We were working our way through The Red Badge of Courage when our high school English teacher, Mr. Johnson, decided to read aloud to us. A Sebastian Cabot look-alike and a bit of a thespian himself, Mr. Johnson had my rapt attention as he read the words at the end of Chapter 9 about the red sun pasted in the sky like a wafer.
I might have overlooked that sentence if I’d read it silently to myself. But Mr. Johnson’s elocution changed everything. From the look on his face and the sheer joy in his eyes, I suddenly knew what it was that turns white-bread writing into prose that is rich and weighty.
Similes and metaphors. The comparison of two unlike things that helps the reader see something familiar in a new and unexpected way. The use of this kind of imagery is the key to good writing.
Since then I’ve decided that similes and metaphors generally fall into one of three categories, two of which we want to avoid.
The first of these is the ho-hum sort. Most of these are boring simply because they’re clichés, used over and over again:
“She decided to run like the wind.”
“His anger reared its ugly head.”
“I felt like a kid in a candy shop.”
While legitimate images, they are the result of lazy writing, not to mention they’re also over-the-counter sleep aides. Guaranteed to make your reader’s eyes glaze over.
Then there are the huh? images. One day years ago my husband and daughter were at the bear exhibit at the zoo when three-year-old Laura blurted out, “He looks like a tomato.” Bob came home singing Laura’s praises for coming up with a simile, but I, ever the writer, was left pondering the connection between this huge black bear and a small red vegetable (or fruit, depending on which side of that argument you’re on).
Now, in case you think only a child would come up with something as incomprehensible, I recently read a comparison between a man’s face in the wind and a piece of veal cutlet on a chopping block. Though written by a published writer, it just didn’t work. I couldn’t see it. For a simile or metaphor to work, you have to be able to understand how the two images relate to each other, even though they’re different.
Finally, there are the a-ha! images. You know you have an a-ah! image when your reader says in delight, “I never thought of it that way but yes, I can see it!” You’ve offered an image that is fresh, imaginative, and vivid. And it makes sense as well.
Let me share with you three of my favorite a-ha! images:
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor….
– Alfred Noyes, The Highwayman (metaphor)
Gold and gleaming the empty streets,
Gold and gleaming the misty lake,
The mirrored lights like sunken swords
Glimmer and shake.
– Sara Teasdale, Spring Night (simile)
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
– Robert Frost, Birches (simile)
Can you see it? The road that is a ribbon of moonlight. The light that is a glimmering sword. The arching trees that resemble young girls drying their hair in the sun.
While these examples come from poetry, we can do just as well when we write prose. It takes an extra reach into the imagination and often a sacrifice of time and effort to come up with such imagery, but it makes for unforgettable writing.