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Craft of Writing, Fiction

Why I’m No Longer Writing S&M (Simile and Metaphor)

My blog is still coming to you from the State of Michigan. I won’t bore you with the details, but the record snow, the record cold, and the lack of movement on our home here has made getting out of this state like breaking out of prison.

Which brings me to this week’s topic: metaphors and similes, and how I’m working to eliminate them from my writing.

The whole thing started more than a year ago, when I came across an article in The Guardian, which related writing tips from 28 great writers. Esther Freud (Hideous Kinky and many other books) offered this: “Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up ­during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.”

That caught my attention, probably because at the time, I used simile and metaphor like an obsessive… I was a man addicted… Well, I used them a lot. (See how hard it is to stop?)

I had to wonder what she meant. S&M in current mainstream fiction is very popular. And what was wrong with a literary comparison every once in a while? Quite a bit, as it turns out.

The first thing I did after pondering Freud’s advice was to check some of my favorite authors’ works to see how often they used S&M. I was surprised to find they rarely, if ever did. These were writers who I admired, and whose work was considered by critics as some of the best-written in our time. What did they know that I didn’t?

I began to pay attention to S&M in my writing. Many of those constructions started to sound cheap and lazy, as though by referencing something else, the thing I was trying to describe would be made clear. But too often the metaphor didn’t describe either, and was just the writer trying to show how clever he was.

Then I read the Gordon Lish notes. Here is what he said:

  • Shun conventional metaphor, making your metaphor of your prose itself.  Individual analogies subtract from the overall metaphorical effect of the piece.
  • “Metaphor is at the very center of prose fiction, but not that kind of metaphor;” not the metaphor of “childish obfuscation… The way to make great metaphors is to be as literal, as literal, as literal as you can get.”  As for the other kind of metaphor, “for you to begin with this adolescent quaintness, this encoding, is to make a terrible, terrible mistake. Say what it is. If it’s one, say one. If it’s two, say two.  Chinese wisdom is very useful on this point—‘A white horse is not a horse’… True metaphor exists in the tension between the terms, and in the congestion within the terms.”

To me it made sense. And since then I haven’t consciously written a simile or metaphor into any of the fiction I’ve worked on. So far in my WIP novel, I’m 90 pages in and I don’t think I’ve used a single one. If I have, I’ll catch it on revision and take it out. I feel my writing is more exact, more communicative because of that. The metaphor is the story, not the flashy passages. It feels good. It feels like…



Just a reminder, Tahoma Literary Review, the new pro-pay literary journal that Kelly Davio and I have started, opens for submissions on March 1, during AWP.

If you happen to be attending the conference, here’s a list of places you can find us.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


20 thoughts on “Why I’m No Longer Writing S&M (Simile and Metaphor)

  1. Excellent points. I, too, try to elevate my writing in the same way.

    Write windily! :-]

    Posted by fpdorchak | February 22, 2014, 4:30 PM
    • I always do!

      Posted by jpon | February 23, 2014, 2:30 AM
    • Turns out I need to add to this comment…while I do try to elevate my writing by avoiding the “usual” as much as possible, I do not try to avoid all use of S&M. Sometimes they just fit…but I do try to avoid overuse. Much like Shadowoperator (which is a violation of the S&M rule you cite…), I feel they are techniques…and some techniques can be overused. The thing with writers is that we should try to edit out as much overuse as possible (have I mentioned “overuse” enough?), as deemed by the story itself. Perhaps the more literary oriented are more adept at this than the rest of us, but I don’t feel any one technique should be “eschewed” in and of itself, “just ’cause.” If you or any other writer can do it and pull it off, more power to you! Again, like Shadowoperator (which is again a violation of the S&M rule you cite…), I let the story take me where and how it needs to…appropriate editing notwithstanding.

      Posted by fpdorchak | February 25, 2014, 3:16 PM
  2. While I dislike quite a bit of mainstream fiction, I can’t entirely agree (with people who have far more sterling literary reputations than I do, I know) about eschewing metaphor and simile simply because they are metaphor and simile. They are literary tools, perhaps best or most frequently occurring in many forms of poetry, but whoever said that prose couldn’t be poetic as well? I know, I know, Ernest Hemingway wouldn’t have greeted me in public or private if he heard me say this, but there are not a few reasons why I don’t especially like Hemingway too, and a few why I do. The point is to touch your reader, and if a metaphor or simile does the trick in the particular passage you’re writing, then go to it, say I. I won’t drag up the old point from linguistics and literary studies about “all language is metaphor,” or any of that. Of course it is. The smaller ones are more noticeable, the ones which you are describing as book-length overall metaphors (and therefore allowable) might be more thought-provoking if indeed the author manages to tack them down to the whole work. And of course, there are fashions in things written as well as there are in any other things. But even though I rarely make an “inset gem” of a metaphor or simile, I’m quite likely to use them as part of my regular thinking process, which dictates how I write. Sorry, I just don’t agree (and hey, Joe, what about the title of your post today? isn’t it a form of figurative language very like a pure metaphor or simile to imply that figurative language itself is a form of sadomasochism? Or were you just starting with a joke which fed into itself?). Keep in mind that disagreement doesn’t imply that I don’t find your post energizing and vital–there’s room for us all, after all.

    Posted by shadowoperator | February 22, 2014, 7:45 PM
    • P.S. And what about “Hills Like White Elephants”?

      Posted by shadowoperator | February 22, 2014, 7:46 PM
    • Thanks, Victoria. I never worry about civil disagreements over my blog posts, because I never blog an opinion without some confidence I can back it up—which explains why I have a folder of about 60 unpublished posts.

      Anyway, I’ll start with the title. Yeah, I’m a sucker for a cheap joke, and titles are supposed to be intriguing, so I’m trying.

      As for S&M, those accomplished writers aren’t dissing them just because. They feel, as I now do, that simple metaphor and (especially) simile are just a cheap trick writers use to gloss over descriptions that deserve to be more fully developed. Sure, they work in poetry, because usually the entire poem, like an entire novel, is a metaphor. But the difference between a complete work of writing as a metaphor, and a passage such as, “her eyes sparkled like rare jewels” is huge. In the first, the fictional construct (as a whole) is intended to identify some deeper truth about the human experience. The second is just baloney. When I examine such writing, I ask if it’s true—did her eyes sparkle like rare jewels? Of course not. Then why write it? Easily more than 90 percent of such writing is false. Read Lish’s quote again.

      You can tell I’m not writing for the masses, btw.

      All language is metaphor? Don’t get me started on Barthes.

      Posted by jpon | February 23, 2014, 2:51 AM
      • Dear Joe, Maybe it’s a function of what kind of fiction you’re trying to write that calls the shots. I write largely comedy and satire, and there the simple metaphor and simile play an important role as humor. Call it cheap humor if you like. But you are trying to write a more “hard-boiled” sort of literary fiction, and possibly the point is correct for you. I like using the occasional figure to “pinch” my readers, to make them wake up at points where they may have been taking it easy for a few sentences. And I don’t regard my fiction as any less serious for having been comic, since comedy is often quite serious. As well, I have read some beautiful fiction in my time, and I think beauty, comedy, and the softer emotions are all within the purview of the simple metaphor and simile. I don’t like “her eyes were like rare jewels” either, but that’s a rather straw man of a figure, easily knocked down. In conclusion, though I don’t know if I myself have ever done it, I think the best writers can do it well, at the admittedly rare occasions when they use figurative language. Sorry, I think we will have to agree to disagree. Or, as the man once said, I deg to biffer.

        Posted by shadowoperator | February 23, 2014, 2:39 PM
      • I’ll have to go back and look at my (as yet) unpublished novel, Mr. Neutron, which is also a satire, and filled with humor, both high and low brow. I finished it about a year ago, so it will be interesting to see how often I used the similes and metaphors I now disdain. As with all the “rules” of writing I blog about, they are not so much rules as filters, designed to block the lazy writing, and make me write the best sentences I can.

        Posted by jpon | February 24, 2014, 11:03 AM
  3. I love this idea, to write fiction or even nonfiction without the crutch of S&M. I hadn’t considered these a crutch until I read this post, but I certainly do now. While I often think coming up with the right S or M is hard, what’s really hard is to eliminate the use altogether, at least in theory. (a few are going to make their way in, the way adverbs sometimes creep in, because they are actually needed in a specific instance)

    A white horse is not a horse. I’ll be thinking about that all day, and what it means for my own not-quite-exacting-enough, lazy prose.

    Posted by Teri | February 22, 2014, 7:59 PM
    • I’m glad someone agrees with me. I think the core value here is the exactness of the writing, the clarity of the description. Having worked on this for a few months now, I find it funny how it’s harder to write a description that catches the object perfectly, than it is to write a simile or metaphor that is only an allusion to it.

      Posted by jpon | February 23, 2014, 3:26 AM
  4. I hear what you’re saying, but I can’t agree completely. There are different types of metaphors and similes, which include the overall arc of the story but bits of narrative imaginings can enliven the story as well, what the French call ” Tournure de phrase,” which is how a phrase turns to surprise and delight the reader.

    Posted by nadiaibrashi | February 23, 2014, 4:07 AM
    • I’m not trying to twist any arms here (and yes, I know that’s a metaphor). S&M has been and always will be popular in mainstream/commercial fiction, and I don’t expect that to change. To be honest, that’s because such writing is market driven—it must appeal to the tastes of its audience. My decision to excise S&M from my writing is a literary one, and is about making my work artistically sound, regardless of its popularity.

      It’s unfortunate that the word “metaphor” is used to describe two different aspects of creative writing. A full work of poetry or fiction should be metaphorical in its search for truth. But to write a simple metaphor (like the arm twist, above) is just a stylistic choice, and in its way hides the truth, rather than exposes it.

      Posted by jpon | February 23, 2014, 1:55 PM
  5. Hmmm. More good stuff to think about. I don’t use S&M all that often, but I do use them now and then. Maybe next time I’m compelled to use a simile, I’ll remember this and ask myself if I can describe it another way. It could be thought of as a stepping stone for writers, perhaps – a skill that advances one’s writing to another level as he/she gains experience? Just as I’ve learned to function without adverbs for the most part (although they come in handy sometimes); my earliest writing efforts were full of them, until I learned along the way it’s a big no-no.

    Great title, by the way. Captured my attention.

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | February 23, 2014, 11:56 AM
    • Titles R Us. It’s a skill I developed as a newspaper editor. Thanks.

      I like the way you look at these writing discussions as a stepping stone, as phases a writer must go through. It’s not until a writer takes a few steps and has a chance to look back does s/he realize how far the writing has come. And it’s a personal choice. Some writers love similes. I’ve come to see them as Lish’s “obfuscation.”

      Writing, as one of my mentors, Bruce Holland Rogers, likes to say, is not perfectible. But we should at least try to make it as good as possible.

      Posted by jpon | February 23, 2014, 2:12 PM
      • I’ve only been at this for a few years, but if I’ve learned anything along the way, it’s that writing is a process. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about putting in 10,000 hours of work to become proficient at a skill, so in that scope I have a long way to go. I don’t know if I agree with Lish’s “obfuscation,” as I rather enjoy when writers use similes, but perhaps it’s my own inexperience clouding my judgement.

        I checked out TLR’s submission guidelines, and I know I’m not there yet. You’re looking for work that I’m not yet capable of producing. I need several more years of experience before I could even come close to meeting your guidelines, but that’s okay. I’m content with where I am right now with my writing, and most of all, I’m enjoying the journey.

        Posted by Gwen Stephens | February 24, 2014, 12:41 PM
      • I appreciate your honesty, Gwen, and I hope every writer who’s thinking about submitting to TLR considers it as carefully as you. Writing is a process indeed, even for writers who have been published for many years (ask JK Rowling). TLR is part of my process, as is the teaching of Gordon Lish. Does it matter to me that every writer feel the same way about S&M? Not at all. It’s the conversation that’s more important, the sharing of craft, from which other writers can choose what to incorporate into their own work.

        Posted by jpon | February 24, 2014, 1:36 PM
  6. rats. i totally got excited about this subject heading… ;-)

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | February 23, 2014, 5:09 PM
  7. Not sure I agree… Not sure I disagree. Let me put it this way: it’s an experiment worth taking on. Thanks for that!
    Guilie @ Making History: join the #AZchat!

    Posted by Guilie Castillo | February 28, 2014, 2:13 PM

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