Comparison: In writing – an analogy, simile, or metaphor.
“The trees were tall and dark, covered with twisting branches that reached for the dirt floor below. A hundred shadows danced and shifted in the underbrush that marked both edges the path. The air was warm and smelled heavy, like a spring night just before a storm. Overhead, black leaves formed a canopy that blocked out all of the moonlight that found its way through the clouds. Thick roots underfoot promised twisted ankles and bloody knees. It was easy to get lost because there were no signs.”
What’s missing from the forest? What do you think? I described it, but did it resonate with you? Can you picture it? Do you even remember the details you read about the forest? No? Let’s try again.
“The trees were tall and dark, covered with twisting branches that reached for the dirt floor below. A hundred shadows danced and shifted in the underbrush that marked both edges of the path, and thick roots underfoot promised twisted ankles and bloody knees.
The forest was a nightmare.”
The description is the same, reworded a little bit, and I cut most of it. But even though there’s less concrete physical description in the second one, I can picture it more clearly. It resonates with me on something more than an intellectual level. It’s anchored in my brain as a sense of the forest, of what it’s like to be among the trees, rather than an impersonal understanding of what might literally be in the forest. I could even cut the first two sentences if I really wanted to, because they don’t necessarily stay with me as I read on.
‘The forest was a nightmare’ isn’t original, or particularly imaginative (and neither are either of the paragraphs for that matter), but it still does the trick. It’s an example of what comparison can add to your descriptions.
It’s also an example of what comparison can help you cut from your descriptions. If you use comparison correctly, it allows you to cut a huge amount of extra words and sentences, all the while helping you paint an even more vivid picture. I know that some people might prefer the first paragraph, and if you do just imagine adding the comparison to the end of that one. Think about how that changes it.
Have you ever read a book that you thought was great, but just didn’t connect with? A book that didn’t make you feel like you were a part of its world, didn’t make you feel like you could truly see everything that was happening? A manuscript lacking in comparison often goes through your head just fine. What it doesn’t do is go through your heart or your gut.
As a disclaimer: Comparison also slows a reader down, makes him or her think, and brings attention to your words. Be mindful of where and how often you use it.
“Write smoothly. Write quickly sometimes, slowly others, and on occasion somewhere in between. Always move forward, even if you’re taking a bit of a winding route. Write with good description on either side, but make sure you’re always driving towards the end.
Write like a river.”
The first part describes the way you should write. But do you connect with it, let alone remember it after you’ve read it? Not really. If you ask me I’d say that it’s the comparison at the end, ‘Write like a river,’ that drives it home.
You can also use comparison to paint a better picture of a person – not just how they look, but how they act. In Noah Lukeman’s ‘The First Five Pages,’ he uses this example: “I’m suspicious and easily offended, like a hunchback.” What does it mean if you’re suspicious and easily offended? Plenty of people are. That description goes in one ear and out the other (or in both eyes and out..whatever, your nose or something). But being suspicious and easily offended, like a hunchback, brings a whole new meaning to the words because we understand the difficulties that hunchbacks must face, how their whole lives and the way people treat them can make them suspicious and easily offended. The comparison is powerful.
We’re all unique, and we can all make comparisons that other people would never think of. We can all be amazingly creative. Take time to develop that skill and it will add something intangible to your stories, something that a lot of writers, even published ones, are missing. Don’t find what’s missing from the forest, find what’s missing from your forest.
We write about dark alleys, sweeping vistas, bottomless oceans, forests, fields, cities, a back porch with a worn and comfortable rocking chair, a dirt road overgrown with weeds and flowers – but no matter what we write about, we all have the same responsibility. We all have to make our world come alive. Comparison is like music during an emotional scene in a movie – it turns the words in your head into feelings in your heart. Try using it consciously and see what happens.
What do you think? How do you feel about comparison? Do you think it’s just a nice way to describe, or do you think it’s a powerful tool to bring your words to life? Just for fun, what is your favorite example of comparison?