I'm reading The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon. Chabon, in case you haven't read him, is known for his flowing, rhythmic sentences and often beautiful writing. More than that, he's known for similes. He uses them more than most writers, sometimes piling on similes like five year olds around a soccer ball. For some reviewers, he uses too many, and I can see that. Most writers could not get away with writing so many. Then again, most writers aren't nearly so good at it.
As a quick reminder for those of you who need a refresher course on similes and metaphors, a simile compares two unlike things, usually using like or as, to create an image that would be difficult to create without such figurative language. For example, "Life is like a box of chocolates." A metaphor, on the other hand, creates an image for the reader by equating something with something else, not merely a comparison. For example, when Paul Simon sings "I am a rock, I am an island," he's using two metaphors to show that the character of the song is isolated. Of course he is not literally a rock or an island, but the figurative language is meant to create an analogy that says more than the actual words.
Figurative language is less popular in our straight-forward world, but it goes back to the very earliest English writing. The Anglo-Saxons made heavy use of this kind of language, usually in the form of kennings, such as referring to the ocean as the "whale road" or to a warrior as a "sword tree."
In the 64 pages I've read in the Chabon book, there have been several similes I wish I had written. My favorite so far is "Bina accepts a compliment as if it’s a can of soda that she suspects him of having shaken." This simile works because it creates an image that could not have been presented without a whole bunch of words, and even then not as well. It shows fear, mistrust, and anxiety, revealing a great deal about Bina's character and her relationship with the lead character. All in just a few words. And, it's funny.
Another one I really like, although it's much less concise, is contained in the following:
Brennan studied German in college and learned his Yiddish from some pompous old German at the Institute, and he talks, somebody once remarked, "like a sausage recipe with footnotes."This one works for me for different reasons. It requires a little more thought to figure out, which is why some readers don't like a lot of similes. It actually does two things that go against what writers are often taught: don't pull the reader out of the story, and don't call attention to the author. And yet, because of the great image it creates of the the character (and the narrator), it adds a great deal to the story.
Similes don't always work. The famous bad example is, "Her eyes were like two brown circles with black dots in the center." For a simile to work, it should do most of the following:
- Compare two unlike things
- Say in a few entertaining words what would otherwise take an entire paragraph
- Be simple, so they don't require mental gymnastics on the part of the reader
- Be original and interesting, not obvious or cliched
- Does not need to be explained (Forrest Gump nearly destroys the box of chocolates simile by explaining that you never know what you're going to get)
- Be visually resonant, painting a picture for the reader that creates an impression that non-figurative language would have trouble painting
Do you have any favorite similes?