Monday, July 26, 2010

Imagery: Beyond the Simile

I recently read a book laden with abrupt and belabored simile. The author constantly used the phrases seemed as if it was, and it was as if. You might say, “Ah, a newbie writer!” Not so. It was a Pulitzer Prize winning author. She’s the exception. For the rest of us, we might need help digging our way out of the simile rut.

So I want to talk about other forms of imagery besides the overused simile.

Metaphor: Quick review—the difference between metaphor and simile is that simile states the comparison overtly. In metaphor, the comparison is absent and the similarity of the two elements is simply implied.

Simile: He had a mouth like a leech. Or, Morning fog covered the city like a blanket.

Metaphor: He had a leech’s mouth. Or, A blanket of morning fog covered the city.

In both examples fog is compared to a blanket. But in the second, the likeness is implied and morning fog simply is a blanket.

Watch out for mixed metaphors. Shakespeare got away with it: To take arms against a sea of troubles (Hamlet). But for us lesser geniuses, editors don’t really like it. For a funny list of mixed metaphors, go here:

Analogy: When the metaphor or simile is explained or drawn out. This example begins with a metaphor: She was the sun, then continues to explain, brightening everyone’s existence and dazzling them with her radiance. But she’d burn anyone who came too close.

It could also begin with a simile, She was like the sun.

Synecdoche: This is one of my favorites because it can be very powerful, but must be used sparingly. This is when a part of something stands in place for the whole. Here is an example: The Commandant gave the signal, and a circle of dark helmets closed in around me.

Everyone knows that helmets can’t move by themselves, they must be attached to a body. But the meaning is clear; the helmets stand in place for the soldiers. Using this kind of imagery creates an added dimension of fear and tension.

The opposite is also a form of synecdoche—when a whole stands in for a part.

Personification: Everyone knows this one and we use it without even thinking about it. It’s when human characteristics are given to non-human elements. Example, The morning chill wrapped a blanket of fog over the city.

The morning can’t really wrap anything, but this sounds much better than The morning chill caused the moisture in the air to condense and form into fog that affected the entire city.

Metonymy: When the name of one thing is replaced by something else closely associated with it. This is a useful way to avoid repetition. Example, The students anxiously awaited the outcome of the voting. When the winner was announced, the entire campus breathed a sigh of relief.

The campus can’t sigh, but readers understand that it is used in place of students, which would have sounded awkward and repetitious (and boring).

Oxymoron and Paradox: Images that are so contradictory they stick in our minds. Examples: painfully beautiful, deafening silence, alive with emptiness, visible darkness.

That’s probably enough for one post. Just keep in mind that by using these devices, it allows us to go beyond the real and draw in those things that are thousands of years old or as present as anthrax in your mailbox. (The Creative Writer’s Style Guide) It creates in the reader an intense connection that ignites their imagination.

So, my suggestion is, whenever we, as writers, include a simile in our work, stop and think. Ask yourself, would this be better as a metaphor? Is there another type of imagery I can use to enhance my meaning in this instance besides the haggard simile?

Julie Daines


Lining the clouds with silver said...

You just summed up six hours of my creative writing class in a few paragraphs. Way to go!

Scott said...

This post is like the cool spray of waterfall when it sits down for lunch on its spidery legs.

Julie Daines said...

Nice. But, you don't have to use ALL of them at once! Haha.

Virginia S Grenier said...

I felt as if a fresh breath of air passed by as if on a summer wind. LOL.

Great post. Isn't it funny how once you become an award-winner or best-selling author you can throw out all the rules and do what you want. I so look forward to that day . . . no, wait. I think I would rather write stuff people won't find fault with and I can be proud of.