Monday, June 14, 2010

The Opera singer sang like a bad simile...

Last weekend my family went to a concert close to home. The kids in particular loved this one because they knew a lot of the music: some of their favorites from Disney movies and the Sound of Music.

There was a guest soloist who was amazing. She's a professional, sings with the National Opera, has traveled the world. She needs to only sing one or two notes for you to know: she's a star.

The thing is, she sang several beautiful songs from movies that my kids knew, and sang them true to the original versions.... until the last few bars. Then, unexplainably, she went into a highly operatic, showy series of notes as if to prove she was deserving of all the great things the program said of her.

The notes by themselves were, well, incredible. The problem was that they totally took us out of the song. All of a sudden I wasn't sucked into the beautiful melody and lulled by the emotion of the lyrics. I was suddenly thinking of those few notes, the ones that, while gorgeous, did not belong.

Earlier that afternoon I'd been talking with my 9 year old daughter about writing tests she was being prepared at school to take. One of the things the teacher has tried to drill into them is to use figurative language in their essays. So, like most young kids, my daughter has learned to sprinkle her writing with similes and metaphors.... which usually don't make sense. Or at the very least are awkward.

We were talking about how in school you have to learn how to do things that later you aren't suppose to do, like liberally use similes. When I told her that in my writing, editors discourage the liberal use of similes, she asked why. I told her that unless a simile was very very good, it takes a reader out of the story. They notice the comparison and stop to think about it instead of staying in the flow of the story.

So when we walked out of the concert, she said to me, "That last song, where the singer did that big thing at the end - that was like a simile, wasn't it? Because it made me think about how she was singing instead of enjoying the song."

Lesson learned.


  1. Wow, what a great analogy! It reminds me of the movie "Amadeus" when the king said, "too many notes!"

    I use way too many similes in my writing. It's a bad indulgence!

  2. So important to remember to write to the story, and not to prove yourself. Great advice.

  3. Clever girl you have there. Very, very bright.

  4. Smart girl, your daughter :) You make a great point. Showy language and wording can take a reader out of the story. Sometimes, straightforward is best.

  5. Smart daughter! I have had to learn to drop some of my similies--I've had too many and love them so I will remember your advice. Congrats on going to grad school!

  6. Very good way of explaining it! I completely agree.

    When I wrote my first draft I used beautiful similes. I thought they made me sound like an amazingly gifted writer. ;) Then, when I worked my way through my book for the first edit, I noticed the beautiful similes didn't flow well and actually irritated me. So, I got rid of them!

    Thanks for the post. It made me smile (laugh at myself).

  7. She's smart, that daughter of yours!
    I like similes, and now have learned how they can take a reader out of a story. Thanks!

  8. Okay, I'm TOTALLY impressed with your daughter's critical thinking skills. I doubt I would have made that connection--even if we'd had the discussion minutes before I heard the singer! Ha, ha!

  9. Wow, kudos to you and your daughter. You for explaining it so well and her for noticing it in real life.

  10. Thanks all! My daughter's a smart one, all right.

    I'm not blameless in the simile overuse! I tried to justify it in my last book because the main character was Texan and they use similes all the time. But in the last edits, I ended up cutting most of them out for the very reason that I noticed them.

    I do like a good one, though, as long as it enhances instead of distracts :)