Thursday, December 20, 2007

Metaphors, Similes, and Analogies, Oh My...

One of the (other) things I've learned about writing - especially in the area of non-fiction, is that a good writer will find ways to recycle a piece for more than one purpose. Applying that lesson to myself, I took one of the ideas I had for this blog (and the "5 Things I've Learned About Writing" series I'm supposed to be doing) and wrote a speech for my Toast Master's club about Metaphors, Similes, and Analogies. I mention this upfront because I'm sure you'll notice the voice of this piece is different from my usual posts. When I write a speech for Toast Masters it tends to sound much more like more normal speaking 'voice' than when I write for print.

Metaphors, Similes, and Analogies, Oh My…

I was reading an article in National Geographic this past summer abut the intelligence of swarms. It talked about how any large group - everything from bugs to birds to a herd of buffalo - can take on an intelligence much greater than that of the individual components of the group – and how scientists are applying some of the principals of swarms to solve human problems. Included in that story was an example of a trucking company that had developed a computer model for routing its trucks based on algorithms inspired by the foraging behavior of Argentine ants, a species of ant known for laying trails by depositing pheromones.

Everybody get that? Let me repeat it: a trucking company developed a computer model for routing trucks based on algorithms inspired by the foraging behavior of Argentine ants, a species known for laying trails by depositing pheromones.

Okay, I like to pretend I’m a reasonably intelligent guy, but my first reaction was, “What…?”

But here’s the thing: In the next paragraph, the writer of that article gave me something I could sink my teeth into. He gave me an analogy. He said that what the ants (and therefore the trucking company) were doing was like when someone goes into the forest to collect berries. Over time a path is worn in the ground to the best places to find berries.

Now that I understood. Algorithms and ant pheromones? Not so much. Berries in the woods? Now you’re talking my language. And that’s kind of ironic, really, because, the language we’re talking about is pictures. Word pictures.

Writers (and speakers) are all trying to communicate a message, and to do so as clearly and effectively as possible. So what I want to talk about today is the power of metaphors, similes, and analogies. I’m not going to bore you with dictionary definitions of these terms, but the essence of all three is that they describe something by comparing it to something else.

There are a lot of ways to do this, and a lot of reasons to do this. You might be trying to describe something unusual – Argentine ants and their pheromones, for instance - so you compare it to something people are more familiar with. This helps them understand what you’re saying.

On the other hand, you might be talking about something very basic, like writing, and want to jazz it up. Writing in and of itself isn’t terribly hard; you’ve all been doing it since the first or second grade. But you want to make it more interesting, to catch people’s attention, so you might describe it using cooking terms. You might say that writing a story is like cooking a meal, and that if all you give people is meat and potatoes, they certainly won’t go hungry, but nobody’s going to rave about your cooking, either.

If you want to present a meal that really satisfies, you’ve got to spice it up a little. You’ve got to throw is some oregano, some thyme, maybe a little parsley on the side. Well, okay, skip the side of parsley. Nobody likes that stuff. Using parsley as a garnish is like using clich├ęs in your writing. Don’t waste people’s time.

You also have to be careful not to get carried away. If you noticed, I got kind of carried away with my analogy here and it turned from using cooking to describe writing, into using writing to describe cooking. As with herbs and spices in good cooking, you want to make sure you don’t over-do it. A little salt makes everything taste better, too much and it overpowers the meal. Everything in moderation.

Another advantage of using metaphors, similes, and analogies is this: they help people remember your keys points. By using one of these comparative devices, you are subliminally telling people (by placing extra emphasis on it) what your most important points are. That helps to reinforce those points in their minds.

Let’s say you’re writing a magazine article about gardening, and you’re trying to describe the perfect soil to plant rosemary in. And say the perfect soil for planting rosemary is rich but pale and very dry. Well, that’s not terribly evocative. But if you say it needs to be rich, pale, and very dry – kind of like Bill Gates… Hopefully you’ll get a laugh. But more importantly, you’ve reinforced your point, and made it one people won’t forget.

The last thing you want to remember is to make sure your metaphors and similes work with the subject matter you’re trying to describe. I remember one time a friend told me about someone who came to his writer’s group with a mystery story. And in this story the author had portrayed a particularly gruesome killing. He had the police at the crime scene trying to figure out ‘who done it,’ and suddenly the author describes the fingerprints the detective found like this: “Detective Spade studied the bloody print on the victim’s slashed throat and couldn’t help but notice how much the swirling pattern reminded him of the tiny whirlpool his toilet made when he flushed it.” That doesn’t add anything; in fact, it’s a terrible distraction. It’s counter-productive. You have to make sure your comparative descriptions fit with the tone of the subject matter.

Metaphors. Similes. Analogies. You can call them word pictures if that makes you happy. But I would say that more important than what you call them, or the differences between them, is remembering the power they have when used correctly. The power to clarify, the power to enliven, the power to reinforce. The power to make your writing really stand out – as if it were covered with Argentine ant pheromones.

1 comment:

Suanne said...

Thanks for some excellent writing advice. It also reminded me of the advice writers get that we not go live in a dark hole of isolation--because in order for a simile or metaphor to work, you've got to be comfortable discussing real-life subjects which you share an understanding of with your reader.