Bad analogies

Bad Analogies

This post will explain bad analogies like a gull would explain how to fly. Did you get that? No? Agreed, it was a pretty terrible analogy. You don’t want your writing to smell of this. But what should you do then?

What is it?

An analogy is ‘a comparison of two things based on their being alike in some way’, according to Merriam-Webster. There are various types of analogies. There’s the simile, where one thing is described as being like another. Then there’s the metaphor, where one thing is referred to as another. Then there are parables and allegories, and more.

A bad analogy is a comparison that is not very good, or confusing. They come in several forms:

  • The similarity between the things compared is tenuous or unclear.
  • The way the analogy is brought is confusing or vague.
  • The comparison leads to unintended other associations.

Some examples

One example of a very unclear analogy, is the one in the introduction. A gull explaining how to fly? How would that even work? There is no clear similarity. Comparisons only work if the audience understands them.

For instance, ‘he struck like a cobra’ is pretty clear. However, ‘he struck like a cichlid’ a lot less so. You’d have to know that that’s a particular type of fish that can be quite aggressive. That can make analogies perilous, especially when using pop-culture ones. ‘His Chris-Hemsworth-like appearance made heads turn’ is understandable now, but will it be in ten years?

Sometimes it’s not the analogy, but how it is formulated. Take a look at the following.

The coach took him through the city of embers. Magic surrounded him. Gold stars fell from the sky, the sunlight hitting rain drops. Houses grew bigger. When they reached the center of the city, a bear greeted him.

“Greetings,” the guard said.

That was confusing, wasn’t it? The problem is that a fantasy setting with magic is established in the first two sentences. The analogies following those sentences become confusing. Are gold stars really falling from the sky? Do the houses really grow bigger? Is there really a bear, or is it a man looking like a bear? The analogies are not bad, per se, but their use in this context is confusing.

Then there are unintended associations. Take a look at the following.

She rounded the corner in a daze, half-sleep-walking to the bath room. She froze when she unexpectedly stood face-to-face with a stranger. In her own house. At two in the morning.

She screamed like a cat in heat.

Cat’s in heat do scream, and it’s a pretty terrible scream. The reproductive connotation of the analogy, however, eclipses the similarity of the scream to that of a cat. This makes the analogy seem only appropriate for a bad romance novel or porn movie.

How to fix it

You can always remove the bad analogies, but that isn’t always the best idea. Analogies are the spice that adds flavour to your story. They can make it, or break it. Don’t remove them. Fix them.

The solution to these problems is to know your audience and ensure that your analogies are understood by them. Often, a simple critical look is enough. Replacing¬† the ‘he struck like a cichlid’ example by the ‘he struck like a cobra’ one is simple. Although, you might be going into the realm of the clich√© with it.

Another option is to make sure the analogy is understood by foreshadowing. If the main character in your story loves fish, it is quite possible to explain how the cichlid is a violent fish somewhere in the story, and then use the ‘he struck like a cichlid’ analogy later. Then it’s not weird, it’s actually doing double-duty for characterization.

Let’s take another look at the second example. This was unclear because of the context. Let’s do some rewriting.

The coach took him through the city of embers. Magic surrounded him. The sunlight hit rain drops, making it seem gold stars fell from the sky. Houses grew bigger as he came closer to the centre of the city. When he arrived there, a bear of a man greeted him.

“Greetings,” the guard said.

See what I did there? For the gold-star analogy, I put the explanation first, then the analogy. I linked the ‘houses grew bigger’ analogy much more clearly to the act of movement. Finally, I changed ‘a bear’ to ‘a bear of a man’.

In all three instances, the way the analogy was written down was confusing. With some simple rewriting, the analogies become much sharper.

That leaves the ‘cat in heat’ analogy. Removing the reproductive connotation is enough. How about ‘she screamed like a cat whose tail was stepped on’.

Playing around with analogies is actually pretty fun. It requires some knowledge of your audience, and a good eye for detail when editing, but they make for far better writing.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands