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. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the tips. I did scan the similes in my draft and did alter a couple and deleted some altogether. Really enjoying this boot camp!

  2. Arlene says:

    I’m confused, I thought we were supposed to be writing “bad” simili’s ala things that aren’t comparable, things that were too comparable, or required specialized knowledge. Maybe I’m just lost in the twilight zone here.

      • Robert Buchko says:

        I thought so too. I’ve been trying to “fix” the previous bad one and then follow it up with a new bad one for the next person to work on. Maybe we need to label them to clarify.

        Fix for Anonymous (Aug 6, 2:39PM):
        “The barking boomed like the kettle drums in Beethoven’s 9th symphony.”

        New one for the next person:
        “The keyboard clicked like skittery legs of narrow-headed ants moving swiftly across the damp marshes of Chudleigh Knighton heath.”

  3. Jennifer F. Santucci says:

    From Robert Buchko:
    “The keyboard clicked like skittery legs of narrow-headed ants moving swiftly across the damp marshes of Chudleigh Knighton heath.”

    Revised: The click-click sounds of the keyboard were as soothing as the sounds of the pattering rain on the window sill.

    New one for the next person:

    Her hair was yellow like the sunlight. (Sorry! Hair is always hard to describe!)

    • bitesizewriter says:

      Fix: Her hair was bright – the color of sunflowers- and inspired much envy and debate among other women, after all, could hair like hers be kept like that naturally?

      Hair is definitely hard to describe lol I agree!!

      Bad simile: Her jaw tightened and she stood rigid as a tent spike.

    • Anonymous says:

      Oh, and I already left a bad simile earlier in the day, but I will repost……

      Fixer-upper: The sweat poured off her like raining gushing out of a gutter.

  4. Anonymous says:

    “The sweat trickled off her like she was showering in her clothes.”

    “He looked at her with a face like a squeezed lemon.”

  5. Anonymous says:

    “Her jaw muscles flexed as she straightened her back (in the face of the impending verdict).”
    or
    “With her jaws clenched, she stood stiff like a plank (when the Jury read out the verdict).”

    • johnsonofdaw says:

      I like those two similes. You might consider an alternative to “plank”. If you were trying to avoid the cliche “stiff as a board” you might just draw attention to it by replacing board with a synonym. How about “stiff as a totem pole”?

  6. Dean says:

    Revised: Her hair was like yellow snap dragons rushing down her shoulders.

    Next Simile: The clicking of the pen was like the ticks of a clock.

  7. Robert Buchko says:

    Update for Dean:
    “The clicking of the pen battered my sensitive ears like a boxer hammering on a heavy bag. God, hangovers sucked.”

    New awfulness for the next person:
    “The shower curtain rings slid across the rod like a well-oiled snake slithering down a sun-dappled garden path.”

      • johnsonofdaw says:

        Like a barrel past a bullet? probably too distracting.
        Something pornographic might work in some genres.
        Like a toboggan down a shute?
        Come to think of it you’d be better sticking with Norman’s oil or scrapping the simile.

        • Anonymous says:

          I think that the palm of a hand, or anything for that matter, can’t be flat and wrinkled at the same time. The palm of a hand could look wrinkled after a bath. A Persian rug is usually not wrinkled either (unless mistreated), but shows patterns. The creases on a palm aren’t like a cobweb or Persian rug pattern. There are just a few prominent lines that go horizontally or diagonally. Thus, I would probably describe the creases depending on what person it is (if you want to give a hint about the person, e.g. age or lifestyle), or the creases themselves (if you want to focus on the hand reading), like deep lines, or the creases are like straight lines, curved lines, split into two, short, long, crossing like an X, interrupted, etc.
          Older people tend to show deeper creases. Manually hard working people too. If the lines aren’t deep it could indicate youth and/or higher class lifestyle. When the creases aren’t very deep, you might need to cup your hand actually to force the creases to show their full extent.

          As to a simile: He opened his hand and the Delphic lady squinted her eyes as she read him. A life of hard work in the fields has furrowed deep creases into his palms like a plough during seedtime. The lifeline stretched along like a deep scar, bearing witness of the hardships of the Midwest farmers during the 40s. (or whatever)

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