James J. Kilpatrick

'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."

James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

Be the first to read James Kilpatrick's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com delivered each morning to your inbox.