I'm always looking for ways to make my writing pop for the reader. And one of the ways I get my storytelling to feel tangible is through the use of similes.

As screenwriters, we often get caught up in Googling terms and ideas that just apply to us. But one thing I've tried to do recently is open myself to all sorts of other kinds of prose and the lessons that come with it. Of course, without the foundation of fiction writing, we'd never have storytelling for the screen. And literary devices can be used across mediums to communicate with the audience. 

Today, we're going to define "simile," examine it against metaphors, and look at examples of similes in literature, film, and television. We'll even discuss how they can make you a better writer.

Let's attack this like a hyena on a carcass. 

Table of Contents

What is a Simile in Literature, Film, and TV?'Game of Thrones'Credit: HBO

What Is a Simile in Literature, Film, and TV? 

Before we jump in, I just want to reemphasize how important this stuff is to learn for filmmakers. Not only can similes make things feel tangible in a screenplay, but when you're giving advice to actors you can use similes to explain certain actions or emotions.

Let's define a simile and see how that would work. 

Simile Definition 

A simile is the comparison of one thing to a different thing using "like" or "as." This is used to make a description more tangible, as in, "Crazy like a fox," and, "Hungry as a bear."

What is a Simile in Literature, Film, and TV?'Paddington'Credit: StudioCanal

Simile vs. Metaphor

So if a simile uses "like" or "as" to link two things together, a metaphor actually does something similar, but differently. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word is attached to an object or action that is not literally true. Like saying, "His chin was granite."

In movies and TV, a metaphor can be a visual representation of the theme, like in Inside Out, where we meet the characters responsible for a child's mood. You can see where this might be confused with a simile at times. 

Similes don't have those extra functions. They are just used to describe things, and sometimes they are connected to the theme

What is a Simile in Literature, Film, and TV?'Inside Out'Credit: Pixar

Simile in Film and TV Themes 

The best example of similes and themes in film and TV is in Forrest Gump. When Forrest says, "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get," you get the gist of the theme. It's a movie about someone who gets blown around like a feather through the world. He touches people as he goes, having encounters he never expected. 

That simile comes in dialogue, and it explains the entire movie.

Similes can happen in action writing, dialogue, and any element of the screenplay. They're really useful tools to get your point across without being overly verbose. 

What is a Simile in Literature, Film, and TV?'Forrest Gump'Credit: Paramount Pictures

Simile in Literature Examples 

Writing similes originated in literature. People used them to make the words pop off the page and make the storytelling feel relatable. Take Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid’s Tale, for example. She writes, “Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.”

Another beautiful one is from Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, where he describes the people outside. He writes, “Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed toward me like towers of Pisa.” 

And finally, from East of Eden, by John Steinbeck—“Kate inched over her own thoughts like a measuring worm.”

These literature examples help the characters and situations become fully realized inside our heads. But how does this work in film and TV? 

What is a Simile in Literature, Film, and TV?'Lolita'Credit: MGM

Simile in Film and TV Examples 

One of my favorite underrated movies is Quiz Show. That screenplay, by Paul Attanasio, has some awesome similes in its writing. Here's one from a description that makes the world so visceral.

"The luscious curves of a 1956 MERCEDES 190 coupe, lacquered red, dripping with bright showroom light: Circling: DICK GOODWIN, late 20s, a broad Boston accent, his brains worn on his sleeve. Flush with youth and American confidence. He chews a cigar as fat as a baby's arm." 

That's a pretty big cigar! Of course, we don't think this is literal, we just know he's got a large ring-gauged cigar hanging out of his mouth. 

You can immediately get the sense of the size and shape of the cigar, and it has a playful feel that helps associate the tone of the movie with the descriptions on the page. 

Simile in Character Development 

When it comes to creating characters, similes can really help catch the audience up on who these people are in short, brief ways.

Again from the masterful Quiz Show screenplay, Attanasio describes a sleazy salesman as "mosquito-like." It tells us he's a bloodsucker in such a palpable way. It's a really great way to give the reader a little extra zest. 

When you're creating characters, similes can help you describe people in ways that give more brevity. You're adding layers to someone. You're using these devices to give the audience a connection to someone. When someone reads your script, you're not just entertaining them, you're connecting with them. You're welcoming them into your world. Similes help bridge your imagination and their imagination so you see the same story. 

What is a Simile in Literature, Film, and TV?'Quiz Show'Credit: Buena Vista Pictures

Summing Up "What Is a Simile in Literature, Film, and TV?"

As you can see, similes are really useful tools. They can help you describe a character, get into someone's head, or even summarize the theme of your film or TV show. Not only do they provide witticisms that can make your writing stand out, but they add brevity to any situation. Communicating your ideas to the reader or the viewing audience is not easy, but similes are there to make things more tangible for everyone. 

Let me know your favorite similes from film and TV in the comments. And if you have questions, let me know!