There is, perhaps, nothing that draws attention like a striking figure. It’s true: If you want to get more eyes on your writing (what, you thought we were talking about something else?), working on your comparisons is one of the best ways to do it. Many critics contend that there is nothing that reveals an author’s talent and style more than her or his use of figurative language. So, whether you want your readers to smile at your similes or marvel at your metaphors, read on.

Many writers try to chase the perfect figure, but the metaphor, to borrow a phrase from Pope, must seem an echo to the sense of the work as a whole to be effective.

Consider the following similes:

A bass note sounds. It is a deep, vibrating chord that hints that the brass section may break in at any moment with a fanfare for the cosmos, because the scene is the blackness of deep space with a few stars glittering like the dandruff on the shoulders of God—Terry Pratchett, Equal Rights

It was a limpid black night, hung as in a basket from a single dull star—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

While the content of each comparison is similar—both feature a star or stars against a black sky—the mood and tone couldn’t be more different from each other. The first is expansive, the second confined; the first comes from satirical novel, the second from a serious one.

When I first read each of these similes, I had to pause. I could not go on reading even the next sentence right away. Each caused me to stop and think about the comparison. Each made such a great impression on me that I can recall it verbatim, and could record it here without having to look it up (I did look each one up just to make sure, and I am proud to report that each is written exactly as I remember it). But—and here is the important thing, each simile is appropriate to the text in which it appears. While they are both perfect exactly as they appear, imagining them in each other’s place is absurd to the point of impossibility. It is not enough to write the perfect simile (or metaphor, personification, etc.) one must write the perfect simile for the book, the chapter, yea, even the scene, which one finds oneself writing.

Nothing will make your readers skim faster than cliched figures, and, conversely, nothing will make them dwell on your writing like well-crafted ones.

Writing strong figures in isolation, however, is only one aspect of utilizing figurative language to its greatest effect. The real trick is to group your figures to bring unity of theme and message to your piece, be it a poem, short story, chapter, or, indeed, an entire novel.

In chapter 6 of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens introduces Dr. Manette, a recently freed bastille prisoner who has been in jail for the past 17 years. In describing the doctor’s voice, Dickens layers multiple similes.

“The faintness of the voice was pitiable and dreadful. It was not the faintness of physical weakness, though confinement and hard fare no doubt had their part in it. Its deplorable peculiarity was, that it was the faintness of solitude and disuse. It was like the last feeble echo of a sound made long and long ago. So entirely had it lost the life and resonance of the human voice, that it affected the senses like a once beautiful colour faded away into a poor weak stain. So sunken and suppressed it was, that it was like a voice underground. So expressive it was, of a hopeless and lost creature, that a famished traveller, wearied out by lonely wandering in a wilderness, would have remembered home and friends in such a tone before lying down to die.”

Each figure—the echo, the faded color, the voice underground, the memory of home—has to do with something that was once strong, but which has become weak over time, like the doctor’s voice (and by extension, his personality); each also increases in emotional value as the feelings of the lonely traveler bear exponentially more weight than the echo. Thus, by layering his similes, Dickens paints a complete picture of his subject, reflecting both Dr. Manette’s character and the effect that his imprisonment had on him.

Moreover, Dr. Manette, symbolizes the entire bourgeoisie class. His imprisonment at the hands of arbitrary and vindictive aristocrats mirrors the oppression that his class has suffered at the hands of the aristocracy. The figures employed by Dickens here work double duty: Not only do they give insight into the Doctor’s character, but they indicate how the author feels about the coming revolution at this point in the story. Seen in this light, the preponderance of similes in this one paragraph, which might seem excessive at first, actually serves the narrative brilliantly by showing the way that the effects of oppression develop over time.

Another interesting example of figures building on each other to speak to a them can be found in the first part of Maya Angelou’s famous poem, “Still I Rise.”

Consider the following verses:

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

At the end of each stanza, the speaker uses a simile that compares herself to something of value: oil wells, gold mines, diamonds. Each of these valuable things is hidden so that its value may not be readily apparent before it’s mined; each is also found underground, and therefore, has to rise to reveal its value, thus connecting it to the refrain and the theme.

While no single simile is as stunning as the Fitzgerald or Pratchett similes with which I started this article, the consistent grouping of the figures is, perhaps, even more effective. Both of the smiles from the novels make the reader stop and think, thereby taking them out of the text, but Angelou’s blend seamlessly with the rest of the poem, which relies heavily on metrical and syntactical devices. A simile that stopped the reader would be inappropriate in this piece, as it would work against the unity of effect found in the rest of the poem. The genius of the poem lies—at least partially—in the consistency of the figure-groupings and the way they complement the rest of the poem.

Achieving the kind of consistency in the imagery one chooses for one’s metaphors is an oft overlooked, but important skill for a writer. While, like all writers, I strive to write surprising and beautiful figures, if I could choose one skill over the other, I would pick the ability to consistently layer my metaphors and similes the way that Dickens and Angelou do. Not only does this skill give a writer consistency, shape, and meaning, it is something that helps move the writing forward in the process, as it gives direction and an underlying prompt, rather than causing the writer to stop and try to hard to create the perfect phrase. Thus, grouping figures not only helps the reader move through a piece, but it helps the writer avoid writers block and stay focused as well.

Look for more tips about using figurative language in your writing in the coming weeks.

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.

One thought on “The Perfect Figure

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