Not so long ago I read an article about tips for writers from published authors. The exact location of this article and it’s nearly all of its contents have faded into the obscurity of memory and is remembered only as half heard whispers on a wind of fact and misinformation. But one thing stuck in my head, something which continues to niggle at me whenever I start to type. The reason that this one solitary fact remains when all the rest have been culled is simply because I disagree with it so much. I disagree with it to the point that it actually makes me a little bit angry. Most of the tips I read I agreed with, already did or thought were actually quite nifty little ideas. I still forgot them, but that’s hardly the point. The offending tip in question simply stated that you should never use similes or metaphors. Not ever. Under any circumstances. Because these things are for amateurs; the plebeians of the writing world; the scum that you scrape from the bottom of your shoe. Now obviously, this author has been published so she must have some slight modicum of talent, but putting a blanket embargo on similes and metaphors? That struck me as one of the most awful suggestions I’ve ever heard.
I am of course not a published writer, nor have ever actually written an entire book. Understandably my opinion probably carries significantly less weight. But I cannot help but disagree. To me metaphors and similes are what makes writing, writing. Trying to write without them is like trying to paint without paint. How can you really paint an image on the inside of someone’s skull without throwing these two literary stalwarts about? They’re the things which, along with dialogue, really let a writer define themselves. Without them everything is a bit bland, they are the brown sauce of words and the salt of thought. We use them everywhere in everyday life, why should we for some spurious (and frankly stupid) artistic reason not use them?
For example which is better?:
- Her hair was red.
- Her hair was red like the searing sunset of some far off desert wasteland.
The first one is short and to the point, but it lacks anything descriptive. After all just how many shades of red are there? There’s hundreds, little tiny variations from the theme of red, but all different. I understand that an author might want to let a reader put an image together in their mind, but you can do that as equally well with the second sentence. How many people after all can honestly say they’ve seen a sunset in the desert? Not that many. It still gives the reader the chance to build their own image but it also feels more solid, like you’re actually putting the effort in and not just being a lazy bastard.
Without metaphors you can’t nurse a hangover the size of a Jovian moon or even have it rain cats and dogs. Without similes you can’t drink like a fish or be as bold as brass. These idioms and turns of phrase are very much the backbone of our bastardised and mongrel language. Without them you aren’t using it to it’s full potential. I will admit that there is such a thing as overuse. You shouldn’t spatter evey inch of a page with them, otherwise they’ll just become samey, hackneyed and make you look like a bit of a pretentious tit.
So now I will end this tirade with something I recently wrote for a cyber-punk style story I’m currently chipping away at. I like metaphors and similes. I like them because they allow me to say things like this without people immediately trying to sedate me and shoehorn me into a straight-jacket:
“Paig had headache, a bright lancing pain behind his eye. In weather like this mixing with the comedown fugue Paig felt like the world was made of something flimsy, ethereal and angry. Like tissue paper and bees. The bees were inside his skull and they were out of their minds on bad nectar and sodomising each other with their stingers.”
After writing this blog post I decided to trawl the internet to find the article in question. I found it surprisingly quickly, which is either a testament to my subconscious or a demonstration of my skills in the not so ancient art of Google-fu. The article was on the Guardian’s website and the offending author was Esther Freud (the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud). I’ve never heard of her, nor anything she’s ever written. She’s also a romance novelist, so my opinion of her (already tainted with the association to one of the biggest nutters in history) has taken something of a nose-dive. I now don’t feel quite so bad about the entire thing. The article in question can be found here