Novel Boot Camp #3: How Not to Suck at Similes

Portraits of Artists from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian InstitutionIf there’s one thing in a manuscript that can scream “amateur writer!” it’s a bad simile.

If you’ve forgotten what a simile is, it’s a comparison using “like” or “as.” For example: His beard was like cotton candy (see photo).

When done well, similes can paint vivid pictures in the minds of your readers. It can make them smile with pleasant memories, cringe in pain, or even gag in disgust. Similes can be a powerful little tool when done the right way in the right circumstances.

But when similes are bad, they’re really bad! Let’s look at some ways similes can go wrong.

The Simile is a Cliché

We already know that clichés aren’t a good idea in fiction. Rather than creating an interesting and compelling simile, clichés feel bland and lifeless. Often they feel pointless and disposable.

Here are some examples:

Searching for Bobby was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

It was hot as hell in the attic.

Judy’s bad attitude was as plain as the nose on your face.

That damn cat was stubborn as a mule.

There’s nothing special about any of these sentences. They don’t really convey the point in a way that couldn’t have been achieved without a simile and they don’t excite the reader with a new and vivid way of interpreting what’s being described.

I’m not saying you can never ever use a cliche, but unless it’s truly the best simile for the job, try to come up with something with more of a punch.

The Compared Concepts aren’t Comparable

In order for a comparison to work, it has to make sense. This seems pretty obvious, but it’s not uncommon for aspiring writers to use similes that don’t work. Either the writer is comparing elements that aren’t comparable or they’re comparing elements that are comparable in such a vague way that the reader has to work too hard to understand the meaning.

For example:

She sliced through the cake like a gymnast doing a back handspring onto a practice mat.

The box was like a small suckling kitten.

The cog turned like a car on the highway traveling to work.

If the reader doesn’t understand how the two concepts are comparable or if they are not comparable in a way that is readily apparent, the simile will be distracting instead of vivid.

The Compared Concepts are Exactly the Same

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She was as beautiful as her twin.

Sometimes aspiring writers will create similes that compare two things that are almost exactly the same and are no more or less understood by the reader than the literal description.

For example:

He painted the house like a man painting a fence.

She danced like a guest dancing at a wedding.

The sun rose like a ball of light in the sky.

 

These similes don’t make the literal descriptions any clearer. The writer could have left them out for a simpler and cleaner approach.

The Simile Relies on Uncommon Knowledge or Experiences

Sometimes writers create similes that draw on knowledge that the average reader just doesn’t have. If the reader can’t relate to the simile then it is failing to do what similes are supposed to do, which is to make the description more familiar and more clearly understood.

For example:

Once the house was clean, Seth felt as if he had finished a very elaborate paper craft.

Cici did a happy dance as if she had just perfected a back walkover.

These similes require the reader to have specialized knowledge about a topic they are unlikely to be familiar with. This makes the simile ineffective.

The Similes are Clustered Together

When similes are clustered together, even when the similes aren’t bad similes, they can make the writing feel cluttered and scattered, especially when those similes focus on a variety of different subjects.

Here’s an example:

Maggie entered the door as if she were entering another world. Her mother stood at the stove, which was like a fat pig with burners on top. The soup bubbled and churned like the roaring ocean. Mary skipped over to her mother like a child on the first day of school.

Overusing similes is just as bad as writing similes that suck. Too many similes clustered together causes the reader to be pulled away from the moment.

How to Write a Simile that Doesn’t Suck

A great simile must enhance the description by making a person, object, action, or emotion more familiar to the reader.

Here’s how you can do it:

Use Your Voice

Create a simile that makes sense for the voice of the narrator or character. If the narrator is humorous, use humorous similes. If the narrator is eccentric, use similes with a flair for the odd. If your narrator has violent tendencies, perhaps he/she uses similes that involve knives, guns, bones, or other macabre imagery.

Be Creative (But Not Too Creative)

Try to come up with similes that could only have come from your narrator. If the simile sounds like it would work fine in any book or coming out of any character’s mouth, then it’s probably too bland. Shoot for something unique, but don’t move too far from common experiences and knowledge.

Try Again

Often the first idea for a simile is too obvious, feels cliché, or is just plain bland. Sometimes it takes two or three or ten tries to get a simile just right. If you limit yourself to writing it the right way the first time, you’re most likely going to struggle.

Use Them Sparingly!

If you find you have a simile on nearly every page of your novel, you’re probably writing too many similes. They are a tool, not a crutch.

Homework

Today’s homework has both a private and a public component.

Assignment 1: Look through a few similes used in the current draft of your novel. Apply what was learned In the post to enhance the similes to make them stronger. Remember to avoid cliches, to avoid clustering similes, and to stick to common knowledge while giving it a bit of individual flair.

Assignment 2: The Simile Game! Please play nicely in the comment section below.

14770300542_6bb0448895_oWrite the worst simile you can imagine and post it in the comments. The next person to post must fix your simile in the style of their own novel (either the narrator or character’s voice). They must also post their awful simile for the next poster to correct. You may play as many times as you wish.

Have fun!

This post is a part of Novel Boot Camp. If you don’t know what that is, click here.

78 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp #3: How Not to Suck at Similes

  1. Tina Myers says:

    (This was really hard! Maybe because it is two similes in a row or thinking of similes that make sense in my novel’s world. I don’t believe I improved on anything.)

    I hit him like lightening striking a tree.
    He collapsed into a heap like kindling I would later need to stack.

    Fix this simile:

    Her smile was like a blazing sun.

    • Anonymous says:

      Sorry, the first one was one I’m pleased with (a fix to a challenge set by another writer) and the second was deliberately cliche, which is the challenge for others to improve. That’s how I understood the rules anyway. 🙂

    • Anonymous says:

      Depending on the type of “moving” a specific word might indicate the swiftness without the use of a simile. E.g. dodge, lunge, dart, zip, dash, sprint, whiz, bolt, hustle, scamper, scurry, etc. These are all pretty fast movements or describe fast moving, and there are many other words to describe different hasty activities. I think the word “move” is too general for the other words to add anything to the imagery. It kind of reads like a general description of a superhero, like he always moved as quick as a flash, even when eating or playing cards. If it is situational swiftness, I would use a more specific word and probably drop the simile. It depends on what you are trying to describe really.

  2. wannabeawriterblogger says:

    He moved as quick as a cheetah taking down a gazelle.

    Next person, fix this one…

    She was as cool as a cucumber.

  3. johnsonofdaw says:

    I can’t imagine what can be done with this one that’s original. As fast as: greased lightening, quicksilver, a bullet, a cheetah, a speeding train, jet speed, speed of sound, speed of light, like a bat out of hell? I give up!

  4. allisonnewchurch says:

    Like a drip from an icicle down the back of your neck, she was cool.

    (in Australia we would most probably say ‘cool as a cordial’)

    Next person fix this one:

    She moved with the grace of a born dancer.

    • Anonymous says:

      What kind of movement do you want to describe? In general, if I watched people walking down the aisle of a supermarket, I wouldn’t be able to tell, just by the way they “move,” whether they are born dancers or so-so dancers or non-dancers. It only makes a difference when they actually dance, and even then you need to understand a bit about dancing to distinguish between a good amateur dancer, a professional dancer and a “born dancer,” whatever that is. If you just said “with the grace of a dancer,” the normal reader would already get it. The main problem for me is the word “moved,” because it doesn’t hold up to the “grace of a born dancer.” It is a way too general verb, and a better verb would probably add much more imagery than the “born dancer.”
      The word “grace” is probably superfluous, because dancing is generally considered graceful unless specified otherwise, but depending on the situation it could add something.
      Another thing on a slightly more psychological level is the “born.” If a character has any good traits, skills or abilities just from birth, it doesn’t feel like the character has obtained such in a deserved manner (unlike a character who spent years of hard work to become a good dancer). It reads like a Mary Sue – everything about her is just perfect. It probably works for teenage readers who like proxy characters, but more mature readers might rather cringe. That just on the side, to be aware of.
      Long story short: I would look for a better verb.

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