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I'm editing a short story I wrote I while ago. And the first thing I wanted to do was to add similes/metaphors to it (OK, maybe just similes).

The story is about a girl who fails to feel an earthquake, and starts questioning whether she is living in the same reality as everyone else. At the same time, she starts experiencing changes in her life (e.g. she starts losing the people around her). So most of the similes have to do with alienation and isolation.

Here's some sample text:

Ruth laughed. "Sometimes I really wonder whether you are living in the same city as the rest of us."

"Yeah," Erin said with a half smile. "I wonder."

They felt silent for a moment. Lost in thoughts, Erin stared at the neon Heineken sign next to her. It's light made her face look greenish, like perhaps, that of a traveler from a faraway civilization.

(...)

The waitress came back with the bottle of Budweiser, opened it, and walked away. She did all this mechanically, as if she were on autopilot.

(...)

Erin watched Ruth as she disappeared between the cars and the crowd walking across the street. It was then that a strange feeling surrounded her. She felt as if the gravity of the Earth had suddenly changed, and even thought she wasn't sure whether she'd become heavier or lighter, her body couldn't get used to this new adjustment.

Are those similes/metaphors improving the text, or making it more difficult to read? (I don't mind, though, if there's a slight randomness in them).

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I'm not putting this as an answer because it's not specific to your examples; but I'd recommend the best way to improving your technique is to read authors you enjoy very carefully, not for enjoying the text this time around but analytically. How do they treat metaphor? Then look back at your own work. How does it fall short? I'd say the only authentic answers to this kind of question are the ones you discover yourself. Your judgement of what works and what does not work in your own writing is the best tool to develop; and you will only acquire it by reading as a writer (analytically). –  micapam May 28 '13 at 23:23
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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

OK, I know from experience it can be hard to get an answer to this kind of question. I tend to get upset when my work is critiqued and I know I'm not alone in that. Still I know I'd rather an honest answer...

For me they're a little heavy. In my opinion similes and metaphors should be punchy and to the point; they add detail, rather than being the detail. They should also only be used when needed.

Can I make the following suggestions:

  1. It's light cast her face in green and shadow, making her seem alien.
  2. The waitress came back with the bottle of Budweiser, opened it mechanically, and stalked away from the table as if on auto pilot.
  3. Honestly with this one I'm not sure. I think you're getting at a sense of separation from reality, but when I have to figure out exactly what this statement means I step out of the story; she's not sure if she's heavy or light, so how do I relate?

You say you're polishing an old story. My approach when I do that is to print it off, and type it back up, that way you’re not slotting lines in, instead you're upgrading it as you write. Anyway, I hope this helps :-)

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Thanks for the suggestions (though I just realized different people have different taste for metaphors/similes). I'd been wondering recently actually whether some people catch more errors if they print their drafts. –  Alexandro Chen May 28 '13 at 9:33
    
Perhaps don’t worry about making them set similes and metaphors, stay organic. Yeah I find it much easier to edit a printed draft. I often write my first draft by hand stream of consciousness style, write it up (which leads to serious polish) and then print it out and proofread/edit it then upload the edits and print it out again and edit it again. It costs a bit of paper (so I buy recycled) but it's easier to read and make annotations on a sheet of paper. I’ve also found that if you leave it for a week and then edit it again you’ll find things you didn’t spot last time. –  CLockeWork May 28 '13 at 9:39
    
Perhaps 1 might be slightly better as ", its green light giving her skin an alien hue."? Also for 2, "stalked" seems to have too conscious a connotation--association with hunting?--, perhaps "ambling" (although that word emphasizes slowness it has some sense of less conscious activity) might be better? –  Paul A. Clayton May 28 '13 at 16:30
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True @PaulA.Clayton, though I think the first is very much a question of the individual writer's style, as long as it's punchy and to the point it's all good. For the second point, I'd considered ambled and had made the same conclusion regarding the sense of speed. I was hoping for something that represented machine locomotion, like perambulated, but couldn't think of anything that wasn't obstructively long. –  CLockeWork May 29 '13 at 8:35
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In my opinion such metaphorical similes work poorly in narration. It's a different matter if the similarities incite such similes in minds of the characters, but throwing these directly at the reader seems awkward to me.

Sure if Ruth thought or mentioned "In this green light her face looks like that of a traveler from a faraway civilization", or if Erin would smirk internally "Even this light makes me look like a little green man of Mars", that would follow the flow. The speech of the narrator is the thoughts of the reader. Trying to create this image directly in my (reader's) mind feels awkward to me - my natural inclination would be to compare her to a dryad, or some reptilian race, so the sourceless suggestion it's like an alien from outer space seems... alien to me.

The second one is better, the mechanical execution of routine job tasks is a well established trope, and I can easily summon that imagery. It's a common, generic metaphor and it works in this role just fine.

The third one doesn't work for me at all. I can't imagine gravity changing in a way I'd be unable to classify, a change in intensity, direction, shape, possibly shifting field, possibly shifting randomly. Think "You feel a shift in the temperature of your skin but you're unable to tell if it's warmer or cooler". A simile would be okay here, but I simply fail to imagine this one.

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I am guessing that in the third example the writer is trying to get at something like the disorientation one sometimes feels when an elevator stops but even though that is "becoming lighter" (which might be useful here to hint at detachment, as if she were in some danger of floating away) the writer wants to emphasize uncertainty and imbalance and avoid the positive connotation of lightness. Just a guess. –  Paul A. Clayton May 28 '13 at 13:37
    
@Paul: I guess so, but that still doesn't work for me. The change in the elevator is a momentary shift, a tremor like that might be perceived as gravity shifting randomly. The way it's written now suggests the gravity changed rapidly, once, and then stayed at that changed state, which was hard to describe. –  SF. May 28 '13 at 14:22
    
Perhaps editing (starting at "It was then") to something like "Suddenly she felt oddly light and unbalanced, and she became uncertain how she would continue if even gravity could not be trusted to hold her firmly to the earth." (yes, a bit weird and stilted) or "Then she felt oddly disoriented as from an elevator stopping suddenly but with no promise of returning equilibrium." –  Paul A. Clayton May 28 '13 at 16:19
    
@Paul: Yes, that would work: emphasizes the instability, not the change. –  SF. May 29 '13 at 12:18
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Concerning gravity, it does two things basically; it comes as an attractive force described by the Ricci tensor, but also as a tidal force described by the Weyl curvature tensor, that distorts objects due to the gradient of attraction: when standing upright your feet are feeling a greater pull from the Earth's gravity than your head, literally pulling you apart, or trying. In a black hole you'd be what physicists call spaghettified. I would certainly imagine that playing with that gradient could induce sensations one would find hard to classify.

If gravity (or mass) went away altogether, you'd behave like beams of light - or rather, the matter that used to be your body would. If it was substantially greater, you'd undergo spontaneous gravitational collapse. Play with gravity and you can do some really eery sh*t. (Roger Penrose; The Road to Reality and other works; Victor J. Stenger; The Fallacy of Fine Tuning; just to name two)

But the question is of course whether you want to go that way. You'd probably have to find some elegant way of introducing some of these concepts, so that in the crucial moment - if it is a crucial moment - we'd understand perfectly why she couldn't even tell what her sensations were.

And on a personal note; as one afflicted with recurring depressions since childhood I can attest that there are sensations you absolutely can't even tell what are; and experiencing that you live in a different universe from the rest of humanity is a fairly accurate way of describing it. Of course that doesn't mean your work has to be about depression, though the experience of your protagonist likely would induce something along those lines. Hyperbole and a Half recently did a piece on this kind of alienation: http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.dk/

Well, I might have veered off topic somewhat... I don't see anything wrong with the greenish face. It works for me, though I might have substituted galaxy for civilization. That it's Ruth seeing her like that seems to me implied by the context. You may want to follow up with something like "Ruth had a sudden premonition that..." just to make it obvious, and maybe also to expand the metaphor; let it run for a while. You've got a good thing there. Run with it. One does not have to state explicitly who says or thinks what all the time, and in imho that might actually ruin an otherwise elegant piece.

"She did all this mechanically...": I'd get rid of as if. She's a waitress, employed in a menial, routinely task; she probably is running on autopilot. And although your protagonist can't strictly know that, she may certainly think that, and not even think it was anything out of the ordinary. Now, if the waitress was not on autopilot; if serving this particular beer for that particular customer really meant something; that would be odd. Maybe she was hitting on her. Maybe she thought your protagonist was the reincarnation of an ancient Mayan goddess or something. Maybe not. Maybe she was just a waitress on autopilot. And I know you did not solicit this piece of advice, but I like to let my characters daydream, imagine contrafactual scenarios; it adds texture to their character plus it's a great way of expanding on a metaphor.

On the whole, the best metaphors are those that take on a life of their own as recurring motifs; the green face, eerie light, her intrinsic alienness, noticing other people running on autopilot. Those could all work. But odd gravity is a bit tricky, as it may require people to know things one cannot readily assume they will know. If it was my story, that would not be a metaphor; that would be the reality that requires some metaphor, that people, including the characters, may understand it eventually.

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