Saturday, September 12, 2009

Overdosing On Simile?

Is anyone else feeling overdosed on simile these days? I just read a prize winning story in a very high tier online publication where the word "like" showed up five times in one paragraph describing a woman walking down the street. Her hair looked like this. Her skirt swung like that, etc., etc., or should I say, yada...yada, because that's how it read for me.

Simile, according to the Oxford English Dictionary is

a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid.

As such it should be a way to conserve words by creating an image with one sentence. Yet it seems in much literary writing these days similes amount to extra words tacked onto a description for effect with no added value.

In the paragraph I mentioned above, I felt so bombarded with "likes" that I decided to go back and analyze each one. Of the five similes, I'd say one somewhat enhanced the image already created by the author in the lines preceding it. Three didn't detract but didn't add anything either, and one, on close examination, wasn't really accurate. The simile compared the movement of a piece of clothing to the wings of a certain insect, and, when I thought about it, the image was kind of upside-down and backwards.

Obviously I'm being purposefully vague about the story. In all other respects it was great, and I don't want to pan this particular writer for doing something that is––going by what I read in the most selective journals––strongly encouraged. In fact it often seems that a generous peppering with similes is a basic requirement for acceptance at many literary journals, yet at the same time, the effect has been so watered down by overuse that I suspect even the editors skim them like readers skim dialogue tags. (Hey, there's one.) How else would these ineffectual additional words slip through?

Maybe it's just me, but I'd rather see writers go back to using similes sparingly and to greater effect. When it's not part of their natural style, I'd rather writers skip the simile all together rather than come up with something that sounds strained at best.


CashewElliott/John said...

Your post is like a headlight in fog. I try to use a reasonable amount of similes, but sometimes it ends up reading like a cheap haunted house, words and comparisons strung so gorily that the emotional effect is nil. It's like drinking a double shot of espresso versus drinking 6 shots of espresso. The first double shot is a lift above nothing, but the next does little, and by the sixth, I'm so absolutely nuts that it's counterproductive.

Reading a line like: "Her dress hung, swaying in the wind," absent any unnecessary metaphors, can sometimes feel to me like the sound of a mountain spring might to a lost and famished hiker.

Nannette Croce said...

But you came up with a couple of good ones here. Sometimes the fault isn't with number but quality. I'm guessing the "cheap haunted house" just sprung to mind. I don't like similes that feel over-thought. Wait, I've gone two paragraphs without a killer simile. I'd better come up with something to describe the clouds floating across the sky. Sailing ships? Wisps of cotton?

Lady Glamis said...

I try to use similes sparingly. I used to use them all the time, then realized how weak it was making my writing. They should be used sparingly, like a fine spice. ;)

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