What is Simile (5 Types) and How to Write One?

This post covers similes comprehensively. It explains similes in five broad types, how they can make your writing compelling, step-by-step way to write them, and common mistakes to avoid while writing them. And all of this through several examples.

What is simile?

Simile is a figure of speech of comparison that compares two unlike things and says that one thing is like another thing (after all, simile finds roots in in the Latin word similis, which means like). You’ll often find a comparison word such as like, as, or than in a simile. Simile, like metaphor and analogy, improves our understanding of a less-known thing by comparing it with a well-known thing, highlighting the common message between the two. Example (the unlike thing being compared to has been underlined in all the examples for ease of following):

The new fashion brand is growing like a weed.

In this sentence, the new fashion brand has been compared with a weed, two unlike things, to show how fast the brand is growing. Note the use of comparison word like.

Simile in this sentence compares the primary thing (also called tenor), the new fashion brand, with another thing (also called vehicle), a weed. Note that we already know how fast weed grows, and we’re using that prior information to portray how fast the new fashion brand is growing. That’s using well-known or concrete to shed light on less-known or abstract.

However, note that the brand is not literally growing like a weed. It’s a way of comparison. It’s a way of saying.

More resources on simile:

Why use similes?

Similes, like metaphors, are used to paint a vivid picture of what the writer wants to emphasize. It is one of the most commonly-used figures of speech in English language and, when used well, it not only clarifies an idea but also lends style to your writing and delights readers.

Let’s understand their impact through few examples. Notice the two sentences describing how Susan moves:

Susan moved fast yet gracefully.

Susan moved like a gazelle.

In the second sentence, Susan has been compared to an unlike thing, gazelle, to bring out her movement vividly. The first sentence, in contrast, doesn’t evoke the same emotion and imagery.

Another example:

Jack yawned in the middle of meeting, opening his mouth unusually wide.

Jack yawned in the middle of meeting, opening his mouth like a hippo.

Which one paints a picture, evokes emotion? Second, right? That’s why similes often make headlines in news and articles. Here are few:

How depression is like the common cold Source

Cleaning my swimming pool is like building strong towns Source

Kitchen is like a playground for people who love to cook Source

Refusing COVID-19 vaccine is like drink-driving Source

Incredibly ancient Tardigrade from 16 million years ago is like a ghost across time Source

Simile is a powerful way to suggest comparison which isn’t easily possible in a literal way. That’s why it has been a popular tool in literature, poetry, essays, and many other forms of writing. See how Annie Dillard describes a particular green frog through similes:

He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water: it was a monstrous and terrifying thing.

Let’s get into the thick of things.

5 types of similes

Similes can be written in few ways, with comparison of nouns through like and as being the most common. For the purpose of understanding similes, we can divide them into five broad types.

1. Similes formed by comparing nouns with like and so

When one noun is compared to the other, we use like to link them, with the noun compared to coming after like.

Susan moved like a gazelle.

A child can absorb a language like a sponge absorbs water.

Note that the noun compared to (vehicle), gazelle, follows the noun you want to explain (tenor), with like in the middle. This is the most common, and the easiest, form of simile you’ll find.

You can flip the order of nouns, but then you’ve to use so instead of like. (My comments that go with examples are in square brackets.)

A gazelle almost glides while running; so does Roger Federer on a tennis court.

Fish cannot survive without water; so do I without internet.

Life often gets complicated. So do analogies when they extend beyond the formulaic first type.

This, however, is much less common way to write similes than with like.

2. Similes formed by comparing nouns with as

Similes with as are no less abundant than similes with like.

The kids were as restless as a cat on hot tin roof.

Susan is as shapely as an hourglass.

On hearing the sentence, the convict turned pale as death.

Note that in the third example, unlike the first two, as is not in pair.

3. Similes formed with other comparison words

So far, we’ve looked at similes containing comparison words such as like, as, or so. They’re somewhat easier to write and to identify because of the structure around them. However, not all similes come with these marker words, and they can be relatively difficult to spot and to write. Let’s take few examples:

My grandfather’s memory can be compared to a sieve.

His gaze was sharper than a brand-new hunter knife.

Usain Bolt sprinting down the track resembled a cheetah chasing an antelope.

Note that compared, than, and resembled – much like like and as – are comparison words. They don’t lend ‘one thing is another’ tinge, which would make the sentence a metaphor.

Some of the common comparison words are than, resemble, compared to, no different from, said to be, similar to, same as, as though, and akin to. However, this is just an illustrative list.

4. Similes formed by adjectives

Sometimes, adjectives can form similes. Examples:

Meet the diabolical family-like group who runs one of the biggest—and most frightening—haunted houses in America. Source [The adjective essentially means ‘group like a family’. Simile, isn’t it?]

Earth-like planets – the holy grail of planet hunting – are too small to detect. Source [The adjective essentially means ‘planets like earth’. Simile, isn’t it?]

Note the word like consistently appearing in all the adjectives.

5. Negative similes

So far, we’ve seen that similes bring out resemblance between two unlike things. However, similes can also be used to compare two things to highlight that the two things have no resemblance on some count.

The functioning of an electric car engine is not at all like the functioning of a petrol car engine.

Your beauty is nothing like the moon.

Note the negative comparison words not at all like and nothing like.

How to write similes?

Let’s take this through as example we covered earlier:

Susan is as shapely as an hourglass.

Step 1: Decide tenor

Decide the primary thing you want to write about. In the above example, you want to write about how shapely Susan is.

Step 2: Think of vehicle

Think of something evocative that is unlike the primary thing, but that shares the message you want to convey about the primary thing. In this example, you want to convey the message about how shapely Susan is. And to convey that message, you decide hourglass to be the vehicle because, first, it’s quite different from a human being and, second, it shares the message of shapeliness.

This is the crux of any simile, so spend time thinking of a striking vehicle. If you get this right, you’ve a strong simile.

Step 3: Write it out

Decide which of the five forms (discussed earlier) your simile should take, and write it out. The most common are comparison of nouns through like and as.

Our final simile is:

Susan is as shapely as an hourglass.

Or

Susan is shapely like an hourglass.

What if we had these as our similes? How do they compare with what we just wrote?

Susan is as shapely as Alexandra Daddario.

Susan is as shapely as a lioness.

The first isn’t as impactful because, compared to Susan and hourglass, the two things being compared aren’t very unlike. The second can leave people confused because a lioness isn’t particularly associated with shapeliness (btw almost all animals are shapely in the wild), and hence there is little common ground between Susan and lioness for comparison, the primary thing similes try to do. In nutshell, both striking difference and common message are important in picking your vehicle.

Let your similes do more for your writing than just style

Compare the two similes:

My grandfather’s memory can be compared to a sieve.

My grandfather’s memory can be compared to a sieve, often forgetting where he kept his spectacles – and that’s just one of the things.

The second version goes beyond just the simile and provides more information to the reader. Another example:

On hearing the sentence, the convict turned pale as death.

On hearing the sentence, the convict turned pale as death, plunging into remorse, scenes from his past flashing like a movie.

The participial and absolute phrases at the end in second version inform readers about the goings-on in the mind of the convict.

Dos and Don’ts in writing similes

1. Pick similes depending on the meaning you want to convey

Consider following similes for how a product has spread:

The company’s product has spread like wildfire.

The company’s product has spread like weed.

The company’s product has spread like PUBG.

Which one would you prefer?

Now, comparing a company’s product with an online game may have negative connotations as such games are typically engineered for addiction. So, the third simile may not work well.

2. Avoid overused similes

Avoid overused similes such as:

Big as a building

Blind as a bat

Brave as a lion

Busy as a bee

Different as chalk and cheese

Dry as bone

Fit as a fiddle

Hard as a rock/ Hard as nails

Innocent as a baby

Red as a tomato/ Black as a coal/ Green as grass

Sparkle like a diamond

Sweet as sugar

Thin as a rail

Here are few examples of overused similes from news and articles that are like flat soda, barely triggering any images (I just wrote an overused simile):

Comparing Covid-19 deaths to flu deaths is like comparing apples to oranges. Source

Without vaccination, one is like a sitting duck, because the virus will spread widely and find most everybody this autumn and winter. Source

Current COVID wave is like a tsunami. Source

In life expectancy, Kerala is like Mexico while Uttar Pradesh is like Sudan. Source [Comparing a state with a country isn’t exactly imaginative.]

Good writers, instead, use striking similes that evoke surprise and even smile.

3. Make sure that the point of similarity is amply clear

Let’s take this through examples:

He is like a lion. [What’s the point of similarity?]

He is like a lion, taking on bullies. [This is better: brave like a lion]

The dew is like diamond. [This is fine, and many will understand]

The dew is like diamond, shining brilliantly in its natural form. [This will leave no doubt]

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