Writing descriptively isn’t just about merely describing what you see around you. Anybody can look out of a window, or a door and describe the surroundings but that is rarely very exciting. As writers we are obsessed with visual imagery and effectively conveying what we are seeing. Readers demand it and we use description to test the boundaries of our craft.
Arguably, even word-smithing is a visual art – it is the vivid descriptions that capture us the most, putting images into our heads. Words are the tools but ultimately we are visual creatures.
How do we do this? How do we turn words into images? The two most common methods are…
- Simile – This is a comparison of two objects with a common feature. For example “her hair was golden like sand” is a simile because you are comparing the colour of the person’s hair to sand
- Metaphor – something a little more abstract and usually an indirect comparison “but when she turned to look at me tears flooded down her cheeks”. They couldn’t have done because the tear duct is not nearly big enough for tears to “flood” but it casts the image that this girl or woman has shed a lot of tears
A blog buddy of mine – Sarah Grace Logan – posted a superb simile earlier today on this post “the patio acned and sunken”… you know instantly precisely what Sarah means and this is the essence of good simile use – creating visual imagery. You automatically know that this patio is uneven and covered in little pits presumably caused by frost damage.
In stark contrast, Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio has in its first paragraph one of the weirdest I have ever read.
The flat afternoon sky spread over the black and gray mountains like a stage backdrop, the color of a dog’s pale crazy eye.
Did you, like me, ask “WTF?” at that one? The stage backdrop I can sort of understand even if it didn’t quite work but that highlighted one I really do not get.
Sex scenes are notoriously bad for awful similes and metaphors so much so that they give awards out for it – The Bad Sex Awards. In 2012, The Guardian newspaper gave readers the opportunity to vote for the worst sex scene of the year. Some are terrible prose but others are awful use of metaphor and simile. I won’t go over it again as I have discussed the subject before. Here was 2013’s list of offerings too… that first one sounds more like somebody being pulled apart! Number three qualifies as the most surreal I have ever read but the winner in the reader poll, number 8, just took it to another level. I cannot believe that it’s not satire.
But anyway… There is only one rule for using simile and metaphor in my mind: Don’t overdo it on the similes and metaphors or you risk coming across as pretentious.