The problem of simile

Simile: a figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared, as in “she is like a rose”.

Similes are useful as a descriptive shortcut. They rely on the reader understanding what qualities a rose has that might be applied to a woman. Is it that she is a particular colour? Capable of photosynthesis? Thorny? Possessed of exquisite and delicate beauty?

In fiction there is a further level of assumption, not only that the reader knows what qualities the simile is eliciting, but that the characters have that understanding too. In science fiction and fantasy simile becomes a problem. Do roses exist in your world? If you’re writing fantasy set in an earth-like world there probably are roses and you can use them in simile without trouble. If you’re writing space opera set in a time and place far away from comtemporary earth then you’re going to have to give it a bit more thought.

In something I was reading lately, a space opera, a character visiting an alien world and culture describes an animal as resembling the komodo dragon from old earth. This character doesn’t come from earth. She is a second or third generation (at least) colonist. The planet was colonised by descendants of the original colonists who set out in a generation ship about one hundred years in the future. If komodo dragons still exist on earth what are the chances of this character having the first idea what they look like? The effect is that the reader’s immersion in the world of the novel is disrupted.

So, if I can’t rely on simile for creating a picture in the mind of the readers, what can I do? Well, one solution is to get better at description. It seems to me similes are the lazy option. Taking the time to describe my worlds without using references to things my readers would be familiar with will add greater depth to my stories.

The other option is to create similes that work within the world. This is something that could be derived from effective description. Characters would naturally compare things to other things, but only to things with which they are familiar. The trick is creating that familarity with the reader. This definitely seems like a more challenging solution but one which might lift my writing a bit above the ordinary. If I can pull it off.

Thoughts on reading: The Turn of the Screw

Last year, there was a television adaptation of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and thus there followed much discussion of its horror and psychological twists. Well, what more reason do you need to read a book?

I struggled with the language. This was a surprise. I read the odd classic and although it takes a few pages to get into the rhythm of the writing, usually I find that it is perfectly clear once you get used to it. Perhaps it’s because the classics I tend to read are by English authors – Dickens, Hardy, Austen – and James is American. I wondered if the reason I was finding it hard to get to grips with was because it was an American classic and the language was subtly different to English literature of the same era.

What I found really frustrating was that I didn’t know what was going on. Things weren’t spelt out. There were coded references to socially unacceptable behaviour, which to me could have meant all sorts of horrors. Some people find that leaving things to the imagination makes it more scary. Not me. I can imagine a lot of things and not being able to choose which is the thing being described (because there aren’t enough clues to nail it down to one thing) is frustrating. It certainly underlines my belief that detail is what convinces in fiction. For me, the horror was reduced by the vagueness and ambiguity, not increased.

My non-fiction book was Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan. It was excellent, full of good advice, good examples and lots of things to try out in my work-in-progress.

Thoughts on reading: A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones by G.R.R. Martin is book one of A Song of Ice and Fire which features in my top ten favourite books of all time. This is the third time I’ve read it and this time I was able to get past the awe and look at the writing. Well, sometimes. There was still a lot of awe; I love this book and its sequels. I can’t wait for the next one, A Dance of Dragons, and I can’t wait for the HBO series coming next year.

So, getting over the love, what did I notice about the writing? First of all, there’s a lot of backstory in the early chapters. It’s very tightly related to the story of the novel and is actually quite sparing. There’s enough to create the sense of a large world with a rich history, without overwhelming current events. It’s usually done a few sentences at a time to add detail but occasionally, one of the POV characters spends a few pages reminiscing. There are two things that I think makes this amount of backstory work. One, chapters are organised by POV and there are a lot of POV characters. This means that each character can give a bit of backstory relevant to them and that past events can be perceived differently by different people. The reader gets to piece together backstory from several versions of the same event. The second thing is that the backstory stays relevant to the POV character. They only tell the reader what matters to them. Every piece of exposition is doing at least two jobs; it’s adding backstory as well as giving characterisation or world building.

The other thing that Martin does really well is characters. His POV characters are great but one expects that. It’s the little characters, the ones that only appear once or twice, the ones that only have a tiny role. They are invested with as much personality and uniqueness as any of the main characters. There is not one that is a cardboard, cookie-cutter character.

He also has a lot of description in the novel. His locations are vividly realised. Again, this information isn’t dropped on us in one lump. Each character has something to say about where they are which builds up to a detailed, solid setting. The description is put to work to support characterisation and theme. I noticed that I tend to skip over description as a reader, as I want to get to the action, so I tried to slow down and pay attention to the descriptive writing. It’s made me think a lot about how I can improve that in my work-in-progress.

All in all, this is a masterpiece, from one of the greatest fantasy writers there is. I loved it as much the third time round as I did the first time. I can’t recommend it highly enough.