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.

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