"Cheryl's mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories."It illustrates two things. (Well, two for starters.)
First, one of the most common problems I see in the work of aspiring writers is over-writing, and particularly the horrible use of similes. And wow, is this a horrible simile! Similes should only be used when needed. Similes must enrich; they must give a sense of, "AH! Now I can picture that. Now I can feel it in my heart." If something is clear and obvious and familiar already, it doesn't need a simile to enhance it.
Good similes hit us in the heart. Bad ones grip us somewhere nearer the bowels.
What does a good simile look like? There's an example I use and I apologise to the writer in one of my workshops who wrote this, because I can't remember who it was and therefore can't credit her. If she sees this, I hope she will tell me!
She was describing a funeral procession going up a hillside in Sicily (I think) and she used the image of "a black centipede against the white hillside". It's perfect - apt, necessary, enriching. She doesn't need to say "crawling" or "winding" because we already know those things about centipedes. And that's the point about writing: every word you use brings more than simply that word to your reader's mind. The word brings with it a whole cohort of attached and unavoidable meanings.
And that is the second point: the writer's magic weapon. Every time we use a word, the reader or listener pictures it, and pictures it along with a load of aspects of that word or image. (I'm going to blog further about that magic writing weapon soon.) This is an incredibly important point to remember: every word you use has more power than you think, and that power is one you must control. Bad similes are examples of very poor weapon control by the writer.
So, let's go over that awful simile and you'll see why understanding points 1 and 2 will show you exactly why it's so wrong.
- "mind turned like the vanes" - how does this help? Can you picture a mind turning like vanes? Do you not already know what it feels like when thoughts come fast? So, neither necessary nor apt.
- "wind-powered turbine" - so, now we have a wind-turbine in our mind, and it is so not helping. Neither necessary nor apt.
- "chopping her ... thoughts into bloody pieces" - why bloody? How does it help the image to have thoughts becoming physical things that can be chopped? Are we any closer to the desired meaning?
- "her sparrow-like thoughts" - with sparrows in our minds we're now thinking of aspects of sparrows: small, brown, chirping, common, bird.
- "bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile" - and the sparrows in our mind are now chopped into bloody pieces. We are further from the desired meaning than ever. And feeling sick. Besides, while you can have a pile of chopped birds, you can't really have a growing pile of thoughts.
- "of forgotten memories" - why? Why is her pile of "forgotten memories" growing during this small moment of wind-turbine-like thinking? Are they immediately forgotten as soon as they hit the pile? How? Why? WTF is going on?
But I am very glad that Sue Sondrie wrote this simile because I can now use it: when I do workshops, I'm always looking for examples of bad similes (and other horrors) and I find them very difficult to invent. So, please help me! Can you give me examples (with permission to use them) of poor similes? Not necessarily outrageous ones, but just "not very good" ones, ones that miss the point and don't help.
Bad writing is not as easy as it looks. Congratulations to Sue Fondrie!