Why do they make us think, laugh, or cringe?
First, the definition from Brooklyn College: "Literal language means exactly what it says; a rose is the physical flower. Figurative language changes the literal meaning, to make a meaning fresh or clearer, to express complexity, to capture a physical or sensory effect, or to extend meaning. ... A simile: a comparison of two dissimilar things using "like" or "as", e.g., "my love is like a red, red rose" (Robert Burns). ..."
Second, here's a simile I heard this summer that keeps replaying in my mind:
"She threw that ball like a prayer straight to heaven," C. Ryan Dunn said while describing how his wife launched a basketball granny-style from a great distance to win a bet ... and win she did, when the ball swished through the net.
I love the sensory effect of that simile. It captures the desire behind the effort.
Stephen King writes, "... I like the figurative stuff. The use of simile and other figurative language is one of the chief delights of fiction—reading it and writing it, as well. When it’s on target, a simile delights us in much the same way meeting an old friend in a crowd of strangers does. By comparing two seemingly unrelated objects—a restaurant bar and a cave, a mirror and a mirage—we are sometimes able to see an old thing in a new and vivid way. Even if the result is mere clarity instead of beauty, I think writer and reader are participating together in a kind of miracle. ... My all-time favorite similes, by the way, come from the hardboiled-detective fiction of the forties and fifties, and the literary descendants of the dime-dreadful writers. ... “I lit a cigarette [that] tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief ” (Raymond Chandler). The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary" (ON WRITING, pages 176-177).
Do you think a great simile adds to a story? Or do you prefer literal language?