Similes, metaphors, and analogies are turns of phrase that help readers conjure images in a narrative, whether in fiction or nonfiction, but it is in the latter form that they bloom more profusely. And what’s the difference between each of the three literary devices?
A simile is a comparison between one thing and another. If you refer to a figure of speech blooming like a flower on a page, you have created a simile. If you more directly say that the figure of speech bloomed before your eyes, you have employed a metaphor. An analogy is a more practical, didactic description: “Imagine that the figure of speech is like a flower blooming on the page.” Analogy is more common in nonfiction, but simile and metaphor are found there as well.
Strive to create engaging similes and metaphors, but insert them in the service of your prose, as stars in the sky, not entire moons. They are foot soldiers, not field officers, in your campaign to inform and/or interest your readers. They are chorus members, not ingenues; extras, not stars. They are — OK, enough with the metaphors, already.
But before I share with you 20 top similes from great literature, I offer a few tips, like lanterns that serve to light your way:
- They should be simple and clear: The ones you will read below are literally outstanding, but they’re also removed from their context, where they are mere flowers in fertile fields of great writing. Similes and metaphors should be useful, concise, and then perhaps memorable as well, in that order. And if the task of creating one becomes toil, you’re trying too hard, and your exertions will show.
- They should stir, but they shouldn’t be mixed: When you adopt a specific theme, stick with it. A mixed metaphor is a missed opportunity, and a distraction rather than a delight.
- They should be original: If a simile or metaphor doesn’t rise head and shoulders above a more functional description, it won’t fly. Make sure the imagery is worth the effort of creating it.
- They should entertain: A simile or metaphor, to return to a previously employed metaphor, is like an actor with a bit part who utters a single line, but that line should be trenchant or ticklesome.
- They should be visually arresting: Similes and metaphors are intended to paint a picture for the reader in order to endow a person, place, or thing with resonance.
Herewith, lessons in incandescent imagery:
1. “. . . she tried to get rid of the kitten which had scrambled up her back and stuck like a burr just out of reach.” — Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
2. “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.” — The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
3. “Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East . . .” — Peter Pan, by J. M. Barrie.
4. “. . . and snow lay here and there in patches in the hollow of the banks, like a lady’s gloves forgotten.” — Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor, by R. D. Blackmore
5. “I would have given anything for the power to soothe her frail soul, tormenting itself in its invincible ignorance like a small bird beating about the cruel wires of a cage.” — Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad
6. “In the eastern sky there was a yellow patch like a rug laid for the feet of the coming sun . . .” — The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane
7. “. . . when I laid down the paper, I was aware of a flash — rush — flow — I do not know what to call it — no word I can find is satisfactorily descriptive — in which I seemed to see that bedroom passing through my room, like a picture impossibly painted on a running river. — To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt, by Charles Dickens
8. “. . . utterly absorbed by the curious experience that still clung to him like a garment.” — Magnificent Obsession, by Lloyd C. Douglas
9. “She entered with ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop.” — The Adventure of the Three Gables, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
10. “He looks like right after the maul hits the steer and it no longer alive and don’t yet know that it is dead.” — As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
11. “Past him, ten feet from his front wheels, flung the Seattle Express like a flying volcano.” — Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis
12. “Her father had inherited that temper; and at times, like antelope fleeing before fire on the slope, his people fled from his red rages.” — Riders of the Purple Sage, by Zane Grey
13. “The very mystery of him excited her curiosity like a door that had neither lock nor key.” — Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
14. “Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed toward me like towers of Pisa.” — Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
15. “Camperdown, Copenhagen, Trafalgar — these names thunder in memory like the booming of great guns.” — Mutiny on the Bounty, by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
16. “It was Françoise, motionless and erect, framed in the small doorway of the corridor like the statue of a saint in its niche.” — Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust
17. “The water made a sound like kittens lapping.” — The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
18. “Kate inched over her own thoughts like a measuring worm.” — East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
19. “He swung a great scimitar, before which Spaniards went down like wheat to the reaper’s sickle.” — The Sea-Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini
20. “. . . impressions poured in upon her of those two men, and to follow her thought was like following a voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one’s pencil . . .” — To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf