On Description

Choosing Similes

The Prism

Both in poetry and prose, one of the hardest parts of writing solidly is your choice of metaphor and simile. Even the most simple simile is double edged – it’s like a prism, and each edge directs the light of your description into one clear beam. But if one of the sides doesn’t fit the others, it will not function properly. If you describe only one part of whatever it is, like, say, the speed, then the simile you choose for it will also affect the way the reader thinks about the sound, sight, smell and look of the thing.

In the chapter of Far From the Madding Crowd when Troy shows Bathsheba his sword fighting in the fern thicket, Thomas Hardy describes the sword as passing behind Bathsheba  ‘as quick as electricity’. The simile works well because electricity resembles a sword in other ways than its speed. It is flashing, dangerous, bright, cutting. If instead Hardy had described it as ‘fast as a thrown stone’, it would not have been nearly so affective – a stone is blunt, unlike a sword, and the metaphor takes a long time describing something that is supposed to be quick. The word ‘quick’ also works better than ‘as fast as’, because it is itself quicker.

Which brings us to

The sound of the word or sentence

… Everyone feels that, quite apart from words like ‘pop’, which are like their meaning, there are words like ‘wee’ which are fitted to their meaning; the Paget theory would explain this … by saying that while ‘huge’ moves the tongue back from the teeth so as to make as large a space as it can, ‘wee’ moves the tongue near to the tweet so as to leave as small a space as it can …

… All the sounds may, when reduced to gestures in this way, more or less fancifully; they all, then, carry some suggestion of size, or shape, or movement, or pressure, up, down, forward, or backward …

(Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empson)

Not only should the simile make the reader think of the right things, but it should also have the right sound and length to it. Luckily, words tend naturally to sound like what they describe, probably partly because of our associations with them. The ‘s’ and the ‘ft’ in ‘soft’ sound soft – the quick ‘arp’ in ‘sharp’ sounds sharp. As I mentioned earlier, a long simile is distracting. Our minds tend naturally to track each thought to the end. So if we say, at a moment of leisure, when our character is thinking over the endlessness of eternity, that life stretches away ‘like a dirt track into the far distance’, the description will make our thoughts seem to get lost along that dirt track. If that is how the character is feeling – lost in the largeness of life – then this will be a good affect. But say, instead, that the character is in the middle of fighting off an army, and the arrow she has just loosed disappears into the midst of the soldiers ‘like a dirt track into the distance’. The length and dreaminess of the metaphor will be distracting, and the reader will not pay attention.

Some more mistakes 

If the simile you use is too much like the thing that you are trying to describe, it will go wrong. If that sword had moved behind Bathsheba ‘as fast as an arrow’ we would have been bothered by the similarity between swords and arrows. Even worse if it had moved behind her ‘as fast as a scythe cuts through corn’. A simile is likening one thing to something different, and the fascination of it lies in pointing out the similarites between one thing and another – perhaps similarites the reader had not noticed before. It does not simply say ‘here are two things almost the same’. The similarities have to be a little of of reach, not totally obvious. Now ‘electricity’ surprises us, but at the same time seems perfectly fitted to describe a sword. When I likened simile to a ‘prism’ in the beginning, it was, I hope, a lot more interesting than if I had likened it to ‘metaphor’.

Finally, there is randomness. If the sword is only like the stone because it moves fast, then the simile is random. If I said ‘he darted away, fast as a hare’ it would not be particularly wrong, but unless there was some background information that made it fit, it would be random.  On the other hand, if the character was sprightly and bouncy like a hare, it would make more sense. Or if it was in free indirect speech and the characters were up on the moors, hoping to spot hares, then the character would be thinking about hares, and it would be okay.

The Character’s Simile

If the description is in free-indirect speech or first person, then the simile should be plausible for the character. It is very affective in writing to choose a simile from whatever the character is thinking about. If they are going on holiday to a beach after not having seen the sea for years, the hawthorn hedges will look like sea foam, and the sunlight will be yellow as sand.

Sometimes an almost haunting, metaphoric background theme can be created by repeating the same simile about different things – particularly if it’s from a character’s point of view. In a retelling of one of the Robin Hood stories, I described Maid Marian’s smile as being ‘like sunlight on elm leaves’. The ‘sunlight on elms’ was a childhood memory that haunted Robin. To create that impression I took care to mention elms again in later descriptions. I did the same with speedwell flowers in throughout my novel, Speedwell. If you are interested the background, hidden workings of metaphor and simile, another thing is –

Hidden Meanings

In poetry, we create hidden meanings with stress. But it also works with metaphor and simile. The story of the book can be told ahead of time with hidden clues left in the descriptions. It’s basically a continuation of the method I talked about a moment ago. You can describe something in a way which links it to a following event – in the first chapter, a tree seems to have a face, and its roots seem to be like arms. In the next chapter, the tree is coming alive.

With great authors this affect can be carried further, so that very trivial descriptions at the beginning of the book bear reference to the events at the end.

To take another example from Far From the Madding Crowd, think of the passage when Boldwood has just received Bathsheba’s valentine letter.

At dusk, on the evening of St. Valentine’s Day, Boldwood
sat down to supper as usual, by a beaming fire of aged logs.
Upon the mantel-shelf before him was a time-piece,
surmounted by a spread eagle, and upon the eagle’s wings was
the letter Bathsheba had sent. Here the bachelor’s gaze was
continually fastening itself, till the large red seal became
as a blot of blood on the retina of his eye; and as he ate
and drank he still read in fancy the words thereon, although
they were too remote for his sight …

When later in the book Boldwood murders his rival, Troy – an action springing from the receiving of the valentine  – the ‘blot of blood’ suddenly becomes significant.

On not overthinking

In all this talk about carefully weighing and avoiding subtle mistakes, we mustn’t forget to use our unconscious. Instinct will, for the most part, naturally tell us when a simile fits and when it doesn’t, and sometimes overthinking can spoil the natural instinct, like when you repeat a word to yourself until it loses its meaning. It’s best to check afterwards that it fits – but if the word just feels right, it usually is alright.

In my poem about snow, Melted, I called the Winter air ‘dumb’. I couldn’t have described to myself exactly what that meant – it came to me in a flash as a way to describe the silent, drifting, muffled feeling of snow on the air – the strange quietness. The word doesn’t really mean what I made it mean in the poem. But there is no other word that captures the atmosphere as well. Part of creativity is to put a new turn on words. This is something more modern authors talk about a lot, and it happens quite often to me in poetry.

It can, of course, be carried too far. I am not an advocate for ‘throwing aside rules and speaking your true self‘ an idea which is becoming a cliche in modern arts. Writing is hard – writing does have some rules – it is not just a vent for random gabbled thoughts. But I think you should trust instinct in some parts of writing.

The Final Balance

We allow instinct to carry us – but at the same time each simile needs to be properly thought out and measured. Each side needs to be checked – sound, smell, feel, speed – your simile needs to describe all these parts, even if it only owns to be describing one of them. It needs to fit your character’s thoughts, to be unique, to be the right length and have the right sound to it. Some of this checking – perhaps most of it – we do unconsciously. It certainly does not take as long as it seems to when broken up into parts and dwelt on as it was in this post. If deciding on every word was a matter of deep and long thought it would be absurd – especially in prose. But in really good works even small things are weighed out and considered to some extent.

With poetry, everything is more checked and measured and takes longer – and naturally, it is more noticed by the reader, because it is designed to be savoured like a chocolate. With prose, a slight inconsistency in one of the sides of a metaphor or simile will usually be passed by. But it’s worth looking at in detail – because everything in writing that is not quite right will be taking up space. It all builds up. After all, writing is made of words – tiny things individually but very powerful when packed together. It is the same with our choices. If we say ‘it doesn’t matter, nobody will notice’ we will soon start saying that about everything – and then somebody will notice.

On Writing Poetry

Catching Moments

Lean out the the window. Put your head and shoulders out. Smell the air – as deep as you can – try to get the smell into your soul. Now close your eyes, and think of what that smell reminds you of. Dwell on every memory, happy or sad, trivial or important. It might make you sad – but it is worth it, if you want to enjoy life to the full.

Everyone finds it sad to remember. Why? Because those times are past – and we cannot bring them back. Every sunshiny second of our lives is overhung by a shadow – we know that we cannot keep that second forever – even for an hour, even for a minute. It is gone now.

I believe poetry is about capturing those moments that go by so fast – and keeping them on paper. As Shakespeare said:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade

Nor loose possession of that fair thou ow’st

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade

While in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.

So long as men can breathe and eyes can see

So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

You can perhaps capture a fraction of the moment in a photo, because the photo will remind you of the real time as it lives in your memory. But you can use poetry to give the moment a life of its own, a life that does not lean on your memory for support. To some extent you can use prose to do this, and painting too – but the perfect form is poetry. Poetry is a net for catching moments, carefully woven through history with threads of metre, rhyme and form.

I hate the notion that form somehow confines the mind and stops the poet from expressing their true and individual feelings. Quite the opposite – just as you cannot catch a butterfly in your bare hands, you cannot catch ideas without some sort of a net – if possible, a carefully designed net. I daresay that you could design a form for yourself, but it would be a long and laborious process, like weaving a butterfly net by hand. And why start from scratch, when poets from Ancient Greek times to today have been doing the work for you?

I believe it is not being cliched to use old forms. Because each captured moment is individual and different, your poems will be individual and different. Form only helps to bring out that individuality.

I an not yet well enough informed in the different modes of writing poetry myself to say any more here – so I will break off.

Only remember, form and metre – and poetry in general – are necessary tools in the larger and difficult process of catching moments.

Let Me Have It

A short essay on yearning

‘Bring me the sunset in a cup,
Reckon the morning’s flagons up
And say how many Dew,
Tell me how far the morning leaps—
Tell me what time the weaver sleeps
Who spun the breadth of blue!
… Who built this little Alban House
And shut the windows down so close
My spirit cannot see?
Who’ll let me out some gala day
With implements to fly away,
Passing Pomposity?’
Problems, Emily Dickinson.


There are many things in life that it seems we can never quite reach – that excite an unexplained yearning for something – and we cannot quite decide what it is that we want. Usually, it is small things that make us feel this way – at least, things that are small in our life, but outside our life, immensely large. Dawns, limestone rivers, very tall trees, moss, huge leaves, summer skies, Christmas lights, frozen lakes,  Monet’s waterlilies, the sea. All these things give me a feeling of something I want – like an urge to be in them – not just looking at them, but in them, part of them. The feeling is perfectly captured in the first line of the poem above – ‘Bring me the sunset in a cup!’. It is a major part of our lives, this subtle feeling – above all, a major part of beauty. Whatever is really beautiful, really great and powerful, is like subtle torture to a human mind. We cannot get enough of it, we cannot grasp it properly and hold it forever. We are used to things, objects we can hold and keep – pretty plates, clothes, money – we cannot bear the elusiveness, the powerful vagueness, of nature.

But it is when one of these yearnings is unexpectedly fulfilled that a magical moment of our lives is created – a moment we will always remember. Like the time I went moonlight bathing – the time I climbed a young beech to the very top and swayed with it in the wind –  and the time I wrote this poem about:

My Memory


I saw the river, waiting for me,

And every mossed-rock with a smiling face,

And all and everything under a spell

The golden spell of the sun’s last rays,

Like the yellow resin from out of a tree

That catches the bugs that into it fly

And keeps them safe for all the years

Thus it catches my soul as my soul flies by

With its airy wings newly sprouted from joy

And holds that joy in its memory

And mine.

The river it holds the memory also,

Let it flow with that memory, on forever,

With a rush and a sparkle over the pebbles,

And the silken weeds like mermaids hair,

And the moss-cushioned rocks, and mingle,

Its sound with the sound of the wind passing by

High over the mountains from whence it came

And on to the sea, that endless sea;

And there let it crash with the waves on the beach

And foam on the rocks as the tide draws out –

My memory.IMG_8963.jpg

And finally, here’s another poem, about the same concept as my essay:

Let me have it

Let me have it, that something I never can reach –

Let me dance in those poppies that scatter the sky!

Let me drift on those wisps of velvety peach!

Let me slide down those beams of dusty sunshine!

Let me sit on that pale arching curve of a moon!

Let me gather those stars, behind prickling pine –

And wear them on a necklace that forever I’ll keep.

And, for a pendant, what most I should like,

Is one of those bright embers, when the fire falls asleep.


Why always so high, so far out of reach –

You taunting great velvety dome of a sky?

If closer you came, I might crawl through that breach,

That fiery crack in the pearly enamel

When the hot sun sinks over a silvery sea.

And what should I find, pass’d through that red channel?

Might I slip out of the atmosphere, and down

The cold milky-way go soaring at ease?

Let me go with the wind to rustle the tree’s green gown.


Why, Nature, so allusive, so flitting and shy,

Like the soft butterfly, who flees as I near?

On some big water-lily pad let me lie

And down the quiet stream go a-floating far.

Make the clouds my kingdom, hedge, tree and all,

With a palace, all shimmering with light from the stars.

On the crest of a wave let me ride away!

Forever let me lie on a bed of rich moss,

Let me dress in the sky at the dawn of the day,

And at Nature’s bosom I ever will stay.