Friday, August 28, 2015

The Art of Word-Painting, Part Two

Photo by Dennis Jarvis, via Flickr
As noted in last month’s post, we all want our readers to become immersed in the world we are creating. Using sensory imagery is a key element when it comes to bringing your fictional world to life. One effective technique for “translating” sensory impressions into words is to use figurative language.

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:
As far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.
This wonderful hyperbole anticipates the world even before God has called it into being.

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.


  1. 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.

    So true -- and true to the character as well. I've got a cowboy and a cook in the current manuscript, and what works for one doesn't fit the other.

  2. Rhetorical devices should be used as a dash of spice, not overwhelm the dish. When I go through a revision, I do a special layer looking at descriptions with an eye toward quality, but also purpose. Knowing when to add the spice is just as important as knowing what spices you have in your spice rack. A recent book I picked up by a new writer is stuffed so full of descriptions filled with metaphors and similes, I gave up trying to wade through them to get to the point of the story.

    1. That is an excellent point, Diana. I, too, recently had to put down a book that was overwrought with spice. A dash of cayenne pepper works so much better than a tablespoon. LOL

  3. And be careful not to mix them things ... it ain't rocket surgery, ya know.

  4. Ha, I have one of the hackneyed ones in my latest. Made me laugh. I hate when simile stop me in a story. I strikes me as someone trying too hard, and it shows. The other overused phrase is "as if." I don't use them much, and when I do, I try to make it sound natural.

  5. Great thoughts, Debby. Your cat metaphor called up another one that I love, from the Carl Sandburg poem The Fog: "The fog comes on little cat feet..." I find that one of my biggest jobs is to monitor myself to ensure I'm not mixing my metaphors. There are just so many options...

  6. A pinch of metaphor, a dash of simile -- great post, Debby. This one's a keeper. :)


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