'Tis the happy yuletide season! In this corner that means it's time to unwrap a few lovely lines from the Santa's bag we call the Good Stuff -- those similes or metaphors or graceful images that light up our passages of prose. They come from all over.
Hal Habib of the Palm Beach Post covered the Kentucky Derby in May. A horse named Barbaro won the fabled Race for the Roses by 6 1/2 lengths. Only four Derby winners in history ever posted better times. Said Habib: "Barbaro ran through the rose patch and never felt a thorn." (Pause, please, to say a prayer for the ill-fated Barbaro and to admire the nice iambic beat of 'NEV-er FELT a THORN. Cadence counts.)
Another sportswriter, Mark McCarter of the Huntsville (Ala.) Times, covered a long-drive contest won by golfer Mark Northey: "He came armed with a Ping driver the size of a snare drum and a shaft the color of a school bus." (One of the tricks of successful imaging is to stick with familiar objects -- in this case, snare drums and school buses.)
Rick Reilly, the greatly talented columnist for Sports Illustrated, is a master of the well-turned line. Recently he wrote about the art of the free throw in basketball. Some players are really inept; they look as if they are "flinging live quail." They have the gentle touch of "a sumo wrestler wearing catcher's mitts."
But an old pro, Rick Barry, still can sink free throws "like cops sink doughnuts." He's "as automatic as a Bulova, as reliable as sun-up." (Notice the elements Reilly employs: catcher's mitts, cops, live quail and doughnuts.)
Good similes are always short similes. The limp ones suffer not only from a surplus word but even from a surplus syllable. Last May a writer for the Economist was discussing the construction of Scotland's new Parliament building: "The cost rose like a startled snipe." Seven words! (Idle thought: Would this good sentence have been made better by a touch of alliteration, e.g., "soared like a startled snipe"? You be the editor.)
My file of the Good Stuff yields a 5-year-old clipping from the Daily News in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Staff writer Michael Stewart was describing the helter-skelter development along Highway 98: "The growth is hit and miss, with a commercial building here and a horse barn there, like a child scribbling furiously outside the lines of a coloring book."
Similes and metaphors are not the only devices in a writer's little bag of tricks. Sometimes a well-placed pun will light up a paragraph. Larry Millson of the Toronto Globe and Mail was writing last summer about the Yankees' three losses to Detroit: "And, of course, the Alex Rodriguez saga figures to go yawn and yawn."
Alliteration is a lovely device, but it is the garlic of style: A little goes a very long way. A book critic in the New York Times was pushing the outer limits last month in a review of a biography of the mythical James Bond. When he was not pursuing villains, the British agent was romancing "a bevy of beauteous babes." Or perhaps a galaxy of glamorous girls? Or a couch of consanguineous cuties? On second thought, probably not.
Stick with familiar elements! Bernard Holland of the Times was writing a few weeks ago about conductor Kurt Masur's return to New York with the London Philharmonic. In his time as music director of the New York Philharmonic, "Mr. Masur was received as something of a drill sergeant in charge of a wayward platoon, a kind of bitter medicine designed to purge the orchestra of its loose ways." This may have been a mixing of more-or-less metaphors with semi-similes, but it worked.
On that cheerful note, we suspend for some seasonal sustenance. May all your similes succeed in ought-ought-seven!
Readers are invited to send dated citations of usage to James J. Kilpatrick in care of The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.