What’s Missing From The Forest?

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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?

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I'm a 25 year old recent college graduate (who still clings to that title over two years after graduating) and aspiring author. I also love sports and going out with my friends.

37 thoughts on “What’s Missing From The Forest?

    1. Absolutely. It’s definitely tough to find a good balance, but like you said, the economy of words (even if it’s deciding to use more of them) is really important to a compelling story.

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  1. Love the post, and it could b surprising, but I actually like the second version better. Not that I am a friend of short descriptions myself, I actually like longer ones. But personally, I feel I get lost in them if I make them too long, so that second version of yours is way better, it really brings it home, as you said it. Thanks for the great advise, will use it wisely next time 🙂

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    1. Yeah I generally like short descriptions better, but only if they’re vivid enough to get the job done in just a few sentences. Sometimes longer descriptions are good though, especially if it’s supposed to slow down the pace. Thanks for stopping by

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  2. Great insight, David. The examples really help show how particularly with description, we can lose the forest for the trees. I agree with you, that longer descriptions–no matter how lovely–do not move the story along. Description adds a lot, but it it not the main focus of the piece and has to be used judiciously. Comparison is a great tool, and I hadn’t really thought to notice how effective it can be. Thanks!

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  3. Excellent post. As a beginning writer it is instructive, and I know I fall into the “too descriptive” trap at times. I’ll go back re-read some things I’ve written lately with this method in mind. Thanks!

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  4. Description is tricky–too much and you risk boring your reader; too little and you risk confusing them. I like the concept of using comparison to make description more vivid but with less words. Great post!

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  5. I stopped by to say thank you for the visit and the like, and I found education! Lol, I’m writing some fictional stories, so I found your post helpful.

    “The forest was a nightmare” sealed the deal for me. That one sentence said everything that needed to be about the forest. I could see it based on that sentence alone. I’m not sure how I would have written a description of the same forest, but I appreciate the lesson that you gave here. I’ll be back for more.

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  6. Great post, thank you. Examples always help. I agree the second shorter version was better – though, like another commenter above, I liked the sentence about the smell of the forest, as a way of evoking another sense. Yes, comparisons can be powerful when well used.

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  7. Great advice! I think if someone tries to give every little detail, by the time the reader is done trying to picture or imagine it, it just gets lost somewhere along the lines, if that kind of makes any sense. It sounded better in my head. Haha.

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    1. That absolutely makes sense – it’s what I was getting at. If you spend so much time reading a description, you get lost and forget the beginning by the time you reach the end

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  8. A great idea but you need to slow down to accomplish such neat writing I tend to race and it leads me into a lot of trouble with the grammar police. I also try to include some sensual stuff as we do rely on our sense of smell, even touch helps as does mentioning the temperature within the forest.

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  9. I like your first paragraph better. (Sorry) It shows me a more vivid picture of the forest. However, I would cut two sentences in it: “The air was warm and smelled heavy, like a spring night just before a storm.” and “It was easy to get lost because there were no signs.”. The first one here is kind of irrelevant. I would thing that the second one is assumed all ready.

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    1. The point of the first paragraph was to show how extraneous description can be cut. Also, relevance has to do with context, and here there is none. I take your point though, and actually agree with it – there are unnecessary parts of the first paragraph. And I get that some people like more concrete descriptions; to each his/her own! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a thoughtful response

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  10. “Comparison is like music during an emotional scene in a movie – it turns the words in your head into feelings in your heart. ” It scratches fear up your spine or floods your chest with relief. “Write like a river!” is my new mantra, my brother in ink. Great blog. Glad you stopped by mine and made me aware of you. Write on!

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  11. Your analysis of the first and second paragraph illustrated the point perfectly. I find that comparison is much more effective when not overused. There is nothing I get bored with faster than a page full of as ifs, likes, just likes, thats, etc. But a well-placed comparison can be worth a thousand pictures, and you don’t even have to say the words ‘like’ or ‘that’ to make it work. Am I on the right track?

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    1. I agree fully (you probably noticed from the post). A well-placed comparison is a really powerful thing, and the generic simile – ‘her green eyes were like emeralds’ – is just one of the many (and much more basic) ways to take advantage of it

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  12. I learnt something great!
    I’m learning to writing short stories and this tip, I think, will help me fare better… I think this idea actually leaves the story to the imagination of the reader- and that is one thing I like!

    Thanks for sharing this… Count me as one of your followers… I hope you return the favour. ☺

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  13. I was talking to someone the other day and to preface this situation, he wasn’t happy with me or anything we talked about during this particular phone conversation. I was trying to share an opinion of mine, which is how I believe it is very difficult for a person to achieve actual empathy for another…He kept interrupting me, saying I had empathy and sympathy confused, which I didn’t, I was only expanding on empathy itself. He was so angry, he looked up the two words and read/shouted the definitions! I just said, “Sure. You’re right. I’m wrong. Talk to you later.” My point was, while two people may have identical illnesses or losses in life, there are other components which make us look at our hardships and other potentially negative situations differently. Apathy is the lazy way out, empathy takes work, no matter what our situation may be. Your article reminded me of the struggle my friend has with both empathy as well as sympathy. Thanks for sharing your insights.

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