A Writing Lesson: All the Light We Cannot See – Using Similes Well
As writers (and editors helping writers), we’re always looking for new ways to say things that have been said before. When we use words and phrasing to create images, we’re using figurative language, and in the figurative language realm are metaphors, similes, and personification. It’s not too awful hard to come up with examples of these and to use them in our writing. However, to use them well, to create an image that feels new and exciting to the reader, that, my friends, is something.
I tried desperately hard to read All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel by Anthony Doerr. It won the Pulitzer Prize, and it has over 250,000 five-star reviews on Goodreads. Good grief. I should have devoured this book, right? Well … I didn’t. I tried twice to sink my teeth in and get through it, and I couldn’t do it. I may go back to it because I didn’t dislike it, but it also didn’t captivate me.
What did captivate me, though? Doerr’s writing. Oh. My. Gosh. The man can turn a phrase.
So even though I didn’t LOVE his book, I did love his writing. Because of this, I thought I would share with you some examples of his beautifully crafted figurative language.
First up, similes, which are comparisons of two unlike things using (often, but not always) the words like or as.
Consider this: “Everyone in the city was anxious and unsure.” Okay. That tells us what people are feeling. It gets the job done, mostly.
Now consider this, from chapter 27 of All the Light: “And yet everything radiates tension, as if the city has been built upon the skin of a balloon and someone is inflating it toward the breaking point.”
How beautiful—and accurate—is that? Doesn’t it paint a vivid picture in your mind? Doesn’t it convey tension—and the scope of that tension—in a new, exciting way? We’ve all probably blown up a balloon too far until it burst, right? So when you think about the city built on a balloon that’s ready to burst, you can almost touch that tension, can’t you? It’s almost physical to you, the reader.
Now think about this: “She thought he looked scared.” Again, okay, it gets the job done. It’s not memorable at all, but it conveys the feeling.
But what about this, from chapter 51: “She can almost feel the terror pulsing inside him. As though some beast breathes all the time at the windowpanes of his mind.”
Again, he’s creating a specific picture in your mind, isn’t he? He’s not saying simply that the man is scared, or even that he’s terrified. He doesn’t even say only that he looks as if he’s harboring a beast inside him (which isn’t bad, if I do say so myself). He takes the image further and puts that beast at the “windowpanes of his mind,” and the beast isn’t just standing there, staring; he’s breathing on the windowpanes.
This is what it means to work with language. These are things you can do with your own writing, when you go back and revise.
- When you come across a phrase that is just ho-hum, think about it.
- How else could you say it?
- What could you compare it to?
- And when you figure that out, ask yourself how much further you can push the image.
Are you writing something? Are you ready for someone to help you figure out how to stretch yourself as a writer and improve the draft you have in hand? Are you happy with the draft and you simply need someone to ensure that the narrative is cohesive and your grammar is strong?
Wherever you are in your writing, don’t hesitate to reach out. Send me an email at email@example.com and share with me what you have and what you think you might need. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!
And tomorrow, I’ll post an entry focusing on a few metaphors that Doerr uses. If you thought his similes were great—wait till you see his metaphors.