Well, sorry. You are all growned up now. Do not add similes to your writing because you think you should. You don't get points any more. At all.
There is only one occasion when a simile really makes your writing better: when it really does make it better. A simile must ADD to what you've just said. It must make what you've just said clearer, and better. If what you're trying to say is very simple and is already clear, don't clutter it up with a simile. Only when the situation is complex, unusual, interesting, extra vivid or strange, does it need a simile to inspire and excite the reader. A simile is special, and should be used for special occasions and for special effect.
Why am I going on about this? Well, I have recently read several manuscripts which are passably well executed in many ways. Until the writer has thought, "Gah! I remember now: Miss Scroggins always used to praise me for using similes. Better put one in. NOW! Why? Oh, because. Because it would be sooo cool to get extra points, just as I used to when I was eight."
People, Miss Scroggins has forgotten you. She retired long ago and is now shacked up in Spain with Juan, about whom she has been passionate since at least the Wars of the Roses and with whom she longed to run away, a dream which she was delayed from realising by her over-lengthy career teaching children such as you, whom she adored at the time but over whom her pension and some well-deserved sunshine now take precedence. Miss Scroggins has no hold over you now. She has no hold over her waistline, either, and has allowed herself to go gloriously to seed. Forget Miss Scroggins and her exhortations to simile.
Here are some examples of completely unhelpful and pointless similes:
His words paralysed me. I was like a deer that's been transfixed by an arrow, right in its spine, so that it was alive but could not move. [The first sentence says it all. The simile simply adds some wholly unhelpful and, frankly, bizarre, extra images. We learn nothing extra and yet are bombarded with extraneous images of a dying Bambi.]
He leaned over the counter and watched me like a diving hawk. Then he laughed, throwing his head back so that I saw his teeth. [Why diving? How is that like someone watching over a counter? And then the juxtaposition of him laughing and then having visible teeth conjures a weird mixture that does NOT have the effect of making anything clearer in the reader's mind.]
He moved slowly, like a lion. He knew where he would find them. [The lion simile means that the reader thinks of all the other things to do with lions: that they are strong, dangerous, hunters. You can imagine the lion moving slowly because he's powerful and confident. So, this simile ADDS to the image.]That is the point: a simile adds.
Importantly, it adds everything about that image, so you'd better make sure you get the image right. The clue is in the word "image", because the point about language is that every word you use creates an image; the reader cannot help but picture things connected with that image.
Let me show you. If I say the word fire-engine, you will think of these things: red, something loud and something large, indicating danger. So, if I say that her lips were fire-engine red, you will think of her mouth as large, red, and probably loud. Possibly even dangerous. Or at least sexy in a loud way. (Not that I have anything going on with fire officers' uniforms, you understand.)
If I say the word strawberry, you think of these things: fruit, sweet, small, strawberry-shaped. So, strawberry lips, make you think of small, sweet, gentle, tasty, strawberry-shaped lips.
Letter-box red lips: bright, loud, large. Cherry-red lips... You get my point?
And so it is with similes: every part of the simile creates pictures and if you use an image with the wrong connotations you utterly wreck or disturb the reader's picture. It becomes a confusing mess.
Incendiary, by Chris Cleave, is a brilliant example of a book with an exceptionally colloquial voice, and here is an example of a wonderful colloquial simile in it, which is pitch perfect for the context:
We never did eat that sushi. I mean why would you? All seaweed and raw tuna sushi is. More like a fishing boat accident than a lunch.That is deliriously clever. I love that book, love it. So much so that I have to give you another simile from it.
They were shocking vicious things those helicopters. They were like fat black wasps looking outwards through their glittering eyes.If it had just said wasps, we'd have thought of stripy yellow thigs, so the author cleverly specifies fat black wasps, and glittering eyes, so we still have the insecty nasty connotation but our mental image perfectly conjures those helicopters into fat black wasp-like things, and we find ourselves absolutely being able to picture them in the way the author wants. We have a sense of, Yes, they are exactly like that.
- Only use one at all if you haven't made yourself clear already. A simile is supposed to add meaning, to make something clearer, to elaborate and enrich an incomplete picture in the reader's mind.
- The reader, whether you like it or not, will take every aspect of your image and process it. So, make sure your image only has the connotations you want it to have.
- And the simile must be chosen for its aptness for the voice, the style and the context.
Meanwhile, I am not going to be able to give you the attention to which you are accustomed for the next few weeks. I have a leaky building situation which is as big as a mountain, as wet as the sea, as expensive as the Tah Mahal, and as irritating as a roomful of mosquitos with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, and which I need about as much as a dose of dysentery before a school event.
Which is probably what I'm going to get if my leaky, rotting bathroom isn't sorted out.