Monday, August 12, 2013

Don’t wander in a wilderness of words

Take cliché’s/ add descriptions/mash with pestle/for prescriptions…and serve hot as a NYC sidewalk in July, dreary as Cleveland in November, happy as an infant’s giggle, dark as evil on a moonless night, or decadent as chocolate mousse. 

We all recognize the metaphoric dump when we encounter it. Metaphors and similes are clichés in the making. Too many can bury content. When a “character walks into a bar,” readers want to see him in his surroundings, but they don’t need a personal inventory laced with unrelated references.

We’d rather see the bar through his eyes by watching this character’s reaction to the bar itself. Describe him taking his place there. “The light was as dim as an old church with confessions pulling the walls inward.” (Might he be a recovering alcoholic falling off the wagon?) As in poetry, imagery paints the picture. We don’t need a history of the bar—unless it applies to the plot action. If the ceiling sags in a threatening way, but doesn’t fall, it should be omitted, but if “the walls come tumbling down” in a climactic scene, then mention its “hovering presence.” Otherwise, the “walls moving in” is enough to create discomfort without distracting the reader from the upcoming action.

In novels, stories or poetry, using similes and metaphors which apply to the place is an especially good way to garner readers’ trust. Tiffinie Helmer used a poetic simile in her novel, Hooked, an allusion to fishing. Throughout her seafaring drama in the Bering Sea, she employed similes and metaphors appropriate to the scenery.

In an otherwise good book, an author committed the disconnect sin. The story takes place on a NYC campus, but flashes back to Afghanistan. Instead of referring to the City backdrop, or even the Afghanistan panorama to show crowding, the author said the dorm party was “more crowded than a Japanese subway.”

A missed opportunity.

It’s a pleasure to pick up a book that is not simply entertaining but richly written. Similes and metaphors make writing splendid, but we can’t leave them out there in the wrong doorways. Our readers won’t step over them, they’ll trip.

Julie Eberhart Painter is the Champagne Books author of Mortal Coil, Tangled Web, and the 2011 Book of the Year, Kill Fee. The sequel, Medium Rare released in December. Daughters of the Sea is available from MuseItUp Publishing. Visit Julie’s Web site at


Big Mike said...

You are so right JP, and as you know (since you read my books) I love similes and metaphors. They so enrich the connectivity with the reader, but only if done right.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Liz Fountain said...

Julie, your post reminds me of something Chekov is supposed to have said. I'll slaughter it but it goes something like this: "If you show a gun on the wall in Act 1, it had better be used to shoot someone by Act 5."
In other words, all metaphor (or any tool in our craft boxes) needs to be deliberately chosen, and purposeful.
Thanks for the great reminder as I am going through a major revision of a manuscript I dearly love, but will likely have to toss some not-quite-right metaphors...

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Stephen King said "Kill your darlings." I remember Chekov's advice. In good books and other entertainment it is properly employed.

LR S said...

I recently read a short story set in the midst of the pandemonium of NYC, and the author threw in a metaphor of a deer running in the forest.
The incongruity jolted me, and I couldn't settle back into the story.

I know I'm guilty of the same to some extent, so Julie, thank you for making me stop and think.

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Thank you, everyone for your comments. Did you see my post today?

The conclusion will be on Aug 17. Watch for the link.

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Thank you, everyone for your comments. Did you see my post today?

The conclusion will be on Aug 17. Watch for the link.