Similes in songs can take a ho-hum lyric and turn it into a “wow!” lyric.
The magic of a simile is that it allows you to use a direct comparison between two things in order to describe the thing you are talking about.
Not to sound like a business person, but the ROI on using a simile in a song, if done well, is big because it is immediately additive to your song.
Get this step-by-step songwriting worksheet to help you build great similes in songs.
Because it pulls all of the things associated with the comparison into the listener’s head, you don’t have to use the limited amount of time you have to build up that feeling of nostalgia, pain, angst, elation, etc.!
A simile is a “plus” to the emotional impact or description you’re trying to fulfill on.
Pretty handy tool if you’re a songwriter.
How Do Similes In Songs Work?
Similes use the words “like” or “as” to directly tie the two things together.
By doing this, the first takes on the characteristics of the second to give the first a larger meaning/depth.
For example, “Love is like a rose,” or “She’s as pretty as a picture.”
And you can use similes to enhance verbs, which is a nice way to make your songs come to life.
The benefit is that you use the attributes, emotions and senses that come with the thing you’re using as the comparison without having to say it all. This is very handy for keeping your lines shorter and your whole song within a conventional time frame.
Simply put, simile construction is:
- X is like Y
- X is as something as Y
If you choose a direct connection (X is like Y), you will most likely be using the line following it to explain the relationship.
For example, “Life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get.” The X is like Y is explained with the line “you never know what you’re gonna get.”
The Bill Withers example below does this exceptionally well in song form.
Clearly, the most critical part to this structure is the Y you choose.
Selecting a bad Y usually results in people disengaging from the lyrics or worse, giggling about it.
Similes can be constructed two ways:
- You can build them
- You can find/hear them
Building Similes (Exercise)
While building similes in the moment is necessary, it never hurts to have a head start!
1 Write a prompt line: She’s as wild as __________________
2 Write down at least 5 items as a comparison. Put them aside for some time. I can be an hour, a day, or a few days.
3 Go back to them and give them a rating from 1 to 5 for each of the following characteristics: how interesting, how clear and how unique are they?
4 Add up the three scores. If the score is a 9 or below, create a new one.
5 Repeat. Do this until you’ve got similes with scores of 10 or higher.
6 Transfer them to your hook book. I keep a mine on a page in the back with Similes written across the top.
You can give yourself this self-assignment as an ongoing exercise to keep a stock of similes available for use in your lyrics. Worst case, they prompt better simile ideas!
Fast talking like _________________
__________ as cold as _______________________
she was as light as ________________
she was as free as ________________
she had a heart like ________________
Different areas of the country have different ways of saying things. Families have sayings they’ve used for years that come out during conversations.
Listening is your best tool if you’re looking for a tried-and-true simile with a quirky twist.
This song is lesser known than a number of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees hits (“Lean On Me”, “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Just The Two Of Us”), but the songwriting is spot on for how to write a simile.
Love is like a chunk of gold –
Hard to get and hard to hold.
Like a rose that’s soft to touch –
Love has thorns that hurt so much.
Notice how the songwriter doesn’t just rely on you figuring out how love is like a chunk of gold, or how a rose is like love. The lines immediately following the comparison explain it. And, in this case eloquently in two very simple lines. Pretty brilliant writing.
This song is from one of my favorite Joni Mitchell albums, Turbulent Indigo which won Pop Album of the Year at the 38th Annual Grammy Awards. She beat out Mariah Carey, Madonna, the Eagles and Annie Lennox.
She pulls the shade, it’s just another Sunny Sunday.
She dodges the light like Blanche DuBois.
The simile references a character in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire. In it, Blanche DuBois is constantly deluding herself and in the end creates a fantasy to cope with the events of the drama. “She dodges the light” comes to mean “reality” or “the truth” in the song because of the specific reference to Blanche DuBois.
This one focuses on a character’s understanding of her inevitable fate from Joni Mitchell’s The Magdalene Laundries
One day I’m going to die here too,
And they’ll plant me in the dirt,
Like some lame bulb that never blooms –
That never blooms, come any spring
Not any spring.
There are also more light-hearted examples, like this one from Dierks Bentley’s “What Was I Thinkin'” (written by Bentley, Brett Beavers, and Deric Ruttan):
Her Daddy had a heart like a nine pound hammer
I think he even did a little time in the slammer.
You know this is not a tender guy from the “like a nine pound hammer” – you start thinking weighty, hard, maybe a little judgemental. Then the second line kicks in . . . and you know he’s not someone that should be messed with! It elevates the danger and drama in the song with two lines.
When a mountain of a man with a “born to kill” tattoo
Tried to cut in I knocked out his front tooth
We ran outside hood-slidin’ like Bo Duke
What was I thinkin’?
I know exactly what that looks like, and more importantly, the situations the Duke boys were in when they were doing it? Trying to get out of trouble. Perfect simile here!
Not only do I visually see it in my head as a listener, as the songwriter I get the added benefit of the intensity of the action emotionally to reinforce the situation I’ve created in the song.
Pretty brilliant song craft.
Pitfalls Of Using Similes
All things in life have pros and cons. Similes can become an albatross around the neck of your song if you’re not careful. Here are some tips for avoiding simile problems.
- Your comparison thing (Y) should avoid being too complex of a connection.
The lyrics are flying by, so people won’t have a chance to go back and listen. The most powerful similes are those that triggers the light bulb for your listener immediately.
- Be sure your X needs a Y.
Once you’ve completed your simile, ask yourself “do I really need it?” They do make song lyrics a little more complicated, so too many, or one in a spot that doesn’t really need it only makes your lyric harder to follow.
- Don’t use the same structure all the time.
By that I mean use a simile to make a verb better, or expand the visual for you character. Don’t constantly use the phrase ” x is like y”. Look for the unusual, but clear linkages to add some variety like the “hood-slidin” example.