Some may be surprised to see a seemingly poetic skill such as a simile in Short Fiction III for AP® Lit, but it does make sense. Advanced readers need to notice a writer’s comparison and be able to analyze its significance as well. While this spotlight lesson zeroes in on similes, it can include all types of comparisons, such as metaphors and analogies, as well.
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Examining Similes with Movie Clips
When I thought about how best to introduce similes, I began to think of some famous movie scenes and lines that use them. Show your students these clips and ask them if they’ve ever heard or seen them before.
Forrest Gump: “Life is like a box of chocolates.”
In this opening scene from Forrest Gump (1994), Forrest tries to make conversation with a stranger at the bus stop. He employs his mother’s maxim, “life is like a box of chocolates” to introduce himself.
Shrek: “Ogres are like onions.”
This famous clip from Shrek breaks a small barrier between Shrek and Donkey. Donkey, who enjoys simple and frank explanations, doesn’t understand Shrek’s explanation that ogres are valuable because they have layers. Like onions, though. Not parfaits.
A Knight’s Tale: “I miss you like the sun misses the flower.”
In this charming clip from A Knight’s Tale, William struggles to compose a letter to the girl of his dreams, Jocelyn. His companions all contribute to the letter with their own feelings and experiences of love. While this clip does use one strong simile (“I miss you like the sun misses the flower”) it relies on several metaphors and analogies as well.
Focus Text: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Confession: A Man Called Ove is my favorite book. There was no way I wasn’t going to use it at some point in my Skill Spotlights. I read the book 3 years ago and have just returned to the text in audiobook form (also highly recommended, thanks to the brilliant JK Simmons). As I was listening to it on a walk the other day, I noticed how frequently Backman employs similes and analogies to describe his characters’ behaviors.
This document is the first chapter of A Man Called Ove (shared as a free excerpt from the publisher to prospective buyers). Feel free to download and distribute to your students.
Ask your students to read this excerpt, then answer the following questions:
- As you read, take note of any similes you find.
- What elements are being compared in each simile?
- Select 1-2 strong comparisons. What significance can you find in the objects being compared?
- Overall, how does Backman’s use of similes contribute to a deeper meaning or significance in this excerpt? In short, what is the effect?
- While I may have missed a few, here are the similes I found: “…as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s flashlight;” “…as if it’s a highly dubious sort of box, a box that rides a scooter and wears tracksuit pants and just called Ove ‘my friend’ before offering to sell him a watch;” “…as if he has just spoken backwards;” “…as if the only problem here is his adversary’s impaired hearing;” “…seems to be looking for a ward that falls within the bounds of comprehension of the man facing him;” “…as if two gunmen have suddenly realized they have forgotten to bring their pistols;” “…as though he’s waiting for it to make a confession;” “…as if he’s just witnessed the sales assistant walking around the counter and licking the glassfronted display cabinet;” “…that seems to reveal a fiercely yet barely controlled desire to begin clawing his own face;” “…as people do when they have not been working for a sufficient stretch of time as sales assistants;” “…as if to say he’ll pay him back for this.”
- Answers will vary based on the students’ selections of similes.
- If you analyze the similes describing Ove, they are meant to illustrate his distrustful and old-fashioned nature. The first one, “as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s flashlight,” is especially efficient at characterizing both Ove and this particular conflict. Ove struggles with trusting others, especially when it comes to spending money. In this quick comparison, we see the aggressive way he speaks to this sales associate, who immediately becomes a suspect in Ove’s eyes.
- The similes break into two basic categories. The ones describing Ove all begin with “as if…” and work to explain the kind of person Ove is and how he reasons. The other similes describe the sales associates and work more to characterize their behavior, rather than their character. After just this chapter, we learn that Ove is behind the times but would never admit it. He exasperates others, not because he is cruel or stupid, but because he is always worried he’s being taken advantage of. The many uses of similes and comparisons add to Backman’s popular dry and sarcastic tone with readers. While he is making fun of Ove, we are already rooting for this character as well.
How NOT to Use Similes
Another fun activity to share with your students is a writer’s botched attempt at using a simile. This collection of “funniest analogies” shows many attempts at similes that just don’t land. Share with your students for a laugh at the least. If interested, ask them what works in a “good simile,” versus a “bad one.” Thanks to Bill Sowder for sharing this link with me!
Additional Examples of Similes in Prose
I usually end these Skill Spotlights with a list of texts that use the associated skill. However, similes are so frequent that I am taking a different route. Here are a few quotes from prose texts that use similes, which you may be able to use as a follow-up homework or discussion activity with your students. Thanks to the members of the AP Lit Facebook group for help with compiling this list!
- “The morning air was like a new dress.” – Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
- “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.” – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.” – The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- “He felt his smile slide away, melt, fold over, and down on itself like a tallow skin, like the stuff of a fantastic candle burning too long and now collapsing and now blown out.” – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- “She leaned down and looked at his lifeless face and Leisel kissed her best friend, Rudy Steiner, soft and true on his lips. He tasted dusty and sweet. He tasted like regret in the shadows of trees and in the glow of the anarchist’s suit collection.” – The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
- “The silence was so immense and unbelievable that you felt your ears had been stuffed or you had lost your hearing altogether.” – “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury
- “Every sentence, every word, was new to them and they listened to what he said like bright-eyed ravens, trembling in their eagerness to catch & interpret every sound in the universe.” – Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
- “This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.” – Hamlet by William Shakespeare
- “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.” – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
- “He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins. As in a party game. Say the words and pass it on. So be sparing. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not.” – The Road by Cormac McCarthy