As satisfying as a well-written simile

Last time out, I included a line that a woman used to describe her fat-but-graceful dance partner: “It was like floating in the arms of a huge doughnut.”

That’s a simile, saying that one thing is like something very different. Obviously she wasn’t waltzing with a doughnut, but she got across the sense of someone large, soft and sweet. Sometimes similes use “as” instead of “like,” but the idea is the same. “His jokes were as stale as last week’s bread.”

Closely related to the simile is the metaphor. It basically does the same thing, leaving out the “as” or like.” Here’s one from the New Testament: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

The mechanics of similes and metaphors are easy to grasp. Doing them well takes more effort. Get lazy, and you’ll end up with something like these winners from a contest for bad metaphors and similes held by The Washington Post:

  • She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up. (Susan Reese, Arlington)
  • Her hair glistened in the rain like nose hair after a sneeze. (Chuck Smith, Woodbridge)
  • The dandelion swayed in the gentle breeze like an oscillating electric fan set on medium. (Ralph Scott, Washington)

Those are fun, but you want to know how to write good ones. Author Noelle Stern uses this method: First, she writes down the ones that come easily, to get them out of her system. Then she visualizes the thing she’s writing about, and thinks about how it looks, feels, smells, tastes, etc. How would someone react to it? What does this thing make her think of.

So in writing about the arms of a middle-aged mother, Stern wanted to evoke the bulk of her body and underscore the idea that the mother’s strong-armed ways tyrannized her family. Her arms were like…

… tree trunks? (no, too big)

…like sausages? (no.)

…like pieces of wood? (Getting there, but vague).

Stern finally settled on: “Her arms were like the thick ends of baseball bats.”

For good metaphors, the folks over at Yeah Write singled out John Green’s novel “Looking for Alaska.” The protagonist is comparing himself with a girl he just met:

“So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.”

The metaphor works on its own, but it also plays up the long rainy season that forms a background to the plot of the book. Green could have compared her to a dust storm, or a rollercoaster, or some other high-energy object. But they would clash with the atmosphere he’s set.

Good metaphors and similes take a lot of work. But that’s OK, because you don’t need to drop them into every paragraph. Sprinkle a few good ones here and there, and your readers will be as content as a cat in a sunbeam.





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