Good and Bad Similes
by MW Cook
A dented yellow and black taxi weaved like an epileptic snake in and out of traffic through Karachi’s dense streets.
I admit it. I wrote that. My first novel was an unpublished practice run called The Foolishness of God. It was about life, religion and culture found within the blossoming romance of a Canadian guy and a Pakistan girl. Sound familiar? It’s never seen the light of day. And I wouldn’t let it, either. Not without some major rewriting, at least.
Because it’s chock-full of bad metaphors and similes like this one.
A metaphor or simile is supposed to connect the reader to whatever it is you want to connect them to. In this sentence, I was hoping to communicate the idea that driving in Karachi is whack. Instead, I manage to completely distract the reader by making them wonder what a snake with epilepsy would look like. By the time the reader figures it out and tries to apply it to the taxi, he or she is completely disengaged from the story. Bad simile, Matt. Baaad. Here’s one that seems a tad better (though significantly grosser):
I can hardly stand the food, and the stuff I do eat rushes out the other end like a garden hose.
This one works better because everyone is very familiar with water coming out of a garden hose. So when the garden hose is applied to the character’s digestive system, you get a very clear, and overly graphic, understanding of what the author wants to communicate.
Most of the similes I used when I started writing were large and elaborate. Maybe I thought big, original similes showed people how clever I was. It tainted my writing, though. It tires the reader. So, in honor of bad similes, I made a list for myself so I can remember to keep my similes powerful and useful.
Rules for similes:
- They must be connected to human experience. That’s why the epileptic snake fails. You’ve never seen one. But everyone has seen a garden hose.
- They must fit your voice. If you were writing an off-the-wall comedy, then maybe there would be a place for epileptic snakes being compared to driving. But The Foolishness of God was not a comedy.
- They must not be trite. It’s trite when it’s overused to the point of meaninglessness. And trite is always bad. So never say ‘She blubbered like a little girl.’ or ‘He ate like a horse.’ Boring!
- They must be more effective than simply stating what you want the reader to hear. If your simile or metaphor is so complicated that the reader has to scratch his head over it, maybe you should just say ‘She was sad.’ Yes, it’s always better to show her sadness, but if you can’t, just tell.
- They must not be bound up by rules. If your muse demands it, throw all these rules away. I just made them all up, after all. Writing is like a puzzle with unlimited solutions.
What are some of the worst, distracting similes you’ve ever seen?
Man, this stuff is gold. I hope you don’t mind if I join in laughing at that first simile. Lol.
But your second was spot on. Those suggestions you list later are perfect. I used to try and make mine sound as out there and outrageous as possible. You know, so I sounded like a total star. Um. No. I’m glad I’ve changed.
In conclusion, my fav is the first one, your suggestion about connecting to something humans have experienced. So true.
>>If your muse demands it, throw all these rules away. I just made them all up, after all. Writing is like a puzzle with unlimited solutions<<
I love that – writing being like a puzzle with unlimited solutions! Great post.
While I agree with your thoughts on simile and metaphor (for the most part) and think you have hit the nail on the head when it comes to triteness or inaccessibility, I think your garden-hose example doesn’t quite work.
It has the right mood (that is it gives us the right kind of feeling/description/experience), but it doesn’t quite make sense.
“I can hardly stand the food, and the stuff I do eat rushes out the other end like a garden hose.”
It seems you have connected the wrong things together. You are comparing the movement of the food through your body to a garden hose, when you mean to compare it to water. While the elision of “water” in this sentence doesn’t cripple the simile, it is still awkward. You could rephrase with:
“I can hardly stand the food, and the stuff I do eat rushes through me like water from a garden hose.”
When you include the word “water” it does two things. It makes the sentence much clearer, but it also takes away some of the effect. It doesn’t make the food you are eating sound quite so bad. The way to give it more ummph is not by making it more confusing, but by bumping it up to the status of metaphor by getting rid of the “like” or “as:”
“I can hardly stand the food, and the stuff I do eat exits in a garden hose.”
Here you are comparing the food directly with water – there is no indicator – and thus it is a stronger sentiment. It is more visceral, yet it still makes people think. There is a grain of truth to the idea that your food “is” water, but it is the contemplation of that fact that slams home the horror of your description.
Keep writing buddy it is always super exciting to hear your ideas!