Thursday, 21 October 2010

AS POINTLESS AS A POINTLESS THING: CARE WITH SIMILES

Remember when you were at school and you were learning Creative Writing? (You know - the bit squeezed between Passing Exams and Spelling. The bit where you got your story read out in class and your head stuck down the toilet in break.) Yes. Remember when the teacher got to Similes, and then Metaphors? And you were the only one who knew the difference? And then you got extra marks and ticks and things when you used a simile or a metaphor? And you came to believe that using similes was Essentially A Good Thing and the mark of A Writer?

Well, sorry. You are all growned up now. Do not add similes to your writing because you think you should. You don't get points any more. At all.

There is only one occasion when a simile really makes your writing better: when it really does make it better. A simile must ADD to what you've just said. It must make what you've just said clearer, and better. If what you're trying to say is very simple and is already clear, don't clutter it up with a simile. Only when the situation is complex, unusual, interesting, extra vivid or strange, does it need a simile to inspire and excite the reader. A simile is special, and should be used for special occasions and for special effect.

Why am I going on about this? Well, I have recently read several manuscripts which are passably well executed in many ways. Until the writer has thought, "Gah! I remember now: Miss Scroggins always used to praise me for using similes. Better put one in. NOW! Why? Oh, because. Because it would be sooo cool to get extra points, just as I used to when I was eight."

People, Miss Scroggins has forgotten you. She retired long ago and is now shacked up in Spain with  Juan, about whom she has been passionate since at least the Wars of the Roses and with whom she longed to run away, a dream which she was delayed from realising by her over-lengthy career teaching children such as you, whom she adored at the time but over whom her pension and some well-deserved sunshine now take precedence. Miss Scroggins has no hold over you now. She has no hold over her waistline, either, and has allowed herself to go gloriously to seed. Forget Miss Scroggins and her exhortations to simile.

Here are some examples of completely unhelpful and pointless similes:
His words paralysed me. I was like a deer that's been transfixed by an arrow, right in its spine, so that it was alive but could not move. [The first sentence says it all. The simile simply adds some wholly unhelpful and, frankly, bizarre, extra images. We learn nothing extra and yet are bombarded with extraneous images of a dying Bambi.]
He leaned over the counter and watched me like a diving hawk. Then he laughed, throwing his head back so that I saw his teeth. [Why diving? How is that like someone watching over a counter? And then the juxtaposition of him laughing and then having visible teeth conjures a weird mixture that does NOT have the effect of making anything clearer in the reader's mind.]
And here's a proper, useful simile, though not spectacularly original:
He moved slowly, like a lion. He knew where he would find them. [The lion simile means that the reader thinks of all the other things to do with lions: that they are strong, dangerous, hunters. You can imagine the lion moving slowly because he's powerful and confident. So, this simile ADDS to the image.]
That is the point: a simile adds.

Importantly, it adds everything about that image, so you'd better make sure you get the image right. The clue is in the word "image", because the point about language is that every word you use creates an image; the reader cannot help but picture things connected with that image.

Let me show you. If I say the word fire-engine, you will think of these things: red, something loud and something large, indicating danger. So, if I say that her lips were fire-engine red, you will think of her mouth as large, red, and probably loud. Possibly even dangerous. Or at least sexy in a loud way. (Not that I have anything going on with fire officers' uniforms, you understand.)

If I say the word strawberry, you think of these things: fruit, sweet, small, strawberry-shaped. So, strawberry lips, make you think of small, sweet, gentle, tasty, strawberry-shaped lips.

Letter-box red lips: bright, loud, large. Cherry-red lips... You get my point?

And so it is with similes: every part of the simile creates pictures and if you use an image with the wrong connotations you utterly wreck or disturb the reader's picture. It becomes a confusing mess.

My final point about similes is that they must be exactly right for the voice, the style of the piece. So, in a colloquial voice you don't want to insert a poetic or literary simile. Or vice-versa. Incendiary, by Chris Cleave, is a brilliant example of a book with an exceptionally colloquial voice, and here is an example of a wonderful colloquial simile in it, which is pitch perfect for the context:
We never did eat that sushi. I mean why would you? All seaweed and raw tuna sushi is. More like a fishing boat accident than a lunch.
That is deliriously clever. I love that book, love it. So much so that I have to give you another simile from it.
They were shocking vicious things those helicopters. They were like fat black wasps looking outwards through their glittering eyes.
If it had just said wasps, we'd have thought of stripy yellow thigs, so the author cleverly specifies fat black wasps, and glittering eyes, so we still have the insecty nasty connotation but our mental image perfectly conjures those helicopters into fat black wasp-like things, and we find ourselves absolutely being able to picture them in the way the author wants. We have a sense of, Yes, they are exactly like that.

Three learning points about similes, then:
  1. Only use one at all if you haven't made yourself clear already. A simile is supposed to add meaning, to make something clearer, to elaborate and enrich an incomplete picture in the reader's mind.
  2. The reader, whether you like it or not, will take every aspect of your image and process it. So, make sure your image only has the connotations you want it to have.
  3. And the simile must be chosen for its aptness for the voice, the style and the context.
 And leave Miss Scroggins out of this. The Sangria has addled her brain and she Does Not Care any more.

Meanwhile, I am not going to be able to give you the attention to which you are accustomed for the next few weeks. I have a leaky building situation which is as big as a mountain, as wet as the sea, as expensive as the Tah Mahal, and as irritating as a roomful of mosquitos with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, and which I need about as much as a dose of dysentery before a school event.

Which is probably what I'm going to get if my leaky, rotting bathroom isn't sorted out.

25 comments:

catdownunder said...

I will not use pointless similes.
I will try not to use pointless similes.
Oh dear I probably do a lot of other things wrong too. I used to get told off a lot at school for doing the wrong thing when I wrote. "But it sounds wrong if you say it like that!" I would say. Then I would be told "But that is the right way to say. Now, do it again."

Fran said...

I shall cut down on my diarrhoea-like production of similes immediately.

Sally Zigmond said...

Great post. It was a breath of fresh air wafting over the halitosis of my addled brain.

PS Hope your leaky house is sorted asap. We need you HERE.

Ann said...

I am delighted Ms Scroogins is having such a wonderful time with Juan in Spain!

Thaks for the priceless advice and wonderful examples.

Good luck with the leaky headaches.

Miriam Drori said...

Great post with one rule missing, I think, unless it belongs in another post. The similes I learnt by rote with Ms Scroogins are now called clichés and, as we all know, clichés are BAD. As deaf as a doorpost, as old as Methusala, as hungry as a fox, ....

Dan Holloway said...

Marvellous post. And an additional lesson - ust because a metaphor/simile works once doesn't mean it will again - in fact it makes it less likely to, because they need to be fresh. After all, the deer transfixed by the arrow from Book 4 of the Aeneid, when Aeneas first meets Dido, is one of the most famous and brilliant in literature - it serves, basically, to prefigure the whole of the rest of the book - letting us know the tragic end of Dido's death to which the love story is unfolding. Which makes us want to use it rather than bother coming up with our own. Bad idea.

One GOOD think about metaphors and similes - they can be a great way of writing without adverbs. Try repacing a tired adverb with an adverb-free simile or metaphor. It can lift the prose (if done sparingly) wonderfully. The master of this is Haruki Murakami.

Jayne said...

I actually feel quite sorry I never had a Miss Scroggins. English at school was scatty at best. I seem to remember the teacher wheeling in the television and letting us watch that for most of the lesson. We wouldn't have known what to do with a similie. Eat it, more than likely. But I think that means I haven't fallen foul of over-using them!

Joanna St. James said...

I think I pulled a sickie thed ay similies were taught. I suck at similies, and am kinda glad i suck now.
Thanks for the helpful info.

Phoenix said...

I think the best similes take the place of the mundane things they are illuminating. For me He moved slowly, like a lion works much better as He moved in like a stalking lion.

Don't give the reader's brain the mundane thing first to fuss over; go right for the image you want to instill.

Queenie said...

Lovely post; thank you. I adored 'Incendiary'. I have his second book on my TBR pile and keep putting off reading it because I don't want it to be over.

Nicola Morgan said...

Phoenix - I disagree (sorry!). Although, as I said, not a spectacular simile, "Ho moved slowly, like a lion" works perfectly and in synergy with the flow of meaning. The reader learns first that the person moved slowly, and immediately afterwards a detail is added to give the picture of how slowly. I think the adjective "stalking" is superfluous and there's a subtle lack of rhythm about it, or a wrong rhythm - stalking begins with quite a staccato syllable, which is not the mood desired. Also, by saying "moved in" you've altered the meaning and it's not what I intended. Sorry to be picky.

However, you're quite right to look so closely at sutble differences of word order etc.

Miriam - yes, some things are so obvious that I forget they needed to be said. Thank you!

Thanks all, and for your illuminating additions to my simile collection!

By the way, don't let me give the impression that I don't like similes. I think they're gorgeous, but like a good steak, they should be perfect and quite rare. Or even well done...

Mike said...

Your couple of brilliant simile examples rather explain the uninspired versions you mention at the outset.

Often the most memorable language in a book by a good writer is a well-chosen simile. A writer like Anne Tyler packs in a lot of them. Aspiring writers want to achieve the same effect but often with less potent raw material.

Having completed the City University novel writing course, it was the similes and metaphors from other writers that really stuck in our memories (and of those in the publishing industry).

So you're absolutely right in discouraging lame efforts but it's probably worth pushing oneself to think of appropriate and original similes, even though the vast majority might be crossed straight out.

Keren David said...

Great post - would also just add that when you have a first person narrator it is best if the similes they use are relevant to their life and interests. In some ways that's limiting, but it helps build a strong sense of character, and can offer some interesting new areas for simile-hunting.

jtwebster books said...

A wonderfully helpful post as always, Nicola. Thank you. I never had a Miss Scroggins, so similes and metaphors have been off my writing menu. Now I know how to apply them - properly!

AnneR said...

And further what Keren said, they should be appropriate for the period or setting of the story. (Realised this afternoon that what I really wanted to compare something to was trying to cut warm marshmallows with a knife, but my book is pre-marshmallow, so no can do.)

Tasmanian Devil said...

All mosquitos have ADHD don't they?

Emma said...

Nicola, your post made me think of this post by the very talented NZ writer Sarah Laing, which touches on schools teaching rules about writing (including use of simile/metaphor) to children: http://sarahelaing.wordpress.com/2010/10/21/sinking-hearts/

Rob Innis said...

Bumped into Miss Scroggins the other day on the Costa Blanca (my part of the world) - she asked me to tell you she is an avid reader of your blog and gives you 9 out of 10. Also can you find her a publisher for "Scroggins guide to Amor en España"

Nicola Morgan said...

Rob - I very much value Miss Scroggins' approval. I can't offer her publication I'm afraid but I'm very happy to give her an apple. (Or was it supposed to be teachers giving kids apples??)

AnneR - absolutely agree, must be appropriate to genre/time/etc.

TasmanianDevil - you're probably right.

Emma - thanks. Clever post.

Tasmanian Devil said...

Dan, I own Kafka on the shore and Wild sheep chase by Murakami. Would you point out an example of what you're talking about please? It sounds fascinating.

Dan Holloway said...

TD, yes, that'll give me an excuse to go and spend some time with my Murakami collection :) One I particularly remember is a description of someone walking through undergrowth- "his feet made the sound of rain falling on glass". Not a single adjective or adverb but a beautiful, evocative image

mike 'hazeltree' thompson said...

oh, ok, i thought you were writing about smiles, my writing has loads and loads of smiles in it, havent the foggiest what a simile is....

Tasmanian Devil said...

Dan, thank you! You're quite right.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Here's a sentence from Damon Galgut's The Quarry: 'He walked across to the house with the policeman's eyes like a drill-bit in his back.'
Take out 'like a drill-bit' and watch the sentence's power ebb.

planetpailly said...

As I recall, Ms. Scroggins--at least the Ms. Scroggins I had--said similes where a mark of a good writer ONLY when used well. I got no extra points for comparing handguns to soccer balls.