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Similes. Not to be confused with Smilies.

February 15, 2010
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I was rereading some writing advice at Nathan Bransford’s blog and stumbled across the old adage, “Don’t use too many similes.”  I can tell you now, don’t use too many anything.  But I suspect I am guilty of the “too many” similes offense.

I like comparisons.  I teach math by metaphor, using something as common as a stop sign to get across the importance of the order of operations.  (Dying to know?  Running that stop sign may be okay nineteen out of twenty times, but there’ll be that one time when a three-year-old rides her tricycle into the intersection and things aren’t all right any more.  Graphic but effective.)  So when I describe things, I tend toward metaphor and simile.

But I write speculative fiction.  If I say that Janine has a horse face, I may mean she has elongated features and large teeth or I might mean the front of her head is actually equine.  A simile is much safer and less confusing in this context; “her face was long like a horse’s with teeth that made me want to feed her an apple.”  In either case, the cliche is unforgivable.

I try to stay conscious of my similes.  Often a good simile is being used to make an unnecessary description.  But when it fits, it fits.  Sometimes I do have stories that require reworking to avoid sounding like a valley girl (like…like…like), an offense best discovered through reading aloud.

The best advice, though, is never to use a simile where it doesn’t feel necessary.  Similes do not spice up language, they don’t enhance imagery.  They actually do the opposite in my hands, giving abstract or tough to explain actions or images a very concrete and concise description through comparison.

A good simile subtracts words rather than adds them.  If he ran fast, don’t say he ran like a cheetah; more words.  If he ran with his arms flailing, elbows out, head bobbing, steps without cadence or consistency, maybe you just say he ran like a hyper kindergartener; fewer words.  And if the simile doesn’t quite describe it, axe it.  Better undescribed than ill-described.

That’s my expert treatise on similes.  They’re like donuts; I love them, but too many will cause bloating.  Oh, and unless you’re after the comedic effect, don’t use a simile that requires explanation.  (What made me think of that?)  Now go forth and compare cautiously.

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