One Saturday afternoon many years ago, I was sitting around a table with a bunch of people, one of whom was a philosophy professor. He was trying to explain free will vs. providence. “Imagine a baby with two food choices in front of him,” the professor said. “Even though his mother knows which food he’ll choose, the baby thinks he’s making his own decision.”
I totally hated his explanation. I felt it was patronizing to us college-educated big shots, like, “Since you don’t understand this concept, let me get down to your level and explain it in simpler terms.”
The professor was using an analogy to make a lofty concept more understandable, and although I didn’t appreciate his words at that particular moment, the incident got me thinking.
Most great orators, be they politicians, inspirational speakers, or religious figures, use analogy – as well as metaphor and simile – to get their points across in easily understandable and entertaining ways.
So do writers.
Years later, after having dissected dozens of books and edited hundreds of them, I realized that sometimes these three literary devices are often the only way – or the best and most succinct way – to explain a concept. This is because they are built on a reader’s previous knowledge and experiences.
We need analogy, metaphor, and simile in our writing. But that doesn’t mean we have to make them boring, infantile, or otherwise uninspired.
What are analogy, metaphor, and simile?
In a nutshell:
- Analogy is comparing two things that are dissimilar.
- Metaphor is making something a proxy for something else.
- Simile is using “like,” “as,” or “than” to compare two entities.
A caveat: You might have learned slightly different definitions of analogy and metaphor from your English teacher, but don’t get hung up on this; just use the devices when necessary, and don’t fuss.
Now for more detailed definitions, and some examples.
Analogy uses a known entity to explain an unknown entity in more familiar language.
“To understand the movement of planets around the sun, think of a basketball with nine balls of various sizes encircling it.”
Metaphor evokes an image in your mind so you will more readily understand the idea.
“They call my father Mount Vesuvius because of his terrible temper.”
Simile is more of a straight comparison.
- “It made my blood boil like the water in Mama’s teakettle.” (Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls)
- “She must shine in every detail, like a diamond you’re buying retail.” (Funny Girl)
Simile is deceptively simple, but it can be way powerful. It adds color to your writing and summons up images in your reader’s mind.
Why we need analogy, metaphor, and simile
1. They help your reader visualize what you’re trying to get across.
Instead of three pages describing his brother, the protagonist in Jonathan Tropper’s marvelous This Is where I Leave You characterizes him with the following analogy:
“He is the Paul McCartney of our family: better-looking than the rest of us, always facing a different direction in pictures, and occasionally rumored to be dead.”
2. They’re good for Show.
Metaphor helps your readers understand the atmosphere or feeling you want to create. Pay attention to how Tropper describes an air conditioning unit to describe the protagonist’s mood:
“When I wake up I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to escape the dim silence of the basement to find [my dead father] again, but there’s only darkness and the sad, steady whisper of the central air handler behind the wall, telling its mechanical secrets in the dark.”
3. They’re good for Tell.
Simile can add spice to an otherwise ho hum Tell passage. For example, take the sentence, “I jumped on my attacker.” What if you wrote the following instead:
4. They work really well when you have an intangible concept you want to explain but don’t have the right words for it.
Comparing tangible entities with an intangible concept is effective. For instance, notice how some religions use analogy and metaphor to explain God’s might, e.g., “He brought [them] out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm” (Psalms 136:11–12) or “The right hand of God” (Psalms 18:16).
5. They leverage the reader’s knowledge and help him or her draw conclusions based on what he or she already knows.
Analogy, metaphor, and simile make deeper impressions. They’re similar to mnemonic devices, although they draw on the imagination instead of memorization to help the reader or listener learn or understand. For example, if you’re trying to explain what a jackhammer is, you could say the following:
“Think of an electric pogo stick. The guy holds the tip of the stick, and when he turns it on, it makes an earsplitting noise and drills a hole in the stone floor.”
6. They are effective tools for “manipulating” or guiding your reader to feel or understand in a certain way.
How about these:
“[Las Vegas feels] like someone’s crunched the entire world into one street and left out all the boring bits.” (Shopaholic series, Sophie Kinsella)
- George’s political leanings were slightly to the right of Attila the Hun.
How to come up with analogy, metaphor, and simile
Close your eyes and visualize your goal. Ask yourself the following questions:
- How do I want the reader to feel?
- What am I trying to accomplish? Do I want the reader to understand a difficult concept or laugh out loud? Or do I want to create a specific picture in the reader’s mind or simply explain what something looks like, sounds like, feels like, etc.?
- What mood do I want to create?
- Can my goal best be accomplished through some sort of comparison device?
- Who is my ideal reader, and what would work best for him or her?
When using analogy, metaphor, or simile, your goal is for the comparison to glide into your reader’s brain and automatically register. Make it smooth and seamless.
Now I’d love to hear from you: can everyone please come up with a comparison or two and drop them in the Comments section below? Think of the fun we’ll all have reading them!
Here are three to get you started:
- “The diplomatic origins…of the Great War are only the fever chart of the patient; they do not tell us what caused the fever.” (Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower)
- “Was I worried? Think of Voldemort with just one horcrux left.” (Deena Nataf)
- “The ensuing row at home made Wagner’s Götterdämmerung sound like a Gilbert and Sullivan light opera.” (my dear subscriber, Fred Raynes)
Come on, guys! Sock those analogies, metaphors, and similes to me!