A simile is a type of “figurative language” used in creating imagery.
Wait . . . figurative language and imagery aren’t the same thing? So what is imagery?
Put simply, imagery is the representation of one thing by another thing using vivid, or “figurative” language, to represent objects, actions, or ideas.
These devices are used with the intention of creating a deeper understanding of the thing being talked about by referencing objects, actions or ideas already familiar to the listener.
Imagery uses four types of “figurative language”:
A simile uses the words “like” or “as” to make a comparison.
In Joni Mitchell’s “Sunny Sunday,” the main song character “… pulls the shade/It’s just another Sunny Sunday/She dodges the light like Blanche DuBois …”
If you’ve read A Streetcar Named Desire you understand the song character better now because you have a comparative – a visual of the character’s traits, and who they are inside.
And, the name Blanche Dubois and the paleness associated with the word “blanche” make the simile even more profound.
Another great simile construction by Joni Mitchell is “Just Like This Train,” which starts with – “I’m always running behind the time/Just like this train./Shaking into town/With the brakes complaining.”
Be careful of making bad comparisons that result in comic images or distortions that derail your listener. Once they’re out of the song – they tend to stay out.
For example, sticking with the train reference above, saying “she cried like a runaway train” is an example of two things not connecting.
If it’s the physical act of crying, a train just doesn’t do it, and if it’s the sound of crying out like a wailing sound, a train whistle would be the more correct image to use.
But, even if you get closer with your comparative, you should still consider what it looks like – it is imagery! Is it a comic image: i.e., a woman standing in a room, head tilted to the ceiling, mouth agape, making a sound like a train whistle.
Is that the image you want in your listener’s head? If yes, go! If no, find something else.
When you create a comparison, stop, close your eyes and picture it in your head. If you think it’s funny – don’t use it. Save it for a funny song. Using it will only detract from the strength of your song, which is not the purpose of using a simile in the first place.
If you’re writing a serious song, and the visual wouldn’t end up on Saturday Night Live, or you don’t have to explain the connection to people, you’re probably good to go!
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