Writing

What Is Simile? Definition and Examples of Simile in Literature

Written by MasterClass

Aug 19, 2019 • 4 min read

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“He’s as dead as a doornail.” “She’s as slippery as an eel.” Comparisons are as common in the English language as they are in writing. One of the simplest and most effective comparisons to make when writing is a simile.

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What Is a Simile?

A simile is a figure of speech and type of metaphor that compares two different things using the words “like” or “as.”

The purpose of a simile is to help describe one thing by comparing it to another thing that is perhaps seemingly unrelated. For example, when Forrest Gump, the titular character from the 1994 film Forrest Gump, uses the simile, “Life is like a box of chocolates,” he is intending to show how unpredictable life is, in much the same way as picking a random chocolate from a box and not knowing what flavor you have until you bite into it.

How Do Similes Work?

Similes often use hyperbole, or exaggeration, for emphasis. In the simile, “He ran as fast as lightning,” the writer isn’t suggesting that the subject is actually as fast as lightning, but is using the hyperbolic simile to make the comparison and craft a compelling description.

Similes are a great way to make writing more exciting and memorable without losing clarity. Writers often use similes to introduce concrete images (like boxes of chocolates) into writing about abstract concepts (like life).

Readers are more explicitly aware of the direct comparison that’s being made with a simile compared to a metaphor, which is often more poetic and subtle. Learn more about metaphors in our complete guide here.

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How Do You Write a Good Simile?

Similes are the easiest of all comparisons to write because they follow an easy formula: "X is like Y.” A good simile is:

  • Simple and clear. You don’t need to write like Shakespeare to write a great simile; many strong similes use plain, everyday speech. Think about what you’re trying to compare and the context you’re doing it in. Does the simile fit the emotion of the scene? Does it fit the character or characters in that scene?
  • Visual. A simile is intended to paint a picture in the reader’s mind about a particular character or situation. Make sure that the image is as vivid as possible.
  • Original. This can be tough, but try and avoid clichés or similes that have been used in the past. Think about the imagery you’re trying to evoke for the reader, and don’t pick the first comparison that comes to your mind—this is usually the easy choice, and it won’t be as powerful as your second or third idea.

Similes are a great literary device to spice up your writing, but you should use similes sparingly, otherwise they can become distracting to readers.

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3 Examples of Similes in Literature

The use of similes is widespread in literature of all kinds, because using similes can create vivid descriptions. Some popular simile examples from literature include:

  1. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). “Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.”
  2. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Three Gables (1926). “She entered with ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop.”
  3. William Wordsworth, “Daffodils” (1807). “I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills.”

What Is the Difference Between Simile and Metaphor?

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Similes and metaphors are two closely related literary terms, and they are often confused for one another because they are both types of comparison and forms of figurative language (or non-literal language).

In fact, similes are a type of metaphor, because metaphor is a general term to describe a comparison that is often poetic. Similes have two more specific attributes that make them a subset of metaphor:

  • A simile uses like or as. This is the most basic requirement of a simile, and it’s an easy one to notice—all similes use either like or as to make their comparison.
  • A simile is often more obvious than a metaphor. Similes are relatively more obvious when compared to metaphors because of their use of like or as—those two words act as flags to indicate to readers that the comparison is a simile. By using like or as, readers can recognize that they should suspend their disbelief for the comparison, because the writer isn’t attempting to convince readers that X is Y (as a metaphor would), but merely invite them to notice that X is like Y.

Learn more about the differences and similarities between metaphor and simile in our complete guide here.

Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, learning how to correctly use literary devices like metaphor is essential to good writing. Award-winning author Judy Blume has spent decades honing her craft. In her writing MasterClass, Judy provides insight into how to invent vivid characters, write realistic dialogue, and turn your experiences into stories people will treasure.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Judy Blume, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, David Baldacci, and more.

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