Friday, June 30, 2017

What makes a book "good"? Part 2 - Similes

Originality was the focus of my first post in this series, and that elements carries through in this post. One of the hallmarks of good writing is the use of original similes. Similes are often word pictures, and as a visual learner, I appreciate how they make the text come alive. Here are some examples from some good books I have recently read, and a few quotes from my two novels in waiting (waiting to be published)!

"Our guilt coated the house like pollen" (Bohjalian 39). This line in The Sleepwalker is a perfect example of how "good" writing contains similes that are original and have veritas.

"The sun was a red bindi dot on the forehead of the sky as they started their walk," (Umrigar 33).  Thrity Umrigar has so many stunning similes it is hard to choose just one, but this line from The World we Found stuck out.

"From the moment she began to boil the water for breakfast, she never sat down but was always busy with the children, the washing, the meals, the garden, the animals. Her days were all the same, like a rosary of identical beads shaping her existence" (Allende, Of Love and Shadows, 14). It's important that the simile relate to the theme of the book (I think). It pulls everything together nicely, and as Catholicism is one of the themes of this book by Isabel Allende, the simile is appropriate.

"At night it creaked softly, like a weary, rheumatic old woman" (Allende 26).

"A cool breeze blew through the trees, and Ledu and I held each other, laid out side by side on the thin blanket, like two knobby walking sticks" (Sweeting, Remnant). I had different wording for this, but I was trying to think of something in Ibo culture to relate to, and came up with this.

"The mother was already thin, her arms like sugar cane stalks" (Sweeting, Remnant). Again, sugar cane is commonly grown in Nigeria, so I thought this might be an appropriate simile.

"Three stories high, the house boasted a wrap-around porch, fitting as snugly as a babe on a mother’s back, pots of geraniums, marigolds and camellias brightening the porch and scenting the air" (Sweeting, Remnant). 

"Her eyes were swollen and red, her hair looked like a cross between Medusa and a spider web, and there was dried snot on the side of her face" (Sweeting, Expecting).  This novel is American and contemporary.

"It’s almost like an unwritten taboo. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing, you stay in the community. I think it’s a bigger taboo than marrying outside your race, or your religion" (Sweeting, Expecting). In this book I am working on now, the reference is to a deaf person marrying a hearing person. 

Please let me know what you think of these similes, and share some of your favorites!


  1. I love that you draw attention to how much similes can add when they are connected with the story's setting or theme. The examples from your novel Remnant work so well because not only do they help the reader to picture the characters, but they also put imagery appropriate to Ibo culture and Nigeria in the reader's mind, which builds the setting at the same time. I have definitely noticed when writers do this effectively, but it's not something that I have particularly sat and thought about, so I appreciate you drawing attention to this.

    I don't think it's something that I do particularly well, but it did make me think of a simile in my novel that is doing something similar but different. There is a section that is comparing the clerk's health insurance policy to the director's insurance. If the director's insurance was an overcoat, it would have a "fur-lined collar, thick padding throughout, and buttons to hold it shut, just in case of the unexpected circumstance that the zipper should break." This is much different from the clerk's, which would have stitching "so shoddy that it was coming apart in all places, to the point where there weren’t so much 'holes' as an absence of cloak." In this case, I've used overcoats for comparison as a literary allusion to Nikolai Gogol's short story "The Overcoat," which also documents the exploits of a government clerk. It's interesting to think about the way similes can serve multiple functions at the same time, even though they are often just short phrases.

    I was also excited to read a couple of lines from your novel Expecting since I remember you telling me about it when you first started writing it!

  2. Joe - that's a great example. In addition to providing a pertinent simile, you are also offering an allusion to another writer and story - brilliant! Thanks for commenting. I hope to be more regular and I'd appreciate your comments.j
    Happy travels.