In the short story “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched,” author Steve Almond, Best American Short Stories of 2010, the character Oss has a gambling problem. One night, upon his arrival home, his wife confronts him after discovering his addiction. When she tells him she would have understood, the narrator reveals Oss’s internal reaction:
He didn’t want his wife’s understanding. He had enough of that already. He wanted her indignation, her censure, the stain of his moral insufficiencies tossed between them like a bet.
Oss, rather than being understood, which comes with the known outcome of forgiveness, would prefer his gambling problem be “tossed between them like a bet.” He’d prefer the outcome of the discovery, and by extension the potential status of his marriage, to be matters of chance coupled to gamesmanship as had been so many hands of Texas Hold’em.
This seemingly simple simile, “tossed between them like a bet,” reveals the depth of Oss’s addiction as well as his inability to accept understanding or forgiveness. Oss, by the way, is a psychoanalyst.
Two additional examples of strong simile, this time in musical lyrics, are found in the following segment of the song “Drops of Jupiter,” by Train.
Now that she’s back in the atmosphere
With drops of Jupiter in her hair, hey, hey
She acts like summer and walks like rain
Reminds me that there’s time to change, hey, hey
Since the return from her stay on the moon
She listens like spring and she talks like June, hey, hey
Although a large portion of this tune uses celestial images as metaphor for a former partner’s having left to explore a different life’s path, the two lines in bold are similes that highlight the way his partner now acts upon her return.
In the line “She acts like summer and walks like rain,” although there are no concrete images present we get a strong sense of how she moves purely from our own sense of what summer and rain are like, and for each of us that image might be different.
For me, summer is a vibrant time of getting out and enjoying sunshine and warmth, therefore the woman becomes (in my mind) vibrant, full of sunshine and warmth. Likewise, for me, rain seems an element that cleanses and refreshes; there’s also the playfulness of just dancing in the rain, as well as the fluid nature of flowing pools of rain water. Therefore, her walk becomes a promise of freshness, fluid, cool and playful.
Similarly, the line “She listens like spring and she talks like June” suggests that she listens and hears everything with a crisp freshness that spring brings while speaking with the excitement and energy of summer’s start.
As you can see, simile uses images that tend to be general in nature but universally known. Letting readers know that some element of our story or poem is “like” something they are already quite familiar with helps make that element immediately recognizable and personal. The result is an image that is revealed in far fewer words but that is far more powerful to the reader.
Think of similes as snapshots placed within a line of prose. The thing you are relating is “like” what is in that photograph. That photograph is stored in your readers mind as a memory of something familiar.
Just as with metaphors, caution should be observed in not plopping too many similes in a piece. It is also helpful to keep similes close in nature, as with the Train lyrics we examined where the similes were all connected to seasons. This is especially true if two or three similes are to be placed relatively near to one another in a piece.
With practice, using similes will become automatic. You’ll begin to think of everything as “like” something else and these images will find their way into your work. It’ll be like writing with a camera.