Friday, December 15, 2006

AT: Imagery--when this is like that?

It was 1976 or so and we were reading Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage in English class. Often Mr. Johnson (picture Sabastian Cabot and you’ve got him) would read aloud to us. We were at the end of Chapter 9 and Mr. Johnson read those famous words about the red sun pasted in the sky like a wafer, and from the look on his face and the sheer joy in his eyes, I suddenly knew what it was that changed white-bread writing into prose that is rich and weighty. Similes and metaphors. The comparison of two unlike things that helps the reader see something familiar in a new and unexpected way.

Since then I’ve decided that similes and metaphors generally fall into one of three categories, two of which we want to avoid.

The first of these is the “ho-hum” sort. Rule #1 of writing: Don’t use clichés. I teach writing online and while many of my students are truly gifted, I find myself bumping up against imagery in their lessons that I’ve run into untold times before:

“She decided to run like the wind.”

“His anger reared its ugly head.”

“I felt like a kid in a candy shop.”

While these are legitimate images, they are also over-the-counter soporifics. Guaranteed to make your reader’s eyes glaze over.

Then there are the “huh?” images. One day my husband and daughter were at the black bear exhibit at the zoo when three-year-old Laura blurted out, “He looks like a tomato.” Bob came home singing Laura’s praises for coming up with a simile, but I, ever the writer, was left pondering the connection between this several-hundred-pound bear and a small red vegetable (or fruit, depending on which side of that argument you’re on). Now, in case you think only a child would come up with something as incomprehensible, I recently read a comparison between a man’s face in the wind and a piece of veal cutlet on a chopping block. Though written by a published writer, it just didn’t work. I couldn’t see it. For a simile or metaphor to work, you have to at least be able to see it in your mind’s eye, to make a connection between the two things being compared.

But finally, there are the “a-ha!” images. You know you have an a-ah! image when your reader says in delight, “I never thought of it that way but yes, I can see it!” You’ve offered an image that is fresh, imaginative, and vivid. And it makes sense to boot.

Let me share with you just a few of my favorite a-ha! similes and metaphors:

The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor….
- Alfred Noyes, The Highwayman

Gold and gleaming the empty streets,
Gold and gleaming the misty lake,
The mirrored lights like sunken swords
Glimmer and shake.
- Sara Teasdale, Spring Night

This moment is the best the world can give:
The tranquil blossom on the tortured stem.
- Edna St. Vincent Millay, On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven

O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost!
- Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel

You may see their trunks arching in the woods Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
- Robert Frost, Birches

Can you see it? The road that is a ribbon of moonlight. The light that is a glimmering sword. The weary world that is an unbright cinder drifting among the stars.

While most of these examples come from poetry, we can do just as well when we write prose. It takes an extra reach into the imagination and often a sacrifice of time and effort to come up with such imagery, but it makes for unforgettable writing.

By the way, just this morning my daughter, who is now nine, came up with another simile. Our Mexican Chihuahua, Cinnamon, was curled up nose to tail, asleep on Laura’s bed. Delighted, Laura exclaimed, “Look, Mom! Cinnamon looks like a donut.”

Now that I could see.

Ann Tatlock writes metaphors, similies, and novels. You can learn more about her work at


At 10:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A great example of metaphors - Lisa Samson's writing. One of my favorites is from Club Sandwich in which she compares a messy closet to a presidential impeachment. That's funny stuff.

At 10:49 AM, Blogger Deborah Raney said...

LOVE the "doggie donut" metaphor - a Cinnamon donut, no less. ; ) Maybe Laura is following in her mommy's footsteps? Great column, Ann.

At 11:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ann, What a wonderful column. I am still learning from you! Me thinks I think in similes and metaphors, like spruce trees lining the lake like sentinels, remember? I love Robert Frost's Birches, too. You make great use of similes and metaphors in your work. They make your writing come alive.
Great job.

At 11:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lovely column, Ann...from a lovely writer. Thank you.


At 12:54 PM, Blogger Joanna B. said...

My first thought when reading this (aside from the fact that it is a great column) was "Lisa Samson knows how to write metaphors." I see I'm not alone.

At 12:55 PM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Great post, Ann. Got my creative juices flowing.

Re: Charis Connection
Just wanted you to know, CC, that you are helping lots of people in many ways. Yesterday, I posted on the ACFW loop about Jim Bell's post on Charis Connection. This morning, I rec'd. this email from a writer:

Thank you SO much for referring the ACFW loop to the Charis Connection article.

What James Scott Bell had to say was truly an answer to my prayers.

Not only that -- two other articles at that particular site spoke clearly to my heart.

I believe you have been God's instrument in guiding me down the path I've sought for over a year!!

Thanks for taking time to share with the writers in our blessed organization--for sharing it with me!

Blessings abound!

At 9:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ann. A wonderful encouragement.

Rachel Hauck


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