1. Dr. Mambo

    Dr. Mambo Contributor Contributor

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    Similes for Dummies

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Dr. Mambo, Feb 14, 2019.

    I'm so bad at similes that when I edit a piece and encounter a good one I worry that someone else has been working on my material.

    More often than not when I start to write one I just delete it and find a way to rephrase, because one of two things always happens:

    1. It's beyond cliche. "The lawman's hand shot toward his holster like a lightning bolt. Years of hard living had made him faster than a rattlesnake."

    2. It's damn ridiculous and thus intrusive. "The lawman's hand shot toward his holster like a hummingbird on steroids. Years of hard living had made him faster than the youngest sibling at the dinner table.

    I'm exaggerating for effect, but I am truly bad at this. Any advice on how to write a nice tidy simile?
     
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  2. Alan Aspie

    Alan Aspie Senior Member

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    To write interesting similes you need more imagination than a toddler in a toyshop.

    It is good to combine things you have personal experience with things that have some kind of associative connection. Scott Adams can teach you a lot in this topic. He is a master to notice how something is emotionally connected to something else through weird paths of precognitive forests of hallucinations where we all live.

    If you want to be better with similes, you need to improve your thinking to the opposite direction of it's current structure. That means you need to respect thinking you don't have much.

    You can start with Scott Adams. He uses similes openly. Then you can go forward with Terry Pratchett. He uses similes in a structural an thematic way.
     
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  3. big soft moose

    big soft moose All killer, no filler. Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Keep it simple - unless you are writing a pratchet like book where they are intrusive to the text for deliberate comedic value.

    and thing about whether you need them at all. "The lawman's hand shot to his holster" we all understand that something that shoots is moving really fast, there's no simile needed
     
  4. NigeTheHat

    NigeTheHat Contributor Contributor

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    I keep a swipe file. If I read one I like, I write it down. Then when I get stuck I can review the list for inspiration.

    I find the way I enjoy reading similes - and so the way I tend to write them - is to use them to draw more of a picture than you can with just the adjective or verb. So I'm not likely to use fast as lightning because that doesn't really say anything that fast doesn't. I find they're more effective with things like:

    This boy doesn't just walk, no. He swaggers, swaggers like he's got a baseball bat over his shoulder and The Passenger ringing in his ears.

    That could read 'this boy doesn't just walk, he swaggers', but IMO that doesn't convey as much detail. 'A baseball bat over his shoulder' suggests he's dangerous, or thinks he is. Spoiling for a fight. 'The Passenger ringing in his ears' suggests a certain rhythm to the way he walks to anyone who knows the song.

    Simpler similes work well in the same context, using them for things that aren't conveyed by the verb. This is one from Pratchett:

    Mr Slant had failed to tell the New Firm a lot of things, and one of them was that Vetinari moved like a snake.

    I like this because the speed is conveyed by the simile rather than by 'moved'. 'Vetinari moved fast as a snake' would be less effective, to me.
     
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  5. Alan Aspie

    Alan Aspie Senior Member

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    Years , years ago, Kobenhagen was kind of center of Fenno-Scandian drug business and crime. Addicts poured there from Finland, Sweden, Norway, Greenland...

    There was one tall, skinny Finn, an addict who had a worn out brown leather jacket and a text in it's back. "Jesus Loves the Stoogies" in big, big letters.

    I have always thought that jacket and text as a quite complex & multidimensional simile.
     
  6. EBohio

    EBohio Banned

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    I agree. There are some writers that don't think they are really writers without using them but that is not true. There are a lot of people who overuse them.
     
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  7. Hammer

    Hammer Active Member

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    “Similes for dummies” –
    • As thick as an elephant sandwich
    • As dumb as a canary in a cats’ home
    • As dense as a lead milkshake
    Or – current favourite for we Brits only –
    • As senseless as Brexit

    But I agree with the others - like a fine wine, less is more...
     
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  8. Dr. Mambo

    Dr. Mambo Contributor Contributor

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    This is why I tend not to use them. I am better with other devices and would rather rely on those than force it. But is it possible to not use any similes at all? Seems like with any other device a story needs at least one quality simile every 5-8k words or so to keep the style and language fresh. Hence my vexation.

    And for the record, the examples I used aren't from my work. I just wanted to give you all a taste of my ineptitude with the first bad examples that came to mind.

    This is great, thank you. I love the idea of the swipe file.

    I periodically read Adams. Can't say I've noticed his use of similes before, but it isn't like I've been paying that close attention. I'll see what's going on. Thanks for the rec.
     
  9. Cogito

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I tend toward the absurd in similes, e.g. "as lost as a cheerleader in an astrophysics think tank." Go bold or go home.
     
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  10. peachalulu

    peachalulu Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Know your character. Know the setting. If your character is a snotty cheerleader she might think - He's as unappealing as an empty wallet.
    Also, I agree with Big Soft Moose you don't have to use a lot of them. A few well timed similes are better than a pile of average ones.
    In your example the similes actually distract from him grabbing for the gun and make it less quick. And unless the intention is humor I can't see it working in a serious scene.
     
  11. Mckk

    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Why do you have to use similes? Not everyone writes lyrically or poetically but that doesn't make their prose bad. Why not write in your own style? Without a proper piece of text, it's hard to help besides.

    In your examples above, a hummingbird on steroids conjures an hilarious image, which is why it's a bad simile (unless the intention was humour). The lightning bolts one was bad both because it's cliche and because it's redundant. You already said his hand "shot" towards his holster. That's enough. The verb describes the action perfectly so there's no need to add to it, unless you were going for slow motion, in which case you'd probably write it differently. Don't add similes for the sake of having one in your sentence. Use it only when it adds weight to the action or surroundings.

    Also, action scenes like your example above are usually not a good place for metaphors and similes. You want to emphasise on speed and tension then, and no one on the brink of death is gonna elaborate on the colours of flowers. Someone about to shoot a killer probably won't be thinking in poetry, or noticing every detail. His attention would be homed in on one or two things max. Focus on essentials during fast-paced scenes and forget the poetry.
     
  12. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    I hardly ever use metaphors and similes and I don't think my work is lacking for it. I think a very important thing in writing is that the prose feel effortless. When we're trying too hard, it tends to look like we're trying too hard. I think you want metaphors and similes to blend in, not stand out. And I've never heard anyone think there is a need to include one every so often. I'm pretty sure my novel in process doesn't even have one. And that's not something I've given any thought to until now. I think it's okay. I certainly have no intention of finding any spots to fit them in. I guess I've just found better ways to say things without turning to these devices.
     
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  13. badgerjelly

    badgerjelly Contributor Contributor

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    Well, if you’re going to try this then make the similes connect. “Lightning” and “rattlesnake” don’t really have much in common. What works well is if you combine the similes with an overlying metaphor. If you want the reader to view this character as snake-like then stick to snaky similes.

    I think you’d have to restructure the sentences though and perhaps go for something like:

    “The lawman’s hand shot for his holster like a rattler ceasing its prey. Years of hard living had honed his natural viper-slick speed.”

    This gives an impression of the character rather than just an arbitrary description. Of course if you lay this on too thick at every opportunity it can become quite tiresome to read (unless you’re going for a particular effect). It may be helpful to make lists for your characters if you intend to do this. Think about what animals are good representations of your character, what materials, what tools, what plants/flowers/trees, what colours, what emotions, what weather, etc.,.

    All that said I personally find it very off putting when I read “like a ...” over and over again within the same few pages. In these cases I generally side with metaphors or some symbolic representation within the greater body of the text if I really insist on conveying something specific in this manner. All of this takes some serious preparation though because it is all too easy to confuse the reader with obscure metaphors, so set out your intentions early on and prepare the reader if you don’t want them to become confused between metaphorical and the real in your narrative.

    GL
     
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  14. matwoolf

    matwoolf Contributor Contributor

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    The hand can't shoot to the holster, can it? You'd throw the book at the wall. As for cheerleaders and astrophysics, definitely that might provoke a jaw rub. 'Uhuh, chicks and test tubes. Can you imagine a woman in space?'

    'Like lightning' is most certainly NOT redundant. One of my favourite terms for the erotical engagement prose. And 'Iggy Pop' is never tough in 2019...

    'He looked like Iggy Pop.'

    'You mean the old popper with no friends, endlessly treading to those pop prick festivals performing his dog song over and over until the end in a Tokyo hotel embracing a lamp stand?'
     
    Last edited: Feb 27, 2019
  15. Seven Crowns

    Seven Crowns Senior Member

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    Read stories by a metaphor genius, one from the lit-fic crowd would be a good choice. If you know one from your genre you can go there too. That'll open you up to ideas that lay outside of clichés.

    I'd recommend Lorrie Moore. She's exceptional. Metaphorically dense.

    “Love is art, not truth. It's like painting a scenery.' These are the things one takes from mothers. Once they die, of course, you get the strand of pearls, the blue quilt, some of the original wedding gifts - a tray shellacked with the invitation, an old rusted toaster - but the touches and the words and the moaning the night she dies, these are what you seize, save, carry around in little invisible envelopes, opening them up quickly, like a carnival huckster, giving the world a peek. They will not stay quiet. No matter how you try.”

    “Forgiveness lives alone and far off down the road, but bitterness and art are close, gossipy neighbors, sharing the same clothesline, hanging out their things, getting their laundry confused.”

    “1976. The Bicentennial. In the laundromat, you want for the time on your coins to run out. Through the porthole of the dryer, you watch your bedeviled towels and sheets leap and fall. The radio station piped in from the ceiling plays slow, sad Motown; it encircles you with the desperate hopefulness of a boy at a dance, and it makes you cry. When you get back to your apartment, dump everything on your bed. Your mother is knitting crookedly: red, white, and blue. Kiss her hello. Say: "Sure was warm in the place." She will seem not to hear you.”​

    There's more to her writing than just that. I like this kind of meta-prose. Obviously not simile/metaphor. It's almost too clever:

    “We curl up on the couch together, under a blanket, whisper I love you, I missed you, confusing tenses I think.”
    It takes a certain kind of writing to hold high imagery. That's another reason you should read a whole story to judge the metaphors, to learn what contains them. The metaphor is the stone and the story is its setting.

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]
     
  16. frigocc

    frigocc Member

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    Ehh, similes usually sound bad anyways. I either don't use them, or I'll just use something simple, like, "this place is cold as hell."
     

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