Dependable as a dictionary, commentator Paula LaRocque explores the power of the simile.
I recently read a simile that made me laugh aloud. A simile, as you know, is a comparison that uses the words like or as—for example, dead as a doornail, or drunk as a skunk, or fits like a glove.
The simile I enjoyed so much was this one: “She had a face like a slapped horse.” That may not be a new figure of speech, but it was new to me—and so striking and descriptive it made me stop and think about it. A face like a slapped horse. I saw in my mind the reared-back head, the flared nostrils, the widened eyes.
Such is the power of metaphor—which can both prove and refute the adage that one picture is worth more than a thousand words. Good similes use just a few words to create a picture in the mind’s eye—and sometimes the imagined image is more suggestive than the real image. That’s how we can remember a simile long after we’ve forgotten where we heard it.
I remember, for example, a character in a novel whose beard was so thick and dark it looked like he was, and here I quote, it looked “like he was eating a badger.”
A newspaper reporter wrote that Bette Midler’s plump torso was balanced so precariously on her high heels that she teetered ahead almost at a run and looked “like a pheasant on amphetamines.”
Sinclair Lewis wrote that the Seattle Express flung past him like a “flying volcano.”
Writers often use such similes to add color to their work. But we needn’t be writers to try to brighten our words. And similes needn't be intricate or involved, especially in speech.
Rather, they’re most memorable when simple, visual, and original.
That word original is important. Stale metaphor is as flat as fresh metaphor is full. I never forgot that a friend said someone had a “face that could make an onion cry.” Or that a child said he’d jumped up on Christmas morning like his “hair was on fire.” I’ve heard of a face “like an unmade bed,” or “like a dropped pie.” I’ve heard of teeth “like a picket fence” and ears “like a wingnut.”
A reporter friend with a gift for picturesque speech interviewed a famous but aging Hollywood actress who—he said—“looked like a long stretch of bad road.” He also said a salesman was all over him “like a cheap suit.” And that a balding friend’s comb-over looked “like an EKG wave.”
Similes are words fitly spoken. And even the Bible reminds us of the value of a word “fitly spoken.” But it goes further. It uses a simile to drive its point home:
“A word fitly spoken,” says Proverbs, “is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”
Paula LaRocque is the author of several books on writing and of a novel titled "Chalk Line." Her website is at www.paulalarocque.com.