Guest post: Eric Bakutis
I first met Eric Bakutis a couple years ago at a convention. I found him to be pleasant, well spoken, and definitely hungry for people to read his work. My husband and I left with a copy of his first novel, Gylphbinder, and I hope, after reading his best below, you pick up a copy of your own.
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Using Similes in Speculative Fiction
As an author, I regularly attend critique groups with other writers (like the excellent Baltimore Science Fiction Society Critique Circle, run in downtown Baltimore) and one of the common things I see young writers struggling with is how to effectively use similes in their prose. I hope that by describing how I approach similes in my own writing, I might help other authors do so in their own work.
Speculative fiction is often set in fantastic or unfamiliar worlds, and similes are a great way to quickly explain new concepts to readers and help them visualize your world. They’re also a great way to make otherwise mundane details vivid and memorable (“the heat from the cave was like an open kiln”) vs “the cave was very hot”). However, similes can also hurt your story when you overuse them, or when you use similes that distract your reader. Good similes don’t just compare one thing to another – they compare one thing to another in a way that’s clear to your reader and makes sense within your world.
Often, newer writers get in trouble because they try to be Douglas Adams clever (“the Vogon constructor ships hovered in the air in exactly the way that bricks don’t”) or they’re so anxious to avoid cliches they write similes that seem novel, but actually distract readers (“his brother trembled like an enraged octopus”). Writers may even introduce anachronisms without realizing it (comparing the bang of a magic spell to the sound of a gun firing) and this draws readers out of the world they’ve built.
When discussing when and how to use similes, I’ve had the most success by suggesting writers ask themselves three questions:
1) Do I even need a simile here?
Similes are a great writing tool, but you don’t need to litter your story with them, especially when describing concepts familiar to everyone. We don’t need “He slammed the door like a shutter slamming in the wind” because we all know what slamming a door looks and sounds like. Why waste our reader’s time? By comparison, did your character just feel an alien presence touch their mind? No one knows what that’s like (at least, no one who’s talking!) so a simile is a great way to explain and enhance this detail. The simile “each touch of the alien’s mind was like cold water lapping against her temples” is a great way to both intrigue your reader and explain an otherwise difficult concept.
2) Is my simile familiar to readers and easy to visualize?
The reason we use similes is to define new concepts for which our readers have no frame of reference, or enhance a mundane detail by comparing it to something evocative. This is why the simile “bobbed like a cork in the sea” is a great way to describe how a flying saucer hovers, but “bounced up and down like a rock on a rubber band” is not. Both similes convey the idea, but the latter requires more work.
As readers, we can easily imagine a cork (wood) bobbing on waves. A rock on a rubber band may pull us out of the book while we struggle to imagine what was just described. How is the rock attached to the rubber band? Why is it bouncing? Now your reader is pondering this while reading your story, which is distracting. Often, young writers are so paranoid about avoiding anything cliche that they drift too far into the realm of novelty, to the point where they might as well use a simile to describe their simile.
3) Does my simile fit within my POV character’s frame of reference?
This is a subtle touch, but it’s one we should always consider as writers. Why is my young, impoverished peasant comparing that red magical glow to light glinting off a ruby? They’ve never even seen a ruby!
Rather than just choosing similes that work for you, personally, choose similes that your POV character would use. Are you writing a sailor? Use similes related to boats, the sea, and fishing. A blacksmith? Use similes related to fire, forges, and metal. A sheltered noble? Use similes related to the feel of silk, the click of heels on marble floors, or the shine of precious jewels.
Considering your POV character’s background when choosing similes is a great way to subtly reinforce who your character is without constantly repeating yourself. Was your current POV character raised as a gladiator in fighting pits? Well of course they’d compare the sound of that stomping Steam Golem to the clamor of a dozen gladiators clapping their swords against their shields. That’s how they’d think about it!
This isn’t to suggest authors should stop and mull over every single simile in their novels – if they do that, they might never finish them! But by internalizing questions like these, I hope you’ll find (as I have) that your writing becomes more effective at conveying unfamiliar concepts and drawing people into your world. You never want to confuse or distract your reader with a simile, or jolt them out of your book with distracting prose. Instead, find similes that make your world easy to understand and visualize.
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