There’s a sketch in the very first season of Blackadder in which the bumbling Lord Percy avers that the Spanish Infanta – Blackadder’s soon-to-be-betrothed – has eyes bluer than the famous Stone of Galveston. The gag is, of course, that Percy has neither seen the Infanta’s eyes, or indeed the Blue Stone of Galveston – and nor have any of the other characters present. It’s a great joke, beautifully delivered, and it highlights a big problem with a lot of genre fiction: misusing simile.
Simile is a powerful tool – particularly when writing in the realms of fantasy, sci-fi and horror. It allows you to take something otherworldly, and present it in terms with which the reader can engage. Something ‘real’, in other words. A monster might be ‘slavering like a wolf’, an ethereal presence ‘blazes like a campfire’, and so on. So far, so good. The simile’s been used to paint a compelling picture in a few bare words, and carries unspoken subtleties informed by the reader’s perceptions. Can you see the drool dripping from the monster’s jaws? Can you hear its rasping breath? See the hungry look in its eyes? By making the comparison to something the reader likely has some familiarity with, you’re actively engaging their imagination to help craft a compelling scene.
Where this all breaks down is when an author falls into the Blue Stone of Galveston trap: comparing one unfamiliar thing to another. Instead of ‘slavering like a wolf’ you end up with ‘slavering like a craggan’. Instead of ‘blazes like a campfire’ you get ‘blazes like a thaumic’. There’s no comparison, and therefore you’re that much less likely to engage the reader’s imagination. Worse, it runs the risk of distracting. Is your reader still worrying about exactly what the monster or the ethereal presence portend, or are they trying to work out what a craggan is, or exactly how bright and precisely what colour a thaumic blazes? If you’ve already established a craggans and thaumics earlier in your book, then fair play. But if you haven’t…
There are a couple of ways out of the Blue Stone trap. The first is to wield adjectives to help shape the image you’re painting. ‘Slavering like a starving craggan’ starts to paint in some of the gaps, as does ‘blazes like a crackling thaumic’. Already the imagination’s starting to fire, but the chances are your reader’s still distracted by the unknowns. But let’s assume you have good reasons for keeping the comparisons a little mysterious – you’re building a fantasy world, after all.
So maybe it’s time for step two: mix the known with the unknown. Let’s make it ‘slavering like a starving craggan-wolf’ and ‘blazes like a crackling thaumic flare’. By relating your similes back to real-world elements with secondary nouns (wolf and flare) you’ve softened the strangeness of the comparison, and allowed the reader to focus on the important bit – that the monster’s hungry, and that the ethereal presence is really, really bright.
But then you have to ask yourself: does ‘starving craggan-wolf’ add more to your text than ‘wolf’?
As with most writing tips, the answer is ‘it depends’. Leaving aside the nebulous issue of ‘style’ (which can blow both ways anyway), let’s take a look at a few pros and cons.
Sticking with ‘wolf’ has plenty of advantages. It’s short, snappy and undistracting. For the majority of readers who are familiar with the idea of a slavering wolf, anyway. If you’re looking for a crisp, clean introduction, it’s probably the way to go.
That said, you have just stated unequivocally that your world not only contains terrestrial (or near as dammit) wolves, but that your point of view character (assuming you’re using one) knows what a wolf is, and is familiar enough with them to consider drawing the comparison. If your setting doesn’t have wolves, or your point of view character doesn’t have experience of them, then maybe something entirely fictional is more appropriate – just make sure you expand your simile to let your adverbs and secondary nouns round it out. This is a great option for world-building, but be careful not to overdo it – half the trick of crafting a compelling setting is not tripping the reader up with a stream of odd similes.
So there we go – the Blue of Stone of Galveston trap. Like all writing advice, there are times when this’ll serve you well, and times when it’s not appropriate. As ever, the trick is to make the decision consciously. Editing an old work? Keep the Blue Stone in mind.
Anyway, that’s all for this week. Agree? Disagree? Please leave a comment below. And don’t forget to Like and Share.
The thing that bugs me in fantasy in a related vein is
‘a foaming mug of flingiflan ale’
‘a ruby glass of vionian wine’
That means nothing to me. Stop it. Unless you’re going to tell me something about why you felt the need to stick that in there. Star Trek is pretty bad for that to – I never find that it adds colour.
But the colour it adds is ruby, surely 😉