Maybe using Facebook makes people “Like” happy. We learn to click “like” to show we hate something (or agree with the poster’s hate of something). Never has the word been more in our vocabulary, so it’s easy to miss if you are overusing it.
The “like” I’m talking about, though, is indicative of similes. Recently, while editing a manuscript, I noticed a lot of similes on a page—like four. It seemed excessive, so I did a search and found over 240 instances in the ms. of the word “like.” Granted, some of these were expressions like “I don’t like that,” but most indicated the use of a simile, like “He ate like a bear fresh from hibernation.”
Don’t get me wrong. Similes aren’t bad, per se, and they can add color and excitement to a novel. They can help to describe, in a short statement, something that is of minor importance to the scene, but still needs to be expressed. There are good similes and bad similes.
Say you have a scene where the protagonist is sneaking up on the bad guy who has been hiding in a cave. This is an outdoors novel, and the good guy has been traipsing all over the mountain in pursuit. The bad guy has been running for days, and has found an abandoned back-pack, full of goodies. He’s engaged in eating when the good guy sneaks up on him. What’s important to the scene is not a description of the manner in which he eats; what’s important is that he is otherwise engaged and the good guy gets him. So do you want to spend a paragraph describing the way he eats, or give it a once over with a simile?
Jack slipped through the shadows in the cave mouth and took refuge behind a boulder. He watched as Aaron dug into the backpack—pulling out item after item, ripping apart packages and cramming the contents into his mouth. There went a Mr. Goodbar. There went a packet of juice. Aaron’s throat worked as he jammed in trail mix and his jaws labored over some jerky. He growled as he ate. Jack slugged him from behind and fell atop him….
Jack slipped through the shadows in the cave mouth and took refuge behind a boulder. He watched as Aaron dug into the backpack and ate like a bear fresh from hibernation. Jack slugged him from behind and fell atop him….
Or, use an inappropriate simile:
Jack slipped through the shadows in the cave mouth and took refuge behind a boulder. He watched as Aaron dug into the backpack and ate like a man who only had a salad for lunch and then found a MacDonalds. Jack slugged him from behind and fell atop him….
In the first example, it just isn’t important what he eats or how he eats. Sometimes it is okay to tell, not show, and a simile is a colorful way of doing this.
The second example is better because, through the use of a simile, we show what the bad guy is doing, but we get right to the point of the scene, which is the ensuing battle.
The third example shows how a simile can be botched. In the second example, we have used elements of the surroundings to create a fresh simile that is appropriate for the situation and the locale. We’re in a cave, so a hungry bear from hibernation is similar to a hungry man in a cave. In the third example, we’re nowhere near a MacDonalds, so the simile pulls us out of the story, throws us into town, and we have to struggle to get back to where the story is taking place.
So when do we use similes? When we need to express something descriptive that is subordinate to the scene purpose.
How do we use similes? Keep the content relevant to the scene.
How do we get rid of all those “likes” in a novel? Restructure your sentences. Use metaphors, or sometimes, you can rearrange the wording to include more active verbs and modifiers. If you really look at a sentence, you can determine what you’re trying to convey. Is it that he ate, or how he ate?
Metaphor: A bear out of hibernation, he jammed the food down his gullet.
Rearrange: With growls and snorts, he crammed the food into his mouth.
Now, just for fun…
I came across this great list of some really bad similes. They’re as rotten as a hunk of steak left for three days on a bench next to a horse stable in mid-summer.