JWAM reader request no. 14: Similes

Michelle says

Hi, Justine! You probably don’t remember me, but I started the Westerboard 2 years ago and had lunch at a mexican restaurant with you and Scott that summer in Hell’s Kitchen after the writing conference in the Algonquin Hotel.

I’m currently working on writing my first novel, and came across your blog! I’m so excited to read about the writing process from someone who’s been there (and has done it right.) One topic I would like to see addressed––and I don’t know if this makes sense––is how to find great similes to create good imagery. I’ve been analyzing young adult fiction books and comparing them to what I’m writing, and I’m having a difficult time finding comparisons that make sense and have that extra pizazz to bring a book to life. Do they just come to you, or do you have some sort of process on coming up with them?

I don’t know if that’s something that can be taught or if it’s just natural, but I figure it can’t hurt to ask.

Of course I remember you, Michelle!

Now to your question: it’s not one I’ve been asked before. It’s not one I’ve thought about either, and the more I think about it the harder I find answering it. Mostly, I think, because similes are more frequently overused than underused. The idea of propagating more seems wicked.

I definitely notice them more when they’re are too many, which happens a lot. (It’s my most frequent note for Scott—less similes, please!) Raymond Chandler was notorious for his similes. Personally, I love them but it’s true that he sometimes slipped over the edge into self parody. Here’s one of my favourites. Though many believe it crosses over the parody line:

    Moose Malloy “looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food”.

Isn’t that perfect? A giant hairy spider looming over the food of an angel! Of course, you’d notice that. It’s a simile I’ve never forgotten. But, like I say, many consider it to be overwritten.

I don’t consciously write similes and going through the pages of a few of my novels I see that’s because I don’t use them often. Why do you want to write similes? There are many wonderful writers who are very spare in their use of similes and other kinds of metaphors. It’s absolutely fine to describe something directly and not in terms of something else. Just because you see a lot of similes in YA does not mean that you have to deploy lots of ’em in order to write YA.

Similes can backfire. I’m often pulled up by a simile that doesn’t work. I put a novel down because it described something being as “black as velvet”. Really? I thought. But not all velvet is black. I’d recently been out with a friend who was wearing a black velvet dress which in certain lights had a rust-red sheen through it. Was that the kind of black the writer meant? Or did they mean black as solid black velvet with no coloured sheens in it? Then why didn’t they say as black as a solid black velvet coat? Probably because that’s clunky and the writer’s not assuming that someone as annoyingly picky and literal-minded as me is going to read them.

Here’s another recent one that threw me out of the story: His emotions rumbled like thunder. Really? Some thunder is sudden, extremely loud, and doesn’t rumble at all. It’s one giant house-shaking clap and then gone, leaving nothing behind but the echo in your ears. Only to repeat several beats later and scare the bejesus out of you even though you knew it was coming. But that ain’t rumbling. Thunder that rumbles is further away. Does the writer mean his thoughts are rumbling in the distance like a storm on it’s way out (or in)? But in context the rumbling was continual. The character had a big problem that wouldn’t go away and that they couldn’t stop thinking about. The thunder simile did not evoke that for me. It felt clumsy and unthought through. I put the book down.

Similes are also a double-edged sword because on the one hand they should be familiar enough to evoke something for the reader, but on the other they should not be so familiar they’re worn out. A scary number of similes are cliches: “black as coal”, “black as tar”, “black as night”. When I see a lot of them in the one story I assume the writer is just phoning it in. If they can’t be arsed thinking about they’re writing, then I can’t be arsed reading it.

Not only is “black as night” a cliche. It’s not a very accurate one. Night often isn’t black at all. Especially not in the city. Sometmes it’s not that black way out in the country if the sky is clear, the stars are bright, and the moon full.

Her skin was white as snow is another one that drives me spare. Not only is this one overworked past death, but it it doesn’t ring true. I’ve never seen anyone whose skin was the same white as freshly fallen snow. White skin isn’t actually white no matter how pale. I happen to have very pale skin. I am holding my arm up to a piece of white paper. Guess what? They’re not the same colour.

On the other hand, I’m very fond of “dumb as a stone”. Yup, it gets used lots, but for me it still works and evokes exactly what it should, plus it always makes me smile for, yes, I have met stone-dumb people in a way I have not met flame-haired or indigo-eyed people. I am very fond of smile-inducing similes.

Try to describe what you see and smell and taste and hear. If you find yourself writing about coal-black hair or emerald green eyes, STOP. Go find someone with really black hair or really green eyes. Does it really look like coal? Like emeralds? I doubt it. Eyes are never one colour. And even the blackest hair can look different in different lights.

I think the best similes are the ones you’ve never read before that conjure a clear and fresh image. That’s why I like Moose Malloy looking like a tarantula on angel food. It makes me think of someone big and dangerous and hairy. People who are as cunning as foxes, radiant as the sun, and have blood-red lips, that doesn’t evoke anything for me except a desire to read something else.

To sum up: similes can go a long, long way. Less is more! (Unless you’re Raymond Chandler.) Cliches should be avoided especially in simile form, and go read Farewell My Lovely or The Long Goodbye.1

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. Though “erotic as a stallion” is a simile to be avoided. []


  1. Harriet on #

    I actually think “erotic as a stallion” works really well for the context in which Chandler uses it. Of course there are plenty of other contexts that this wouldn’t be the case.

    I had assumed the tarantula simile referred to angel food cake. Which, since I don’t actually know what angel food cake looks like, maybe reduces the effectiveness slightly. OTOH, I’m guessing it’s light coloured – to really contrast with the tarantula – and, in any case, the idea of a big hairy spider on a piece of cake is pretty evocative. Or maybe I’ve been wrong, and it doesn’t refer to cake, but to actual angel food. Either way, it’s still a great image.

    I once read a book of short stories inspired by Chandler. I don’t remember any of them – can’t even recall if they had Philip Marlowe in them – but I do know that one of them contained (IMHO) a really good Chandleresque simile: “the air was as hot as tomorrow’s news, and as stale as yesterday’s”.

  2. alys on #

    I assume it’s angel food cake as well – angel food cake is very light-coloured, nearly white, and tall and full of tiny holes where there were air-bubbles in the batter. You need a special cutter, which looks like a sort of giant comb, to cut it, because a knife would just squash it.

    Devil’s food cake tastes much better, but would totally not work for the simile…

  3. Diana Peterfreund on #

    I rarely use similes and when I do, I usually regret it. there was a very well received book out a few years ago, SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS, that I couldn’t get through because she was constantly using such bizarre similes. It’s a stylistic thing, and, I’ve learned, it’s not mine.

  4. Kathryne on #

    My dad was all excited to give me his favorite trilogy of sci-fi books a few years ago. I still haven’t told him that I couldn’t get past book one because almost every single sentence used a simile. I spent all 450 pages screaming, in my head, “this is not what your English teacher intended when she gave you this tool!”

  5. Michelle Madow on #

    Thank you for taking the time to answer my question! I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond … rush week for sororities just ended, and it’s been very hectic around here!

    I don’t know why I want to use similes in my writing. I suppose it’s because I see them a lot in books. Thank you for pointing out that they aren’t necessary in writing! For some reason, I thought my writing was inadequate due to the lack of similes, and it’s encouraging to know from a published author that I was probably just being too hard on myself.

    Now I’ll probably be much pickier while reading similes! Black as velvet really doesn’t describe something very well. I do like the tarantula one though … it’s fantastic imagery!

    I’m really enjoying your writing month blogs. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your schedule to offer advice to aspiring authors! It’s so great when authors take time to interact with their fans 🙂

    I hope to see you at Book Expo in May!

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