Friday, August 24, 2012

Quickly turn it upside down and simile that frown away

by Scott Rhoades

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
Similes and their harder-edged cousin, metaphor, should be used with care. They are hard to do well, and a poor simile can be a disaster. Whoever wrote the following probably meant well, most likely intending to create mood and romantic intrigue, but instead created unintended humor: "He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River." But, used well, they add brilliant color to your writing palette. (That palette thing was a metaphor, by the way).

Do you have any favorite similes?


Julie Daines said...

I think another thing about similes and metaphors is to be sure they reflect the voice of the POV character. If your POV character is a city girl she loses authenticity if she starts rolling off metaphors about waves of grain and harvest time.

Scott said...

Good point, Julie. Any figurative language should reflect the (real or imagined) time and place of the story, as well as the POV character's experience. A ten-year-old protagonist should probably not compare a kid approaching the teacher's desk "like a drunken prostitute sidling up to a bar," although that's vivid and kind of funny. It would probably have to be taken another step, like "in a made-for-TV movie."

Yamile said...

I love similes and metaphors, but sometimes it takes away from the story. Cornelia Funke has some beautiful imagery in her Reckless book, and her writing is so beautiful, but too much of anything can be too much). Like too much dulce-de-leche in ice cream can be overpowering. Right? ;-)

My favorite simile is from The Shadow of the Wind. Julian, the MC, describes a prominent lawyer's office including a ginormous portrait of the lawyer. then, to describe the son, he just says, "he looked as he had clawed his way underneath his father's portrait."
I'll never forget the image it instantly conjured in my mind. I loved it!