How We Should Write Similes

Author Walter Mosley said that his favorite passage from literature was the two sentences from Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye.

He was looking at me and neither his eyes nor his gun moved. He was as calm as an adobe wall in the moonlight.

Joe Fassler explains thusly:

This well-aimed description, then, does more than conjure the ice-cool calmness of a practiced killer. It juxtaposes light and dark, serenity and violence, in a way that reaches beyond the physical into the anguished struggle of the human heart.

This, in a nutshell, is how we are all supposed to write. This is what we must aspire to. No simile, no metaphor, no clever comment, and no word play should exist for its own sake. A gunman is never “as cool as a cucumber”. He is “as calm as an adobe wall in the moonlight”.

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

William Gibson’s opening line from Neuromancer sets the place, establishes the color theme, projects a futuristic air, and conveys a sense of dystopic despair.

The late afternoon sky bloomed in the window for a moment like the blue honey of the Mediterranean .

This line from The Great Gatsby is not so much a description of the sight out of the window, but of the light that enters the room, and the fleeting nature of unattainable dreams in the impossible distance. There is no such thing as “blue honey” nor any connection between honey and the sea, and the narrator has never seen the Mediterranean, and to describe the sky, seen through a window, as such is to express that something is dreamy, unreal, and out of reach.

Well written similes are not just descriptions of visible scenes, and definitely not just clever ways to put together words. They are descriptions of emotions disguised as description of things.

When someone points a gun at you, the muzzle of the gun might look like “a deep pothole on a rainy day” or “an eye of a dead shark” or “a blot of black ink”. Each conveys a different emotion.

When T. S. Elliot writes:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

This is not a description of an evening or the sky, but an ominous representation of what is about to happen.

Of course none of this is a first draft problem. You can fiddle with them later, after you know where the story is going. But if you cannot describe a scene satisfactorily in the first draft, you do not have to. You first have to know where the story is going, and later try to capture the feeling of the scene with creative similes and metaphors.

Write the story first. Retrofit the similes later.

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