English focus: Similes

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When writing a story, authors use similes to help us visualise a character, situation or setting. The author could just write a lengthy or detailed description to explain what they are thinking, but it leaves a lot to chance. Words can mean different things to different people, and sometimes words aren’t enough on their own to paint a precise picture. The aim is to see exactly what the author wants us to see, so we understand the story as closely as possible to the authors intention.

For example, if I was describing someone swimming in the sea without using similes I could say:

He swims through the water at 3mph, his arms by his side. His hands stick out to guide his movement whilst his legs move up and down to propel him through the water. Every two or three kicks he heads upwards to break through the waves to breathe.

This paragraph might be clear to you, but would these changes bring the story to life?

He swims fast through the water like a torpedo. His arms are by his side with his hands sticking out like rudders on a boatto guide his movement.His legs move up and downlike a whale oscillates its tail to propel him through the water. Every two or three kicks he heads upwards to breach the waves as gracefully as a dolphin to breathe.

By adding similes to the paragraph, I am drawing comparisons so that you can imagine the scene in the way I did. It makes it easier for you to relate to how I’m thinking and provide familiar situations for you to refer to.

What is a simile?

A simile is a phrase that uses ‘like’ or ‘as’ to compare the situation or object that you are writing about to something else.

He swims fast through the water like a torpedo’ compares the speed of the swimmer to that of a torpedo. This helps you to imagine it moving quickly, with some force through the water. It may also suggest that it has a direct and predetermined path rather than wandering aimlessly through the water.

This is an open use of a simile which allows your imagination to take some ownership of the scene. In some cases though, a simile may be too open and may not produce the image that you intend. For example, if you wanted to describe someone’s style of walking you could use ‘he walked like a lion’. Reading this, I could imagine a number of different meanings. Does he walk on all fours or pad slowly along in the heat of the afternoon? By adding description to the simile, you can tailor the meaning to fit your intention more closely. So instead of ‘he walked like a lion’ you could say ‘he walked like a lion following his prey’. This creates some intent into the style of the walking. You can now imagine him moving after something, perhaps copying their movement. You could go further by saying instead that ‘he walked like a lion stalking his prey’. This now becomes more sinister, suggesting that he’s following him slowly with stealth. You can imagine him ready to jump and attack him. This is much more emotive and intense.

Why use similes in your writing?

The example used previously about the man walking like a lion shows how a simile can be used to create a more emotive and intense picture. Using text to describe feelings can be quite difficult, with the description becoming two-dimensional. By using a simile, any feeling can be instantly adopted by the reader. This is likely to make your writing more efficientand easier to follow as you may replace a descriptive paragraph with one sentence to evoke the same meaning. This is one of the reasons why you are likely to see similes used frequently in poetry where there is more restriction on the number of words that can be used.

Similes can add warmth and humour to your writing. The simile might be funny in itself or use irony or sarcasm to create a humorous image such as ‘as quiet as a heavy metal band’ or ‘as happy as a dog on its way home after a long walk in the pouring rain’.

Whether adding some additional flavour to your writing or using a simile to explain something your can’t put into words in any other way, adding similes will help you to portray your meaning more clearly which will engage the reader more and produce a better piece of writing.

What similes can you think of? We’d be delighted if you would add a short story or poem you’ve written using similes into the comments box. Or perhaps you’d just like to make the Bright Young Thing’s team laugh? If so, pop the funniest simile you can think of in the comments below!