As I read a novel, I like to collect some of its most evocative phrases and store them in my journal.
Leafing through that journal, I’ve noticed that analogies (metaphors, similes, and the like) far outweigh all other types of phrases, which has led me to ponder the allure of the gems that make up such a large portion of my dragon’s horde.
Why do writers create analogies, and why do readers gobble them up?
A few theories:
#1 Analogies send a quick message by tapping your mind’s eye.
Poetry is much shorter than prose. Poetry is also much more analogy-laden than prose. I think there’s a strong argument to be made that this is no mere case of correlation, but a rare, bona fide example of causation!
When a writer uses an analogy, she is painting a vivid visual image for her reader, and that image, as the old saying goes, is worth a thousand words.
In Ireland, a magnificently poetic novel by Frank Delaney, we here that “The raindrops are hopping like frogs.” Now, if Delaney was a more extravagant writer, he could have spent several sentences describing the particular variety of rain which was drenching his characters. Instead, he just says “the raindrops are hopping like frogs,” and we see exactly what he means.
Another masterful stroke from Frank Delaney is the statement that “you gaze at a mountain, from a distance, and you see a shining river that looks like the spoor of a snail.” Again, Delaney could have clogged that river up with adjectives and verbs and the like. Instead, he simply tells us what it looks like, and we are enchanted by his precision.
#2 Analogies make abstract or unfamiliar ideas understandable.
Occasionally, a writer uses an analogy not just as a short cut to her message but as the only possible route to her message. These messages are so complex, profound, or exotic that they can’t be described directly.
Take a look at EE Cummings’ heart-throbbing poem, “I Carry Your Heart.”Cummings writes, “it’s you are whatever the moon has always meant / and whatever a sun will always sing is you.” He doesn’t bother trying to tell us what the moon means, the sun sings, or even what his love truly represents. He just brings us as close to understanding as we can get, using universal symbols.
Another example can be found in a book title itself: A Wrinkle in Time. Of course, Madeleine L’engle can’t explain the quantum mechanics of a wormhole through time and space…but she can demonstrate its effects to us with just four little words.
#3 The human brain is hard-wired to form patterns.
It’s a phenomenon hailed by psychologists as apophenia, and it is very much a part of our day-to-day life: cursing our bad luck when we have a series of mishaps on our way to work, racing to connect the dots in a Sherlock Holmes story before the great sleuth catches the culprit himself, seeing Jesus’ face in a piece of toast. We do it all.
It should be little surprise, then, that a writer’s mind is hard at work connecting images to images and ideas to symbols. Creating, or even reading, a fresh analogy is like unveiling a new fragment of the giant pattern which we are all programmed to believe the universe is made out of. The more creative a writer’s analogies are, the more lofty and far-sighted she seems to us.
In Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, I came across one of the best analogies I’ve seen in a while: “she had a cough that was as much a part of her as a song is part of a bird.” That type of statement is not just explanatory, it’s inspiring.
The exalted F. Scott Fitzgerald tosses around analogies like nobody else. Here’s a passage which has echoed in my mind for years: “He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.” Here, Gatsby’s unutterable, god-like visions are translated into a sound that our imaginations can just grasp: a tuning-fork struck upon a star.