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Friday, April 13, 2012

Sinful Simile

I want to tackle one of my favorite editing targets – the simile. I have read this device belongs only in amateur writings, never to grace the pages of an actual published novel. As a reader I enjoy a well placed simile, and even one a page wouldn’t bother me inside a captivating plot. When reading agent and writer blogs calling for the elimination of similes in writing, it surprised me. The reason being, excessive use of similes is actually difficult to do. Any writer who edits… and that’s all of us… would have the eyes pop right out of our heads if we finished a manuscript with a multitude of similes. I wager if there were three in the first chapter, every simile for the rest of the manuscript would be poking us in the eye like a red hot poker… oops. :)
Writers normally use similes in a toned down manner. The one Stephen King used on the infamous page 194 of ‘Needful Things’ (“…Frasier had hustled a protesting Keeton over to the betting windows like a sheepdog nipping a wayward lamb back to the herd.”) would be considered a blatant one. The use of less obvious ones such as ham handed to denote large hands or clumsy actions have in many cases been reduced to cliché by overuse. Another simile being denounced in editing circles is the celebrity simile, where a writer describes a character as like a famous movie star. The attack on this whimsical usage targets laziness in the writer for not wanting to describe the physical attributes of their precious character. I’ve read it done both ways, with a character described in mind numbing detail, and I’ve read a character being referred to as looking like a particular celebrity. When I read a celebrity simile I immediately think that was the face the writer saw when writing the manuscript, and wanted readers to see the same person when reading. It’s normally never used for multiple characters because that would never survive an editing. A cast of fictional manuscript characters described in celebrity lookalike form one after another would be so silly as to be laughable even for the most amateur of story tellers.
I like similes. I liked King’s. Some are used to be laugh out loud funny and they are. Trying to come up with some rule where there can only be a particular number of them used in a novel borders on arrogance. In all this striving for bare bones writing it can actually change a writer’s voice. I read a number of authors in whose works you would be hard pressed to open and find a simile, adverb, or exotic dialogue tag. Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton, and Larry McMurtry are three writers I know of. I can’t do the Stephen King random test on any of their books and I have many of their novels. The thing is with King’s work there is a casualness in his writer’s voice that makes the words flow with a reader like me following along with no notice of rules. While the other writers I mentioned use the banned sins of simile and adverb rarely, they express their own writer’s voice through their characters’ thoughts and dialogue in other ways. None of it is wrong, and it all works because of the story being told. Next up on the hit list in the future – the dreaded POV police.  :)


RJ Parker said...

Hey, that's all good brother, but what about more Bennie stories? Surely you've had some weird things happen in your shop this week? Here's a simile for ya... A guy walked into the garage and when he smiled, his teeth looked liked a burnt out fuse box. Or, I was sweating like Pavarotti on a treadmill. Have a good weekend :)

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

Like I told you, my friend, if it's run of the mill work and no humor, it doesn't make the blog. Bennie stories are non-fiction so they're dependent on reality. :) Now those are the kind of similes I like, RJ. They make a reader smile. I think that's what agents and editors have forgotten about them. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

I enjoy a good simile as well. you're right about King's "natural" voice. It's interesting how engaging it can be. not my style but a good un.

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

In his books it seems like I'm walking along with his characters rather than observing them, Charles. It's a really tough style to pull off. That's for sure.