Thursday, August 21, 2014

Big as a Whale, Loud as Thunder

We are told, as writers, to create interesting metaphors and similes. Avoid clichés at all cost. But I think you can go overboard with that.

I just finished reading a novel that used way too many creative metaphors. At one point it threw me out of the story. I wished that the author said "big" or something similar. It felt too forced for all of the excessive descriptions that filled up the scene. I didn't need a metaphor. I was firmly in the world already.

That's the goal. To ground the reader in your world. If you say: "Her thoughts circled like gulls over a trawler." You reinforce a theme of sea, maybe fishing, boats, waves. If that helps remind the reader that your world is a small fishing village, it's icing on the authorial cake. But if it all feels that way:

"Her thoughts circled like gulls over a trawler. The air was colder than the winter sea in an artic blizzard. She staggered like a drunken sailor across the sand that stuck to her shoes like tar balls thrown up in the ever-churning waves." It slows the action. Even worse, it distracts the reader.

Writing is like painting, you need to concentrate on the focal point. If the entire image is equally embellished, the image becomes bland. In art they talk about negative space. The space outside the image that defines it. So you put emphasis on the dew drop on the pear in the still life and let the plate blur slightly. Unless you want to point out the plate. Then you can blur the fruit. But if everything is clamoring for your attention, you see nothing.

In writing, if you emphasize everything, the reader gets confused. I read a chapter from a work in progress that had the life story of a waiter in it. When I asked what relation he had to the story, the answer was - none. So why did I just spend my time learning all about this guy? Didn't push the plot forward, didn't enhance my understanding of the world, didn't affect the main characters at all. It was an odd little vignette that the writer had come up with for no apparent reason.

That's the way I felt about some of the metaphors in the book I read. They distracted more than they informed. In a couple of cases I would have preferred a plan old adjective like big. Sometimes simple is better.

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