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Definition of simile

: a figure of speech comparing two unlike things that is often introduced by like or as (as in cheeks like roses)

Similes are nice tools that every narrator has (even if I'd like to focus on creative-writing for this question). Yet, similes are far from being fail proof. Sometimes they are shorthands, tokens that the writer can conveniently throw in instead of an accurate description. Sometimes they are ill-suited, or they compare unrelated things, or again they pull the reader out of the story.

So what are the elements of a good simile? Or, in other words:

When is using a simile better than giving a literal description?

Related:

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Descriptions in writing are two way streets. They describe the describer just as much as the subject.

In first person, or third person limited descriptions always describe the point of view character. In third person omniscient, descriptions are a reflection of the setting. as a whole instead of just one person.

So when you decide to use a simile or metaphor to describe something think about what this says about the speaker. There is often great space here to tell us about the character. Do they like flowery speech or do they like to get to the dry point? What kind of thing does he like to compare others too? What are her normals? What is his job, is that the measuring stick used for everything. Sometimes you can even use descriptions pointed completely back at the character and setting instead of the subject.
EX: "He was as big as a dire-wolf" So now we learn that the character is big, but much more importantly we learn that dire-wolves exist.

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When it works.

It's not something that has a particular formula. Nothing to count. No threshold to pass or avoid passing.

Use your critique group or beta-readers or your favorite alpha reader. Don't ask them to look at this metaphor but, rather, to just read. If the simile sticks out like a sore thumb, they'll tell you. If they love it, they'll tell you. If they don't say anything about it, then ask.

The purpose of description is to paint a picture in the reader's head. Sometimes straight description can be tedious or it's hard to evoke the right image. Using imagery as narration can sometimes cut to the chase.

Her voice was like butter as she laid out the new, harsh, edicts.

Though sometimes imagery can go too far. As you say, it can "pull the reader out of the story." You want to avoid anything that brings the reader's mind to the metaphor instead of the character.

For instance, my butter example would probably not work in a novel about workers at a dairy farm. If there have already been descriptions of actual butter, especially if butter-making is part of the job, then using that simile changes the meaning of the sentence. Instead of describing a rich, smooth, voice usually associated with warmth in contrast to the harsh words it speaks, you end up with a confused reader thinking back to the last dozen descriptions involving butter and wondering which one to use and what it means for the character.

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A simile usually implies more than the mere appearance. In the comparison you link two entities that share some features. Sometimes the common elements are marked explicitly, for instance:

  • her hair was gleaming like a summer cornfield.

  • they fought bravely like tigers

  • he was tall and gaunt like a willow

or, in some cases, the linking element is left to the reader to guess:

  • her hair was like a summer cornfield

  • they fought like tigers

  • he was like a willow

In both cases, albeit more so in the latter, the simile transfers some of the features to the first entity. Besides being gleaming, a summer cornfield has perhaps a warmth and puffy quietness to it, and it could suggest a joyous character, welcoming, and lighthearted. Fighting like a tiger may not be just about courage, but also about physical abilities, and perhaps foreshadowing the fact that they will not surrender. The willow... the exercise is left to the reader.

A word of caution though: as with any other figure of speech, use sparingly and wisely.

  • She grabbed her coffee like a hawk catches the prey, and like a river pushed back by the higher tide she let it warm her lips, which were thin and dark, with barely a line of white teeth parting them like the twilight divides the sky from the night sea. :-/ – NofP Mar 22 at 10:25

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