the futile hope that whoever it was might go away after a single attempt.
In this line from the classic book by Orwell, we get a quick simile right away.
While you might not normally think of people as being very mouse-like, saying “he sat as still as a mouse” let’s you know just how still and quiet this character is sitting.
Have you ever come across a scared mouse?
They’ll sit completely still and quiet, hoping the threat goes away. In fact, a mouse will pretty much only sit completely still and quiet when there’s a perceived threat.
Using this particular simile, Orwell shows not just that the character is sitting very still, but that there’s danger in the air, too.
“Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou
You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise.
In this example, this line in the poem “Still I Rise” compares the narrator to air rising. This particular simile is effective because by using “air” instead of another word, Angelou conveys that, even under the forces of hatred or the threat of death, the poem’s narrator will naturally and easily rise above it all.
The Adventure of the Three Gables by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
She entered with ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop.
This somewhat humorous simile gives a description that is instantly memorable and clear. While Doyle could have simply ended this sentence at “with ungainly struggle,” adding on that simile makes it clear just how ungainly this character is and how much they’re struggling.
How to perfect your use of the simile
You likely already use similes and metaphors in your writing without even realizing it. However, if you want to really hone your writing craft and ensure each and every word is serving a purpose, you can look at how you use similes and how you can improve your simile choices. Here are a few ways to get started.
1. Learn from the masters
Often, one of the best ways to learn a certain aspect of writing craft is to simply read work by famous authors who do it very well.
You’ll find examples of similes scattered throughout any book you might pick up—but for a deep dive into how to use similes effectively in order to create vivid depictions and evoke emotion in your reader, turn to poetry. Works by writers William Wordsworth and Emily Dickinson are a good place to start looking for these examples.
2. Fit your simile to your story
Although some terms will feel universal to your readers, be careful of using comparative images that don’t fit your story’s world. For instance, you wouldn’t say someone’s feet were “as cold as ice” in a hot and humid setting where many people had never experienced ice before. Instead, you might say “her feet were cold as a stone that had been left in the shade all night.”
Be careful of using similes that are anachronistic or pull readers out of your story.
3. Practice, practice, practice—even when you’re not writing
Practice makes perfect. That said, you don’t want to bog down your prose with an overabundance of similes and metaphors from the very first sentence.
To get in some simile-crafting practice, begin thinking about similes and their usage in your life outside of writing.
Do you use them in conversation and your everyday speech? How can you sprinkle a few into telling a loved one about your day? Are they effective? Does your listener understand you? When you go on a walk or are on your commute, think about how you could use surprising similarities to create comparisons and describe what you’re seeing around you.
Mastering the art of writing similes
While similes are simple, using them effectively and creating the greatest possible impact takes careful consideration. With a little practice, though, you can master using the literary device of the simile, for stories that stick with your readers long after they’ve turned the last page.