"Crossing the Line" and "Trophy Similes"

I was in two minds when I got up this morning as to whether to do a "fun" post or a "serious" one. Actually according to recently published research, since I'm bilingual I'm always in two minds, but probably best not to pursue that thought…

Crossing the Fine Psychological Line

Fine Psychological Lines are the boundaries between what is often called "appropriate" and "inappropriate" behavior.

There are, of course, lots of these lines, and the curious thing is that what weirds-out one reader may pass another by unnoticed.

These are some common lines:

Kind to children and animals / pedophile
Rugged male hero / indifferent misogynist
Laughing master-swordsman (often a swashbuckler) / violent sociopath
Gritty, man's-gotta-do hero / compulsive psychotic
Flirty / sex-maniac

Bear in mind that all these can be male or female, children or adults. It doesn't much matter. The author has to know that these lines exist, and that some characters may seem to cross them when he doesn't intend it. Your secondary characters are the ones that are most likely to approach these lines; since they get less attention and less development, you may find yourself using semaphore* to get the characterization across, and it may not always have the desired effect.

I bet there are lots more of these. Suggestions on a post-card. Or in a comment.

Trophy Similes

Similes come in two basic flavors: analogy and comparison.

Comparison is when you say "as xy as an xyz". David Mitchell's classic example is "as subtle as a lead brick in a bowl of rice pudding". Blackadder is full of subverted comparison similes: "We're about as similar as two completely dissimilar things in a pod."

This kind of simile rarely gets anyone in trouble, though they can be unintentionally comical. Their purpose, however, is plain to see; the simile acts as a qualifier for an initial adjective. Many of these are now clichés (happy as a sand-boy, blind as a bat, etc).

Analogy is rather more problematic, though both more literary and (I think) more often both necessary and justifiable. Analogy is where a familiar image, idea or circumstance is used to illustrate something new, unfamiliar or otherwise difficult to describe. An analogous simile is one which generally takes the form:

"Something happened like something else happening."**

These work well when they do either of two things:

1. Qualify the literal description, just like the comparison similes above, e.g.

She ran like all the demons of hell were after her.

2. Add to an otherwise indistinct, vague or unfamiliar description, often adding a qualitative or emotional experience e.g.

As he pushed his way through the crowd he felt more and more like he was struggling to get to the surface of a murky, stagnant pool.

For all that the first example is a cliché and the second a little clunky, both are doing a necessary job, and adding to the reader's knowledge and experience.

A trophy simile does no such thing. This year I have accused two of my authors of using Trophy similes. YKWYA.

The dungeon stairs were at the end of the hall, leading down into darkness like the gullet of some unfathomable beast.***

Here is the comment that the above example elicited from me:

First, this is a "trophy simile" - that's when you come up with a cool sounding image after you completed the decription and then tag it on at the end. You get top marks in Highschool for them but they usually don't work in narration. Second, you apply the simile to the wrong noun. The sentence structure makes the gerund 'leading down into darkness' the subject of the comparison, but I don't imagine a gullet leading. Maybe this would work of you put an indefinite article before darkness... but generally it would be better if you moved the simile earlier in the sentence:

"At the end of the hall, like the gullet of some unfathomable beast, the dungeon stairs led down into darkness"
Though frankly, "gullet of some unfathomable beast" is better left in Highschool!

Here's another, from a different author:

People weren't sure if it was the drugs or some territorial dispute or something else altogether, but there was a restlessness, an approaching dark which drove them deeper into their shelters and bedrooms like animals sensing an oncoming storm.

This is a great example of a simile that adds nothing.

Indeed, remove the simile from the phrase and it gains power and immediacy:

People weren't sure if it was the drugs or some territorial dispute or something else altogether, but there was a restlessness, an approaching dark which drove them deeper into their shelters and bedrooms.

Schoolteachers will expect you to provide trophy similes, and they are right to do so; it is a really effective way of developing your skill at expression. However, they should be treated as a training exercise, and you should be careful to use simile only when it adds something.
* a system of communication using flags. In writing, semaphore is using big, imprecise features to save time and space when describing less important details. 
** empirical formulae for sentences. Good idea?
*** after the last three days, I probably ought to point out that this is NOT Damon Courtney. He had one or two of these in the first draft of his first novel, but none that I spotted in the second novel.

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