Writers use similes to “paint a picture” of someone or something in the reader’s mind. Similes are effective because they compare things that are different but have some similar qualities. For example a cloud may be compared with cotton wool. In many ways cotton wool and a cloud are very different: cotton wool is something we can touch, and use, whereas clouds are high in the sky. However we also can immediately get the feeling of what is similar between these two things – they both look soft, and white, and don’t have a hard edge or shape.
Similes are direct comparisons because they always include the word “like” or “as”.
Here are examples of similes: My father was as gentle as a lamb, but when he got angry, his face looked like a storm cloud and we kept out of his way.
The first simile, “as gentle as a lamb”, is explicit – that is, we are told exactly what two things are being compared: we are told that it is the father’s gentleness that is like a lamb. However the second simile, “his face looked like a storm cloud”, is implicit, because the reader has to draw on experience and knowledge to understand that the simile is describing the expression of his face. We know that storm clouds are dark and quite frightening, as they hint that something bad is coming, and so we can imagine the father’s face is threatening and scary.
The examples “as gentle as a lamb” and “like a storm cloud” are quite common, and sometimes writers prefer to use unusual similes to make their writing more interesting and descriptive, for example: Mrs Morrell was extremely skinny, with bits of hair flying around her head, and Tsepo thought she looked as untidy and light as a stray feather from the feather duster.
Shakespeare used many similes in his writing, and some of these have, over time, become part of our vocabulary today. For example, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,/My love as deep” (Act 2, Scene 2, Romeo and Juliet). When he first used this comparison – of comparing love to something endless like the sea – it was very original. However so many people have copied him that it is no longer an original idea.