On precision when using similes in fiction

Similes can be less or more precise, and more precise is better. A discussion using examples from Ernest Hemingway and Michelle de Kretser.

On precision when using similes in fiction

IF YOU consult Google on the use of similes when producing fiction, you’ll find it recommended that you resist over-use and avoid cliche. 

I’ll outline here a single recommendation that could supplant both of those: use similes whenever you like, but with precision.

Why use similes at all? Because direct description goes only so far, and a simile adds an analogy. When describing a platypus, it may help to say that it has a bill like a duck’s.

A simile is distinguished from other metaphors by its preparing the reader for the analogy. “A platypus is a duck-billed mammal” omits the preparation. “A platypus has a bill like a duck’s bill” supplies the preparation, warning us that an analogy follows: like introduces a simile.  

Similes can be less or more precise, the degree arising from how narrowly the author draws the analogy. I’ll argue here that similes get more effective as they get more precise. They become easier to comprehend, and therefore less distracting. 

How precision helps

A chapter from the Ernest Hemingway memoir A Moveable Feast, titled Winter at Schruns, provides a helpful example, where Hemingway uses a simile when describing an avalanche.

The novelist recounts a tragic event from a deceptively inviting day in alpine Austria. A guide had resisted demands from a party of tourists that he take them skiing. 

One man called him a coward and they said they would ski by themselves. Finally he took them to the safest slope he could find. He crossed it himself and then they followed and the whole hillside came down in a rush, rising over them as a tidal wave rises.

Hemingway might have stopped at wave, describing the avalanche as rising like a tidal wave. However his repeating of the verb, rise, adds precision: we are left in no doubt about how the rising of the avalanche is like a wave. Our appreciating of the analogy requires little attention, and so we can empathise with the incautious skiers.

How imprecision hinders

I’ll offer by way of contrast an example from Michelle de Kretser, drawn from her novel The Life to Come. De Kretser has been celebrated for her literary style, and some of her similes work well. 

Part III, The Museum of Romantic Life, contains this one:

Sabine often only sent one word: “toi”. She love me! Celeste’s heart would stutter like an egg boiling in a pan.

The simile elaborates upon the bodily reaction Celeste allegedly experiences when she reads the French pronoun toi, which translates to you, from her lover Sabine in a text message. The narrator tells us, implausibly, that Celeste’s heart stutters. And then offers an analogy through which we might appreciate just how her heart stutters. 

As presented, the simile is much less helpful than it is distracting. The work for the reader begins with recognising the stuttering of the heart to be a metaphor. We must then ponder the obscure analogy with the boiling egg, and for as long as we think about that we are not with Celeste.

Narrowing the analogy

How could we render this simile more precisely? We might begin by following Hemingway and repeating the verb.

Celeste’s heart would stutter like an egg stutters when it is boiling in a pan.

That makes it more obvious that the narrator thinks a boiling egg stutters, and it restricts the analogy, helpfully, to the stuttering. However, the parallel with the stuttering of a heart remains obscure.

Perhaps the manner of the heart’s stuttering is not, after all, relevant, and we can help the reader by deleting the parallel with the egg and making the stuttering’s metaphorical status explicit — introducing the stuttering as a simile:

It would be as though Celeste’s heart stuttered.

This is much less distracting. But it is ambiguous about the implications of the metaphorical stutter. Is the narrator telling us that Celeste would feel faint, or would experience some other symptom of arrhythmia? If not, then what?

Remembering that the point here is to represent Celeste’s subjective experience — what she feels, rather than what happens to her — we can narrow the analogy further by connecting it directly with that experience:

Sabine often only sent one word: ‘toi’. She love me! It would be as though Celeste felt her heart stutter.

And here I think we have gone as far as we can while preserving the analogy with stuttering. The simile just about works: we can appreciate Celeste’s thrill, and move on. 

Can every simile be rescued?

The Life to Come was awarded Australia’s premier literary prize, the Miles Franklin, in 2018, which shows that you don’t have to get everything right. Here is another puzzle, this time from Part IV, Pippa Passes: Then the whisper thundered like an ancestor roaring out of a muffled past.

The surprising thing about this one is that we can imagine we understand it: yes, the whisper got louder. Distraction arises if we also imagine that if we focus intently on the text, we might understand it more precisely. How would an ancestor sound in those circumstances? Answers welcome in comments. Can the simile be rescued, or is it better abandoned?

I proposed that an enjoinder to use similes with precision could replace recommendations that the number of similes be limited and that cliches be avoided. Why might insisting on precision in similes limit their number? Because the care required for precision discourages waste. As for avoiding cliche: if the cliche hits the mark precisely, there is no need to avoid it; if not, then its imprecision alone rules it out.

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