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Crafting Similes To Enhance A Narrative

By Expert Author: Phillip Alexander

A simile generally uses "like" or "as" to compare two dissimilar things to one another. I recently wrote an article citing Joseph Conrad as a terrific writer of metaphors, but more significant than even his skill with this element, I consider him the quintessential crafter of similes. Anyone skimming through LORD JIM will find more great similes than are contained in the oeuvre of many renowned authors. Here are a few from LORD JIM as listed in Ariion Kathleen Brindley's "101 Best Similes in Literature":
Only then did he find himself rolling head over heels like a shot rabbit.
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.
All at once he sprang into jerky agitation, like one of those flat wooden figures that are worked by a string.
The lumps of white coral shone round the dark mound like a chaplet of bleached skulls, and everything around was so quiet that when I stood still all sound and all movement in the world seemed to come to an end.
Fitzgerald Wrote One of My Favorite Similes
In the opening to TENDER IS THE NIGHT, Fitzgerald writes of the area around the old hotel on the French Riviera: "Now, many bungalows cluster near it, but when this story begins only the cupolas of a dozen old villas rotted like water lilies among the massed pines... " Can a single line be more descriptive than this?
Fitzgerald's line communicates not only a scene but a mood for the entire story. I certainly can't write like Fitzgerald, and I wouldn't expect that of others either, but for a simile to be effective the comparison has to be pertinent. And the more poignant the better.
The Key Is for the Simile to Make Sense
Once, as a homework component of one of my creative writing workshops, I asked each participant to write two similes. Many of the participants were royalty-published writers, and one wrote for the local paper and another for a national magazine. Of the dozens of similes that were presented to me during the follow-up session, only two made any sense whatsoever.
Here's a Bad Simile
The comparison a simile illustrates, first and foremost, should be easily recognizable to the reader. "He hurried along like a turtle on hot pavement" is a clever line, but can anyone really associate speed with a turtle? Change "turtle" to "hare" or "lizard" or "cockroach" and the writer might have something.
Here's a Good Simile
Actually, what follows is a great simile, and for years I've tried to remember who wrote it. I thought it was another of Conrad's but more than once I've parsed the books of his I have in my library and can't find the line, which goes something like this: "Like the plants under the water line, she weaved along in life unaffected while the storm raged overhead." To me, that says a book's worth of words, and as with Fitzgerald's phenomenal opening to TENDER IS THE NIGHT, sets a mood that's spellbinding

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