Technique of the Week #1: the simile
Updated: Nov 17, 2019
At least twenty hands go up in class:
‘Ooh, ohh, I know! It’s when you say something is like something!’
Well, ye-es. Most of us can define a basic simile fairly easily, and more or less accurately. But the key to getting higher grades isn't simply to spot techniques being used, or even defining them, but analysing how and why they are being used.
Welcome to micro-lesson 1 of my series on language devices ...
Stage 1: SPOTTING
What do all these have in common?
‘As blind as a mole, Jane couldn’t read her watch without her glasses.’
'Hungrier than a bear that’s just left hibernation, John elbowed his way to the front of the dinner queue’
‘Like a group of ninjas storming a castle, the class moved almost silently towards the hall.’
That’s right - they all contain similes. Which means, if we return to the top of the article, we really need to amend our opening definition.
Stage 2: DEFINING
What does a simile do? Like almost all language devices, it exaggerates (hyperbolises) for emphasis. But here, it creates that emphasis by using a specific comparison to hyperbolise something. Look again - in (1), Jane’s vision is being exaggerated. In (2), it’s John’s hunger that is being hyperbolised. No-one is suggesting he’s grown claws or teeth. In (3), it’s the noise the class make - or the lack of it - which is unusual and remarkable. So, whilst we shouldn’t get too hung up on exact definitions, they are a useful guide as to what we can analyse and evaluate for top marks. How about this?
A simile uses a specific comparison to hyperbolise.
This draws attention to the description or action being exaggerated.
Stage 3: ANALYSING and EVALUATING
The end of our definition begins to discuss what the writer was trying to do when they decided to use a simile. And that’s what top mark answers do. But we need to consider why the writer wants to draw attention to this description or action. Here’s where the thing being compared to, the object, become useful.
Look again at example (1). As you read the sentence you might have expected the clichéd ‘as blind as a bat’. Take a moment to ask yourself why the writer has chosen a mole instead …
Keep thinking ...
OK, moment over. Hopefully, you remembered that a mole is a furry, cuddly creature, harmless and helpless. In literature we tend to see it portrayed favourably, in the type of children’s woodland stories where no-one eats each other like they do in real life (and the only true villain is The Farmer). Then, you might have reflected that bats are creatures of the night, that they are vaguely frightening because we can’t see them, and that in literature we associate them with blood, and vampires, and horror stories.
These word associations (connotations) are what we’re going to use to build our prize-winning analysis. Here is a simple, but very effective Point, Evidence, Analysis, Effect structure.
POINT (WHAT?) Overall, the writer is trying to make our relationship with Jane more positive.
EVIDENCE (WHERE?) An example of this is when he uses the simile, ‘As blind as a mole, Jane couldn’t read her watch without her glasses.’
ANALYSIS (HOW?) The simile hyperbolises how poor Jane’s vision is. By comparing her to a mole, the writer uses our positive connotations towards the creature, and the sense of its helplessness,
EFFECT (WHY?) to build a feeling of sympathy towards the character.
Or, for the more confident amongst us, here it is in a single paragraph:
Overall, the writer is trying to make our relationship with Jane more positive. An example of this is when he uses the simile, ‘As blind as a mole, Jane couldn’t read her watch without her glasses.’ The simile hyperbolises how poor Jane’s vision is. By comparing her to a mole, the writer uses our positive connotations towards the creature, and the sense of its helplessness, to build a feeling of sympathy towards the character.
Stage 4: OVER TO YOU
Every time you find a simile, ask yourself:
What is being exaggerated?
What is the subject being compared to?
What do I associate the object in question 2 with?
How do I feel about the original subject now?
Try it - on examples (2) and (3), above.