Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mad as a box of frogs - the art of the analogy

At the Love Is Murder conference in Chicago earlier this month, I was asked to give a 90-minute Master Class connected to the craft of writing a crime novel. Mine was called ‘Getting Your Plot Together’, which pretty much did what it said on the can.

Of course, in trying to cram in everything that I felt was important when it comes to planning out your story, deciding what suspense is (and how to create it) I inevitably ran out of time before I ran out of material. I hope all those who attended found the notes I sent out later useful. In fact, many of them were kind enough to email and say just that. It makes all the late nights swotting and worrying over the coursework worthwhile!

One email in particular I received last week has stuck in my mind. It was from a writer called Randy Overbeck. He had not only attended the Master Class, but was generous enough to buy a copy of one of my books, SECOND SHOT: Charlie Fox book six to read afterwards. And, even more generously, he was dropping me a line to let me know that he was enjoying both the story and the way it was told. In particular, he said, he liked my descriptions, and especially the simile-driven ones.

Like I said - generous. (This man will go far.)

I try to be very spare with my descriptions of things because long narrative passages are the bits I tend to skip over when I’m reading. And if I’m not prepared to read something myself, why should I expect anyone else to do so?

So, I like analogies - comparisons that aim to provide a fast explanation of something unfamiliar by comparing it to something easier to recognise, but in such a way that it doesn’t slow down the story.

This is not quite the same as straight similes and metaphors, which can both be used as part of an analogy. Without wishing to make spectacular egg-sucking noises …

… a metaphor is a comparison that is implied by being used more as a straight piece of description. To say someone is “splitting hairs”, describe them as “the black sheep of the family”, or tell them “it’s raining men (Hallelujah!)” and these are all metaphors. (clichéd metaphors perhaps, but metaphors nevertheless.)

Whereas a simile is a direct comparison using “as” or “like”. If you “wandered lonely as a cloud”, or to quote Vladimir Nabokov you have “elderly American ladies leaning on their canes (who) listed toward me like towers of Pisa” you’re firmly in simile territory.

(These ladies are not leaning, of course, they are practising the gentle art of 'cane fu' ...)

A nice example of an analogy using both simile and metaphor is this:

‘The structure of an atom is like a solar system. The nucleus is the sun the electrons are the planets revolving around their sun.”

The trick is to use analogies that are not so hackneyed they have long-since lost all relevance or meaning. I’m sure modern processes in industrial dyeing have solved the problem of how to change the colour of a non-white fleece, so being the black sheep of the family no longer means you produce wool with no commercial value.

The examples of analogy, metaphor and similes that Randy remarked upon in SECOND SHOT were:

“She pinned me with a clear violet gaze. It lanced straight through my chest and slid into my heart, sly and brutal as a blade.”

“… overlooking the corrugated waters of the harbour …”


“… sleek-lined yachts built for fast summer cruising and which, at this time of year, looked like a group of racehorses shivering together in a muddy field.”

This brought to mind a list I recalled reading of really bad similes (Freudian, or what?) that were supposed to have been culled from high school essays. Closer inspection, however, reveals that most of them came from a competition in a newspaper (I believe it was the Washington Post) intending to find really bad similes. Here are some of my favourites:

“Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.”

“He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a landmine or something.”

“He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.”

“The revelation that his marriage of thirty years had disintegrated because of his wife’s infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM.”

“The lamp just sat there, like an inanimate object.”

“Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36pm travelling at 55mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19pm at a speed of 35mph.”

“Her hair glistened in the rain like nose hair after a sneeze.”

“He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River.”

“Even in his last years, Grandpappy had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.”

“It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.”

“Her date was pleasant enough, but she knew that if her life was a movie this guy would be buried in the credits as something like ‘Second Tall Man’.”

“She walked into my office like a centipede with ninety-eight missing legs.”

“The thunder was ominous-sounding, much like the sound of a thin sheet of metal being shaken backstage during the storm scene in a play.”

“The sardines were packed as tight as the coach section of a 747.”

You have to admit, some of these are so bad they’re actually really good. What about you - any favourites (of your own or others) that you’d care to share?

This week’s Word of the Week is catachresis, from the Greek for ‘abuse’. It means the use of the wrong word in a given context, such as using ‘decimate’ instead of ‘devastate’, or ‘ravished’ when we mean ‘famished’ or ‘ravenous’; using a forced figure of speech, such as “’Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon’s purse.” (Shakespeare, Timon of Athens); using a word that isn’t entirely correct because otherwise there would be no suitable word, such as describing a chair as having ‘legs’ when we mean the posts that hold the seat off the floor; or the replacement of a word with something more ambiguous, such as changing ‘unemployed’ to ‘job-seeker’.


  1. Your list of lovely similes contain many examples of catachresis in action, shooting from the screen like nerf balls from a machine gun. In other words, knock me over with a father.

  2. LOL, EvKa -- your father or somebody else's?

  3. Zoe, reading your posts is like being at the dinner party with five witty people only all of them are you!

    1. Now there's a frightening thought! Five Zoës at the same table.

    2. Thank you, Annamaria. That's the nicest thing anyone's said to me all day.

      Of course, it's at this point I realise you were merely giving an example of a simile ... :)

    3. Be afraid, Stan. Be very afraid ...

    4. It is a simile, Zoe, but it is true none the less.

    5. Aw, thanks Annamaria. You're a star :)

  4. I loved this! Good similes and metaphors always make me smile...and the bad ones make me smile, too - like a person smiling at a bad metaphor. *snicker*

    Thanks for a great post today!

    1. I love the tortured similes you sometimes get, such as this one for something that is very, very slow:

      'It was like watching two glaciers
      playing chess
      via a web cam ...'

  5. Ahh, I saved myself for the last word. No reason to save myself for anything else. It's lonely out here in -12F northwestern New Jersey farmland, but thanks, Zöe, for those wonderfully camp Wash Post analogies, they brought a genuine simile to my analogy starved face.

    Now about that dinner party...

    1. We're in the midst of two weeks of sunny, 55F days. Not that I (to schlep a simile) would rub it in like a bad massage or anything...

    2. My heart would bleed for you, Jeff, but then I remember you spend half the year on a Greek Island ...

      This dinner party -- want me to bring dessert?

    3. Should I ask what kind of an ending there is to this aforementioned massage, EvKa? Ahem ...

    4. Is it just me, Jeff, or is there something distinctly fishy about your last answer ...?

  6. Now for your reading pleasure, a few more from the Washington Post.

    She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.
    She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.
    It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.
    She was as unhappy as when someone puts your cake out in the rain, and all the sweet green icing flows down and then you lose the recipe, and on top of that you can’t sing worth a damn.
    Her artistic sense was exquisitely refined, like someone who can tell butter from I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.

    1. I like all those, too, Jono, but I had to leave some of them out or I would have gone on and on and on, etc

      Stuart Pawson always comes up with some crackers in his DI Charlie Priest series:

      'He pecked away at the computer keyboard with all the confidence of a novice bomb-disposal expert.'

      And (of a shotgun suicide) 'He was dead before he hit the ceiling.'

  7. :) Jono and Zoe, what dinner party?

    1. Ooh, great. Hey, Annamaria -- the party's at Cara's place! I'll bring a bottle :)

    2. If one decision can guarantee a happy ending (for a dinner party) it's putting you, Zöe, in charge of dessert. Let EvKa stick to the sole...

  8. You're so kind :)

    But, hey JΣΓΓ. What’s with the accent over the ‘o’ all of a sudden?!?

    1. I learned the secret to unlocking my vowels. Just touch and hold and voilà. ΤΖΕΦ

    2. Great, now can you do the same with the 'e'? :)))))))

    3. Ô. Sorry about that. I'll have to fire my copy editor. I think the bugger had Jørn's "ø" on his mind when looking for a home for an umlaut. ;))

    4. Perhaps we should start a campaign: 'give a home to poor umlauts who have no visible means of support' ?