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Consider these two sentences from Leonard Gardner's novel Fat City:
The stooped forms inched in an uneven line, like a wave, across the onion field.
Occasionally there was a gust of wind, and he was engulfed by sudden rustling and flickering shadows as a high spiral of onion skins fluttered about him like a swarm of butterflies.
Each of these sentences contains a simile: that is, a comparison (usually introduced by like or as) between two things that are generally not alike--such as a line of migrant workers and a wave, or onion skins and a swarm of butterflies.
Writers use similes to explain things, to express emotion, and to make their writing more vivid and entertaining. Discovering fresh similes to use in your own writing also means discovering new ways to look at your subjects.
Metaphors also offer figurative comparisons, but these are implied rather than introduced by like or as. See if you can identify the implied comparisons in these two sentences:
The farm was crouched on a bleak hillside, where its fields, fanged in flints, dropped steeply to the village of Howling a mile away.
(Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm)
Time rushes toward us with its hospital tray of infinitely varied narcotics, even while it is preparing us for its inevitably fatal operation.
(Tennessee Williams, The Rose Tattoo)
The first sentence uses the metaphor of a beast "crouched" and "fanged in flints" to describe the farm and the fields. In the second sentence, time is compared to a doctor attending a doomed patient.
Similes and metaphors are often used in descriptive writing to create vivid sight and sound images, as in these two sentences:
Over my head the clouds thicken, then crack and split like a roar of cannonballs tumbling down a marble staircase; their bellies open--too late to run now!--and suddenly the rain comes down.
(Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire)
The seabirds glide down to the water--stub-winged cargo planes--land awkwardly, taxi with fluttering wings and stamping paddle feet, then dive.
(Franklin Russell, "A Madness of Nature")
The first sentence above contains both a simile ("a roar like that of cannonballs") and a metaphor ("their bellies open") in its dramatization of a thunderstorm. The second sentence uses the metaphor of "stub-winged cargo planes" to describe the movements of the seabirds. In both cases, the figurative comparisons offer the reader a fresh and interesting way of looking at the thing being described. As essayist Joseph Addison observed three centuries ago, "A noble metaphor, when it is placed to an advantage, casts a kind of glory round it, and darts a luster through a whole sentence" (The Spectator, July 8, 1712).
NEXT: Using Similes and Metaphors to Enrich Our Writing (Part 2).