Wednesday, June 19, 2013
The First Whistle
By OFW chief editor:
Carlos J Cortes
Published: July 30, 2012
A literary agent of my acquaintance confessed the other day that a whistle on the first page is a sure sign of a manuscript’s quality. I confessed my ignorance and begged an explanation. The conversation went like this:
“If I spot a phrase or line that provoke a Whew! I know I’m into something good.”
“I get it. And what sort of thing incites your whistle? I mean your Whew!”
“A good simile.”
“Not a metaphor?”
“Good metaphors are rare. In any case they belong later, not on the first page.”
“And what’s a good simile?”
She must have realized I was pulling her leg because she hung up on me.
Levity can be costly; I had to make it up to her with a box of the ridiculously expensive chocolates she loves.
Similes and metaphors are two figures of speech, literary devices that demand talent and artistry from the writer.
As you know, in a simile two things are directly compared because they share a common feature, however far-fetched it may be. Similes are easy to identify since the words “as” or “like” are used in the comparison. Example: The casino is like a gold mine.
A metaphor also compares two things, but it does so without using “as” or “like.” Example: The casino; a gold mine.
Before you get carried away, please give it a thought, a long thought. Similes are devilishly difficult to pull off. They don’t belong in the realm of craft but that of the artistry; a good simile is a work of art. There are no gray areas here: if the simile is not extraordinary—and matches the style, tone, genre and color of the narrative—it can ruin an otherwise good piece of prose. Similes are literary fireworks, therefore; be careful: a dud can blow your hand right off.
I will attempt to offer a few examples of similes and the particular problems associated with these figures of speech.
Perhaps these similes will fit in some prose styles, though it’s difficult to imagine where to use them:
Her hair was long and flowing like a cat’s period.
The morning dewdrops glistened in the sun like tiny beads of pee.
The wind cried and howled like a constipated baby.
She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.
A tad more passable than the last examples, these might fit in certain genres:
The flames danced like a stripper with shingles
The crowd grew angrier by the minute, like my grandpa watching a rap video.
He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.
I’m having problems deciding if these are any good or simply designed to shock:
McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.
The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.
Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.
Some similes can be clever, very clever, but using them may be dicey:
Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.
Lila's thoughts spun like a blender on crack.
The politician was gone but unnoticed, like the period after the Dr. on a Dr Pepper can.
Certain similes can be suited to some genres and inadequate for others. I suppose the examples listed below may fit in hardboiled themes:
He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant, and she was the East River.
As useful as concrete slippers in a swimming pool
Like a midget at a urinal, I was going to have to be on my toes
As welcome as a bacon sandwich at a Bar Mitzvah
Rather than similes, some comparisons are plain dumb and a sensible writer should steer away from these compositions:
John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.
Shots rang out, as shots are known to do.
The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.
The lamp just sat there, like an inanimate object.
The trail seemed to go on forever, like a really long path.
Other compositions defy the imagination, unless one has been in the juice.
She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.
It hurt the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall.
Her crochet hook dipped like a frantic, starving duck into the tangled lake of thread in her lap.
Sometimes, the writer tries so hard that the composition comes off as forced, belabored, with a hollow ring. These may work in places but handled with exquisite care:
But the smile didn’t reach her eyes, it was a teasing illusion like a munificent bequest in a pauper’s will.
The swaying ship cradled the crew, each groaning board a lullaby.
She has written a poem that avalanches down the page, like a collage of voices in place of the silenced.
Finally, an overview of similes as composed and handled by the masters.
“…she tried to get rid of the kitten which had scrambled up her back and stuck like a burr just out of reach.”
Louisa May Alcott
“Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.” The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
“Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East…”
J. M. Barrie
“…and snow lay here and there in patches in the hollow of the banks, like a lady’s gloves forgotten.”
Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor,
R. D. Blackmore
“I would have given anything for the power to soothe her frail soul, tormenting itself in its invincible ignorance like a small bird beating about the cruel wires of a cage.”
“In the eastern sky there was a yellow patch like a rug laid for the feet of the coming sun…”
The Red Badge of Courage,
“…when I laid down the paper, I was aware of a flash—rush—flow—I do not know what to call it—no word I can find is satisfactorily descriptive—in which I seemed to see that bedroom passing through my room, like a picture impossibly painted on a running river.
To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt,
“…utterly absorbed by the curious experience that still clung to him like a garment.”
Lloyd C. Douglas
“She entered with ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop.”
The Adventure of the Three Gables,
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
“He looks like right after the maul hits the steer and it’s no longer alive and don’t yet know that it is dead.”
As I Lay Dying,
“Past him, ten feet from his front wheels, flung the Seattle Express like a flying volcano.”
“Her father had inherited that temper; and at times, like antelope fleeing before fire on the slope, his people fled from his red rages.”
Riders of the Purple Sage,
“The very mystery of him excited her curiosity like a door that had neither lock nor key.”
Gone with the Wind,
“Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed toward me like towers of Pisa.”
“Camperdown, Copenhagen, Trafalgar—these names thunder in memory like the booming of great guns.”
Mutiny on the Bounty,
Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
“It was Françoise, motionless and erect, framed in the small doorway of the corridor like the statue of a saint in its niche.”
“The water made a sound like kittens lapping.”
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
“Kate inched over her own thoughts like a measuring worm.” E
ast of Eden,
“He swung a great scimitar, before which Spaniards went down like wheat to the reaper’s sickle.” Th
“…impressions poured in upon her of those two men, and to follow her thought was like following a voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one’s pencil…”
To the Lighthouse,
If you want to study the subject I recommend A Dictionary of Similes by Frank J. Wilstach Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1916. New York: Bartleby.Com, 2010. You can browse it online here.
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