Archive for June, 2017

Errant simile and erosion of literary style Article About Writing Better

Monday, June 19th, 2017
William H. Coles

Writing literary-fiction stories is two opposite yet creative desires competing with each other: (1) to develop strong stories with unique characters racing through a dramatic plot to provide engagement, entertainment and enlightenment, (2) to showcase the power of the written word in the glory of language and its imaginative use for reflection, enjoyment, and enlightenment. Here's the problem: the use of metaphoric simile is like hiring a bikini-clad beauty-queen to play point-guard for the NBA’s Boston Celtics; it would draw attention of most fans but almost surely wouldn’t be effective for team-winning. In essence, the trick of simile-use in fiction is a balance between two basic desires, to write exquisite admirable prose and to create entertaining effective stories seamlessly.

A SIMILE is a figure of speech that directly compares two things using connecting words such as like, as, so, than, or various verbs such as "resemble" and should be arresting visually be a subtle, hidden comparison that resonates and enhances understanding of the object of comparison without calling attention to it as a figure of speech. Successful similes in literature evoke clear resonating images that are unique, entertaining, simple, original. A memorable simile rises far above a functional description, must be within the purpose of the story, and worthy of the effort required for creation. In the main, successful similes are scattered in the prose: as stars in the sky, not a voluminous moon; as foot soldiers, not a mounted general; as members of the choir, not a garish soloist; as citizens in a beehive, not the queen bee.

Simile can achieve a rare impact when simile-comparison is appropriate to the subject and slightly understated. But when authorial vanity and self-admiration calls too much attention to the simile itself, the result is disruptive and disappointing.

And, as a suggestion for best results, the successful simile is nurtured in thoughtful revision rather than erupting from gut instinct.

See what you think of these EXAMPLES:

1.  "O My Luve's like a red, red rose."  (Robert Burns).  MISS?
        Even in Burns' time, doomed to become a cliché comparison.

2.  “Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed toward me like towers of Pisa.” (Lolita. Vladimir Nabokov)  MISS?
        Even out of context, it is not subtle and calls attention to the figure of speech itself.

3.  “Past him, ten feet from his front wheels, flung the Seattle Express like a flying volcano.” (Arrowsmith. Sinclair Lewis)  MISS?
        The flying volcano does little to subtly enhance the image of a train.

4.  “She entered with ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop.”  (The Adventure of the Three Gables. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)  HIT? or MISS?
        In certain contexts, especially humorous, this could be a "hit" but almost always it is still a show-stopper in the narrative and then a "miss."

5.  “Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.” — (The Handmaid’s Tale. Margaret Atwood)  HIT?
        Unarguably . . . resonantly effective.

6.  ". . . and to follow her thought was like following a voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one’s pencil . . .” (To the Lighthouse. Virginia Woolf)  HIT?
        Subtle yet effective wordsmithing and by a master of fiction.

7.  The dragonfly's transparent wings glistened in the sun like mica. (After Stanley Kunitz)  HIT?
        Hidden similarity of brilliant image with unique color and intensity.

Would you agree with any of these assessments?  Remember, for literary fiction, successful similes have clear elements: APPROPRIATE COMPARISON, SUBTLE, RESONANT, UNDERSTATED, ORIGINAL, INCANDESCENT, SIMPLE, CLEAR.

If you have the time, would love to know your simile favorites. And thanks for reading.
McDowell by William H. Coles

Award-winning novel, McDowell. Read recent reviews here.
Purchase here.

Want to write a literary story that lasts? Article About Writing Better

Monday, June 5th, 2017
William H. Coles

Consider this.

Characterization vs. character development.

Stories about humans require characterization–gender, appearance, background, abilities. But in literary fictional stories, the characters also develop–they change their emotional and intellectual souls, as well as their desires and motivations, which are instrumental in plot progression (character-based plot).


Drama is conflict that results in action and resolution and is essential for plot but also advances character. Opportunities for conflict prevail at many levels of telling a story—plot, scene, dialog, prose, imagery, etc. and character development is most effective in dramatized story action rather than passive narrator-telling. Note how clear plot conflicts contribute to greatness in these novels. The Scarlet Letter. When the husband sees Hester's shame, he asks a man in the crowd about her and is told the story of his wife's adultery. He angrily exclaims that the child's father, the partner in the adulterous act, should also be punished and vows to find the man. Moby Dick. … Ahab … announces he is out for revenge on the white whale which took one leg from the knee down and left him with a prosthesis fashioned from a whale's jawbone. (Both descriptions excerpted from Wikipedia.)


Literary writers strive to bring readers into stories to immerse a reader in a fictional dream and create works that have a greater meaning to more people than expected when first written. Analysis of any work of fiction reveals one or more essential universal struggles–friendship, family, money, identity, spirituality, liberty, sex, death, and others–that put characters at risk of danger—mental, emotional, physical. These are the magma of story action and resultant resolution, and almost always associate with reader access and involvement in the story world.

Suspension of disbelief.

Literary stories are frequently more  meaningful when readers believe in characters and events in a story world. Successful genre writers of Sci-Fi or fantasy (such as Ray Bradbury) please story readers able to suspend belief that story and characters either are real or could be real from worlds not yet proven to exist. These successful stories entertain and delight. Literary fiction is imagined people and events and is constructed so there is pervasive belief the story could be real in the reader’s world. No need for suspension of disbelief. about the possible existence of a character. The advantage is fortifying meaning and theme in the literary story. Literary fiction has evolved over centuries at the least to enlighten new understanding–an epiphany, a new way of thinking or behaving, or an aroused emotional response–that expands knowledge of the human condition.
Superman is a memorable creation but readers gain little knowledge about the complexities of human action and emotions from his stories. Captain Ahab, or Emma Bovary, are fictional characters who could be "real" without suspension of disbelief … and are intensely human.

Author and story.

Writers usually write memoirs about themselves; literary writers write about characters who are not the author and are created in environments imagined and created (often inspired by reality) for enhancement of story purpose. Contemporary writers tend to blur the two processes often muting the potential effects of both memoir and fiction and thwarting story purpose.


No one can know which contemporary written works will be considered great literature in the future. It’s essential that writers rely on doing their own thing, that includes making their stories unique and fascinating. But study of great fiction from the past suggests writers do better to think about literary story as a process of imagination rather than a transcription of reality, and most important, to learn that techniques and attitudes about fiction matured from past won't hurt the success of the "literature" of the future … whatever that might be.

The Amish Girl

"The Amish Girl" by William H. Coles. A short story available free online for reading, PDF, or listening (MP3). Illustration by Dilleen Marsh.


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