|Photo by Dennis Jarvis, via Flickr|
The term figurative language encompasses a barnyard of rhetorical devices.
The twin work-horses in the stable are metaphor and simile, with style points for originality. Your average junior high school English student can be excused for trotting out a sentence like The stars were like diamonds scattered across against the black velvet sky. Aspiring writers need to aim higher. It’s no big deal if one of these old chestnuts finds its way into your first draft, but make yourself a mental note to upgrade your figurative language the second time around.
A good metaphor or simile depends on a single bold stroke of the imagination that establishes a previously undiscovered connection between two unlike things. The reader is invited to see both objects in a new light, sometimes on more than one level. One of my favorite examples occurs in Chapter XXVII of Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles. At this point in the book, Tess is working as a dairymaid on a thriving dairy farm. Her admirer, Angel Clare, comes looking for her on a mid-summer afternoon. Tess has been asleep, and when Clare gathers her into his arms, he notes that she was warm as a sunned cat. This simile translates the heat of the day into something palpably sensual on two counts.
Finding a good simile or metaphor demands extra imaginative effort if you’re trying to describe something big or intangible like cold or darkness. The African American poet James Weldon Johnson pulls off a beauty in The Creation. In the opening sections of the poem, he describes the primordial void:
This wonderful hyperbole anticipates the world even before God has called it into being.As far as the eye of God could seeDarkness covered everything,Blacker than a hundred midnightsDown in a cypress swamp.
Another factor to bear in mind is that the elements you bring together in your metaphors and similes should be appropriate to your narrative context. I.e., you don’t want to disrupt your own narrative continuity.1 To put it another way, the similes and metaphors you use should contribute to the overall ambiance of the story. For instance, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is set in the American South in the first half of the 20th century. Early in the novel, the local sheriff, lounging with his feet up on his desk, abruptly snaps to attention. Warren writes His feet hit the floor like a brick chimney collapsing. The sound effect evoked by this simile never fails to make me wince.
These few examples will have to suffice for now. Watch this space for further installments.
1 If your story is set in a pre-industrial fantasy world, you need to avoid coining similes and/or metaphors that involve modern/mundane technology.
Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.