Monday, September 24, 2012

Close Encounter with a Cliche

As the words left her lips, his meaning hit her like a bolt of lightning. - Once a Duchess, by Me

The above is a line from my novel. Over the course of this particular sentence, my heroine, Isabelle, arrives at a stunning realization. I chose to couch the experience in a simile with which you may be acquainted, the bolt of lightning.

I'm certainly not the first to utilize lightning imagery to illustrate something sudden, huge, and -- dare I? -- shocking.  As figures of speech go, lightning used as part of a simile or metaphor effectively conveys the idea of the unexpected and portentous.

Here is our hero, quietly breaching a secure government facility, minding his own business, when a gorgeous security guard arrives on the scene. Their eyes lock, and KABLOOIE! Metaphorical lightning strikes. Obviously, something is going to happen between these two. Because lightning.

Recently, I had an up close encounter with actual, from-the-sky lightning which has me rethinking the use of this particular linguistic device.

A fistful of hyperbole.
It was a typical Southern summer evening. The sky was overcast with high clouds. Rain fell gently to make sure the morrow would be plenty humid, and thunder rumbled gently in the distance. I was sitting at my desk (which is right next to a window), quietly surfing the webs, minding my own business, when KABLOOIE! There was a searing white flash, instantly followed by a bright orange ball of fire (which was more of an impression than a clear image, as the white flash had rendered me temporarily mole-blind) right outside my window, accompanied by a deafening blast. I felt a physical punch in my chest. My ears rang. For the rest of the evening, the tip of my tongue was numb and my chest ached.

The lightning hit a tree, peeled its bark, then obliterated a cable box (thus the fireball). It traveled up the wires to scorch the siding on our house and ruin a few more electrical devices, both outside and inside our home. There was smoke. There was confusion. There were curious and helpful neighbors. The fire department came with an infrared scanner to make sure there were no hot spots lurking inside our walls which might burst into flame. It was Very Scary.

Fortunately, the damage was all easily repaired, and neither I nor my family suffered any lasting harm from the event.

But, in its wake, I wonder about the wisdom of using lightning as a figurative image in my writing from here on. On the one hand, the strike carried all the markers we associate with literary lightning. It was sudden, unexpected, huge, and left me decidedly rattled for some hours. And yet... it feels rather overstated now to describe a mental realization as "like a bolt of lightning." Certainly, we can become appraised of information which takes us off guard and leaves us numb and reeling. But I'm not sure lightning is the right turn of phrase. Perhaps in some extreme situations.

For now, for myself, I think I'll have to put lightning out to pasture.

What do you think, readers? Is lightning too extreme for casual literary use? A boring cliche? Perfect for holidays and other special occasions? Let me know in the comments!

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