Good things, they say, often come in small packages. Once upon a time a small envelope contained two tickets to Cancun; and once a jeweler’s little black box opened upon a diamond ring. Smallness also warms the writing art. Gibbon’s five volumes of Roman history are justly famed, but a sportswriter’s four-word simile also can merit friendly applause.
The sportswriter is Paul Daugherty of The Cincinnati Enquirer. A year or so ago, he wrote about a high school teacher, Karen Buckmeier, who became mentor and godmother to Ike Reese, a poor black kid with a big talent for basketball but no love for learning. Theirs was “a love story, a trust story, a respect story, and a story about the extraordinary potential of the human spirit.”
Every time Reese cut classes or slacked off, Mrs. B. propped him up: She was on him “like ketchup on fries.”
Ahhh! What a splendid simile! It meets every requirement: It contains no unnecessary words, and it relies upon familiar elements. Every one of Daugherty’s readers knows about ketchup, and virtually all of them must have sampled a french fry. We get the message: Ketchup picks up a potato just as loving discipline leavens the learning process.
Good similes are as crisp as Daugherty’s potatoes. Peter Bronson, another of the Enquirer’s stable of gifted writers, last year remembered a long-ago time in Colorado. Over the years, he wrote, such memories expand “like a sponge in water.” Everybody has met a sponge.
Keep your similes short! Anthony Lane writes great reviews for The New Yorker magazine. Last month he wrote about the movie “Inside Man.” Actor Clive Owen capably plays the role of a (presumably) British bank robber, “but his American accent keeps slipping like an old sock.” Everybody owns an old sock.
Play with words! Last year Ben Brantley of The New York Times reviewed a new musical, “Monty Python’s Spamalot.” In this takeoff on the Arthurian legend, “the horseplay’s the thing.” The venerable king is more or less the straight man of the show, “but straight in the language of Python requires a certain degree of bentness.” (There appears to be no such word as “bentness,” but Brantley holds a lifetime license to coin.)
The Times’ Maureen Dowd is famous for her crackers. (A “cracker,” in city-room speak, is the final sentence in an essay of fewer than 1,000 words.) Last August she fretted about the piddling economies imposed by President Bush upon his White House staff. “He doesn’t really need to worry about turning down the lights. The place is already totally in the dark.” (Notice, all you writers, how her cracker was improved by that “totally.” The adverb is not makeweight or padding. Without it, the cracker crumbles.)
When we play with words we often engage in wordplay. In a movie review in The Washington Post two months ago, a critic praised Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of the dastardly Dr. Tarnower in “Mrs. Harris.” The infidelitous fellow breaks into a crude, cruel laugh “when struck by what foolishness some morals be.”
Good reporters learn in their cradles that every word must count in a good lead. Nancie L. Katz provided an admirable example in the New York Daily News some months ago: “A two-bit burglar wound up a three-time loser yesterday when he drew a sentence of 18 years to life for a bungled break-in that left him a broken man.”
What a lovely lead! There’s no way to stop reading Katz’s story – and the first aim of good writing, after all, is to make a reader want to keep on reading.
James Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.