More common than air…. Damaging like a giant tornado hitting a chainsaw factory…. Similes are sweeping the nation as fast as a cheetah on a motorcycle.
For the grammatically disinclined (you know who you are, or rather, you SHOULD know who you are), a simile is a comparison between two or more things, often using the words “like,” “than” or the ever popular “as [blank] as a [blank].”
Now, as with any other writing device, similes can be done well. Some writers use them to tremendous effect, some wonderful writers even use them often, and I would not take their similes away from them. This doesn’t apply to everyone.
But as Johns Hopkins MFA grad and author May Vanderbilt told me this weekend as we were discussing writing over drinks at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference after our panel with editor Christine Pride (yes, this is what agents and writers do at writer’s conferences), she was once told in writing school that you get one or two similes a book. No more.
No doubt this is hyperbolic advice and not meant to be taken literally. You don’t got ONLY two similes. But unless your gift for similes is as grand as a Steinway piano (get it??), this is something to keep in mind. Similes are like jalapeno peppers. They can add some spice, but too many of them and your reader will spit out your novel and run away.
I’m sure this is excellent advice as, when in doubt, uncluttered prose is always the best decision. But from a literary critic’s point of view, I have to say that there are notable exceptions to this rule. P.G. Wodehouse, for instance, who was once described as ‘ten outstanding similes a page’, and in recent times, Michael Chabon has made his name with an avalanche of similes, almost in every sentence. He might be a good reason not to do it, however, as his prose can be claustrophobic at times. I wonder to what extent writers need to consider why they are using similes, rather than counting how many they use, and whether other devices for conveying richness in imagery might not be equally appropriate. Perhaps it’s a rare writer whose style accommodates the simile with ease and grace.
I’m about two weeks late on this one, but as I’m writing I’ve been dealing with this and have two questions for you:
1) The novel I’m currently writing takes place in Texas and some of the characters are, shall I say, colorful. One has a penchant for using very Texas language, which includes similes.
For example: Sheila’s husband is happier than a rooster in a henhouse.
or: You alright? You look jumpy as spit on a hot skillet.
It’s not on every page, or even in every chapter, but it is the way he talks. It’s part of his character. Does this fall under the same general criteria of one or two good ones a book? Or does this character get a bye?
And 2) Would it be all right to use one of these colorful similes in a pitch? Not as a quote, but as part of the voice and a taste of the overall feel of the writing?
You may not respond to old posts, but if you do, I’d love to have your take on this.
What about Shapiro’s “Country Western Singer”
I used to feel like a new man/After the day’s first brew/But then the new man I became/
Would need a tall one too.