For the past week I’ve been working on two thrillers by talented new writers. Interestingly, both suffered from the same tendency to overuse similes. This seems to be a common complaint, which has a whole legacy of education and literature feeding it.
There’s always a risk inherent in making the reader stop and think about the writing that you break the spell of concentration. Similes can clog the narrative and slow its pace. They can be clunky, or make the writing seem melodramatic, frilly, or affected. They can also confuse the reader, who is given two images to wrestle with when they might be better off with one.
A tree’s gnarled roots and whispering leaves might lead the writer to think of a writhing mass of snakes hissing, but do we want or need reptiles in our mind’s eye? If the writer wants to add a sinister edge to the scene is this the best way of doing so? Might the reader prefer the tree without the snakes? Two images inevitably create a pause, and this can be an irritant for the reader who wants to crack on to the next part in the narrative. In the same way that the brain loves to find puns, it also enjoys making associations between images and ideas that connect them. But while this is enjoyable for the writer, it doesn’t always help the reader on their way.
Of course, many of these similes work. And that being the case, how do you, the writer, work out which are effective and which aren’t? All you can do is ask yourself: is this simile actually adding something useful to our understanding of the character or not? Is it a little too clever; a little too clumsy? And if you still can’t decide whether to give it the chop, ask your trusty editor to be the judge.
Of course, good books wouldn’t be the same without similes, and it’s subjective: a simile might work on one person and irritate the pants off another.
Here are a couple of good examples:
“Moments before sleep are when she feels most alive, leaping across fragments of the day, bringing each moment into the bed with her like a child with schoolbooks and pencils.”
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.
“Jimmy Smith was moving through the room like an enormous trained mole collecting the empty cans.”
Suttree by Cormac McCarthy
Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Manuscriptdoctor.co.uk, a literary consultancy