His eyes were as dark as… night? pitch? coal? Those are all pretty standard ways to finish that sentence, as Google’s autocomplete will happily tell you. But how would your POV character finish the sentence? Do they know what pitch is? Have they ever seen coal? Is this a summer night in Scotland? Because those aren’t all that dark. The difference between a tired cliché and a scintillating simile isn’t a thesaurus full of poetically unrelated words. It’s specificity.
Last November, I was working on two books at once. One was an omegaverse story about shapeshifting wolves having lots of sex. The other was a historical a la Jane Austen. And yet, despite the major differences in plot, setting, tone, and characters, I found myself typing “pierced like a lance” on back to back days.
Hold up, Tanya.
Lances do pre-date the Regency era, but I doubt people in the early 1800s had an obsession with knights in shining armor like we do today. A Regency gentleman might think of a lance as an outdated warfare technique, not a model of sharpness. And my wolf has spent his whole life in an isolated pack with very little human interaction. What would he know about lances?
Maybe those objections wouldn’t occur to the average reader. Chances are their eyes would slide over “pierced like a lance” as “pierced blah blah.” They’d get the pierced part, but rest of it would be wasted words. Clichés get ignored.
Inapt similes are even worse, because those words are actively working against you, generating confusion rather than adding clarity.
Suppose, for example, your POV character is a parent. “Pierced like the cry of a starving infant” gets a thumbs up for specificity, but if the piercing in question is of the skin-puncturing type, not the eardrum-rupturing type, then it’s a no for aptness.
The two parts of the simile need to actually be analogous. If the thing on the right wouldn’t be described by the word on the the left, then it doesn’t matter how funny, original, or poetic your analogy is—it doesn’t work. For example, “pierced like missing the jackpot by a single number.” Missing the jackpot by a single number is a major bummer, but it doesn’t pierce anything. Inapt similes pull the reader out of the book instead of draw them deeper.
I’m a big proponent of getting words out quickly in the first draft, so I’ll write the cliché if nothing better is coming to me. I’ll even write
[insert simile here] and keep moving . One of my favorite similes started exactly that way but resulted in this exchange where a Black man asks his white friend to go to a country-western bar with him.
“I’ve gotta go support her, but I have a feeling I’m going to stand out like something less cliché than a sore thumb, if I could think of something less cliché than that.”
“You’re going to stand out like a black dude at a country-western bar?”
Ideally similes add detail by illuminating your character or your world. In the above example, we see that both characters have a sense of humor as well as an interest in language. “Like a sore thumb” on its own would’ve told the reader nothing.
Ask yourself what that specific character equates to dark/sharp/scary/beautiful. “Pierced like barberry thorns” for a wolf who’s spent most of his life in the woods. “Pierced like a silver-tipped letter opener” for a Regency-era nobility.
But remember, you don’t have to come up with it in the first draft. That’s what editing is for.