Writers in the Storm

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December 20, 2019

Use Comparison for Power

Laura Drake

Capture your reader's heart AND mind with comparisons

Description, run-on words, similes and metaphors are all ways to get your meaning across to your reader. I got the first two, but metaphors and similes....they were a bit fuzzy (school was a looooong time ago for me). Until I watched this scene from Renaissance Man, with Danny DeVito (if you've never seen it, you're missing out). I'll never confuse them again. Watch. We'll wait.

If you watch to 2 minutes — you've got it.

Simile = "like" something—comparing one thing to another. Metaphor = this IS that. Got it? Okay, but how can all this junior high English help strengthen your writing?

If you've read WITS much, you know I have a theory that extra words water down a scene, rather than strengthen it. I espouse "write tight." Comparisons are a shortcut. If you want something to hit home, but you need to do it fast, this is how. But the right comparison can do even more; it can add life to your scene. It puts the reader in the scene, because they've experienced the comparison.

This is from my WIP, The Road to Me. Nellie is an 84-year-old grandma.

Nellie is perky today, leaning forward, hands on the dash like a little kid going to McDonalds.

I could have described the look on her face, her movement, or her body language. But in comparing her to something disparate, can you "see" her excitement? Instead of telling you she's excited, the simile shows that she is. And the fact that it compares her to a child adds a tiny hit of humor, punching the power to a higher level.

I glare at Nellie, the picture of innocence. Her mouth is a machine gun with a hair trigger.

Metaphor: her mouth IS. And comparing it to something dangerous shows that the POV character fears what Nellie will say. This is making your words to double-duty, and it makes your text rich—meaty.

Speaking of, Margie Lawson taught me another comparison short-cut: Eponym – to substitute a name for an attribute. It takes some thinking, but it's a very short shortcut, and it can be powerful. You have to be careful to choose references all readers will understand though, or it flies over their heads.

Her dad’s Atticus Finch to Junior’s Vinnie Gambini.

Those are the basics. But here's where the fun comes in. You can pile up comparisons to move the character forward; to show their train of thought, that ends at a station of epiphany (see how I snuck in that comparison? God, I love this). Here's another example from The Road to Me:

It’s terrifying to think of going back to ground level where everything I’ve built is teetering over my head.

But I’m beginning to believe that’s exactly what I must do. 

If I can muster the courage. But if I swept all I have into a pile, would it be enough? If it isn’t, what then? Like at the edge of the Grand Canyon, where the ground crumbled away from my feet, vertigo slaps me. Leaving the science behind would be like leaping off that canyon wall, trusting that I had wings, in spite of the mirror, telling me I don’t.

A leap of faith.

It terrifies me. 

But so does failure. 

I still have to work on it a bit—I like the shaky building comparison, but it's just a bit off from the vertigo comparison. But the point is, these pile up and take her to the letting go and flying, which is exactly where her journey has led her, and what she MUST do to get everything she wants. My hope is that I've taken the reader to that edge and had them look over—they're experiencing the fear that the character is. Only you can tell me if I succeeded.

But can you see the advantage of using comparison as a shortcut to make your writing stronger?

If so, my job here is done.

Have you found this device to be helpful? Would you share a comparison from your work or others'?

About Laura

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14 comments on “Use Comparison for Power”

  1. So glad you're stressing the write tight. I'm one of those readers who doesn't like "beautiful words" getting in the way of the story. As for your example: Her dad’s Atticus Finch to Junior’s Vinnie Gambini.
    I know Atticus Finch. Have no clue who Vinnie Gambini is. 😉

      1. OK - Yes, I have seen My Cousin Vinnie. A bazillion years ago, and had no clue what his last name was. But I try very hard to avoid any comparisons to "famous people" when I'm writing, figuring there are those out there who are my age and might not have been to a movie in 20 years.

  2. As someone who watched "My Cousin Vinny" last week for the sixteenth or seventeenth, I say: YES! Perfect allusion. Except there are no perfect allusions. There's always going to be someone who doesn't know what you're referring to. But I think that's better (to me) than tired old cliches.
    #a fresh way of saying something

    I also like mixing up the senses. A writing teacher of mine nearly swatted me when I had a character say that her father couldn't carry a tune if his life depended on it (not a metaphor or a simile, just a cliche). I changed it to "couldn't carry a tune if it was made of feathers." I think that worked (but we'll see when that (second) book gets published 🙂

    Love your vivid examples, Laura! Thank you!

    1. I enjoyed this post, and I'm going to revisit a finished work and make sure I have utilized this advice. I don't mind not understanding references in a story; I enjoy looking them up. I learn a lot of new things that way.

  3. Thanks for reminding us about these powerful tools, Laura. Here are a few examples of word-wrangling in the first chapter of my most-recent novel, MY FRIEND MARILYN:
    -- My eyes stretched open to the size of hub caps ...
    -- Marilyn flashed a wedding-dress white grin.
    -- I shrugged and squinted like a child who just spilled a glass of milk.
    -- Her skin was as soft as a grandmother's kiss.
    -- ... Marilyn confided in a girlish whisper with words spoken as if they were floating on pillows.

    Keep helping us learn and grow. I'm convinced, it's a never-ending process!

  4. I love comparisons! Some of my favorite things to write. Since you asked, here's a quick simile from Sharing Hunter you might appreciate: "Being with Hunter might be as fun as an eight-second bull ride..." This from the character who would totally get on a bucking bull with a grin and a yeehaw! 😉

    LOVE your example! Great stuff, Laura.

  5. From an MS I recently submitted:

    Tony suddenly felt like the insect pinned on a mounting board.


    Bella looked in the mirror and was horrified at her brunette curls going every which way but tame as her mind raced to try to find a way out of today.


  6. Great Article. Loved the video of DDiv. I'm still working on my novella. But here is a few.

    Amy found her eyes pulled in fascination when Jillian kicked out her boots and stretched her tight jeans out over those muscular thighs. It was like watching a large jaguar cat that might purr if you stroke her the right way.

    She pulled her black Gi down, its heavyweight material scratchy and pressing like a thick oven mitt against her skin.

    Those guys were groaning like elephants in heat.

    The friend zone Jillian had fallen into was brushed away like a prairie fire sweeping over the crops of sun-dried corn stalks.

    I'm thinking I need to have a few more metaphors at this point to compensate for the LIKE analogies. But it is WIP.
    Thanks for the quick Tutorial.

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