Laurie Lee was the master of it. You can be too
By Dan Marriott.
They say some writers paint pictures with their words.
If so, Laurie Lee created masterpieces worthy of the Louvre: great sweeping works of vivid colours and characters that dance into life.
He was a poet at heart; a wordsmith who used his talent to fill readers’ minds with bright scenes of his past; but he could also write hauntingly beautiful novels.
Reading his seminal work Cider with Rosie brings that home. It’s a roller coaster ride of childhood recollections in the idyllic English countryside, where Lee hits you with a stream of lucid memories and a sense of childlike wonder at the world around him.
Taking pride of place in his literary arsenal is the ever-powerful simile.
Lee was a master of it, using it to evoke emotion and nostalgia, and to paint vivid scenes in the reader’s mind.
If you’re struggling to inject a spark into your writing, then well-worked similes can infuse your words with energy.
But how can you use them to maximum effect?
Here’s a look at how Laurie Lee did it.
Pack them with emotion
‘It was knife-edged, dark and a wicked green, thick as a forest and alive with grasshoppers that leapt through the air like monkeys’
Knives, forest, monkeys. It could be an action movie, but Lee uses that sense of danger to etch out his feelings of being dropped off a handcart into a patch of long grass as a toddler.
Note how much work the similes do here. Comparing the grass to a ‘thick forest’ instantly gives a sense of both danger and rural beauty, while monkey-like grasshoppers convey the narrator’s small size, as well as the surrounding chaos.
Takeaway point: Use similes to illustrate multiple emotions in just a few words.
Choose the right verb
Another hazard of a damp, rural English upbringing — water. Floods of it.
With his family’s house built into the side of a hill, the young Lee stares in wonder as great gloops of it seep into their kitchen during a particularly heavy deluge.
‘It slid down the steps like a thick cream custard’
The viscous texture of a thick cream custard shows just how much debris it must have carried; sweeping mud and sediment along with it.
As such, the verb he uses is perfect: this syrupy water doesn’t flow, it ‘slides’. A languid motion that also carries a threat; a hint at something out of control, like a car ‘slides’ across ice, for example.
They may be subtle, but minor details such as this help the scene jump off the page at the reader.
Takeaway point: Pair the simile with a suitable verb to really hit home.
Lee had a gift for making mundane actions appear miraculous.
Here, he starts by giving water a divine status — appearing ‘pure’ out of the ground — before hitting us with a stunning analogy:
‘You could pump it in pure blue gulps out of the ground, you could swing on the pump handle and it came out sparkling like liquid sky’.
Comparing it to the sky, another natural element, reflects his child-like wonder at the water’s glistening light and sense of infinity.
‘Sparkling like liquid sky’ may sound like a psychedelic Beatles lyric, but it makes you feel as if a remarkable event is taking place when, to an onlooker, it’s just a child playing with water.
Takeaway point: Don’t be afraid to push the boat out. Left-field similes can be the best ones.
Let there be light
Light is a powerful tool to use to add drama to your writing. In Lee’s case, he uses it to illustrate the brightness of a rural world, free from the pollution and artificial lighting that dominates city life.
‘I remember, too, the light on the slopes, long shadows in tufts and hollows, with cattle, brilliant as painted china…’
The contrast of the long shadows and the white cattle brings to life a vivid natural scene in the reader’s mind. Decorated china, or porcelain, is traditionally seen as a thing of beauty, as well as a status symbol, and adds prestige to something as humble as a country animal.
Takeaway point: Using light and shadows works wonders when setting the scene. Add a well-worked simile to empathise this.
Describe motion accurately
When writing about movement, we’re often spoiled for choice. A bird can glide or swoop, a tree can rock or sway.
Lee lets a simile to do the work for him:
Bees blew like cake crumbs through the golden air
Of course, he could have just said ‘the bees were blown through the air’ — but this sounds like they’re being propelled by the wind.
By comparing them to cake crumbs, he captures their lightweight motion perfectly, drifting lazily in the summer haze.
More subtly, seeing them as the dark colour of cake crumbs suggests he’s looking at them in the sunlight, or the ‘golden air’ that he describes.
With Laurie Lee, these similes are just the tip of a creative iceberg: his stories are crammed with metaphors, striking imagery, and fascinating characters.
For further reading, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Cider with Rosie, as well as ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’, a remarkable account of how he travelled through Spain on foot as a teenager in the 1930s.
Hopefully his work can inspire you to take your writing to the next level.