Wednesday, May 14, 2008


I'm aware that I use a very distinct method of description. Some people are gifted with a fine technical style -- they can describe the lines of faces and expressions, they can discuss the details of various material components, and they can remember what even the most complex abbreviations mean.

On my end, however, I find it difficult to go into extensive detail about a single object. Instead, I tend to work on initial impressions a lot -- that is, I consider the first things that I would notice about the object in question, and then base my introductory descriptions solely on those. From there, I try to flesh things out as I slowly fill out the story or the essay at hand.

Over the last decade I've found that this approach doesn't serve me well when it comes to mundane things like academic reports, corporate presentations, and personal contracts. These things all require some form of accuracy in words, which is something that my sense of vaguery is ill-equipped to deal with.

With literary, critical and reflective writing, however, it's quite a different thing. I can be about as obtuse or analogical as I want, so long as I make sense and get my point across. In a sense, I can't give you a lot of really specific details as to what a bomb looks like or how it works... but I can easily imply how big a boom it's likely to give out.

This dates back to my elementary English classes, I think. I was constantly fascinated by my English classes, mostly because I was already very fluent in the language and thus did not have to struggle (much) for good grades. As a result, I was constantly skipping to the more advanced lessons and spending a lot more time in the library than was healthy for me.

This was where I learned the various aspects of literary analogy. I love the concept of analogy, and I feel that it's a little like the learning process: you get to compare unfamiliar ideas with established concepts, and every little piece of commonality that you manage to realize between the two simply increases your knowledge of both.

In a sense, an analogy stretches the capabilities of the human mind. It's a little challenge all by itself -- I mean, do you understand why the two objects in question are being compared to each other? The fact that it single-handedly prepared me for my one and only SAT exam just happened to be a bonus.

My first lesson on literary analogy covered three basic approaches, which I discuss here without benefit of reference. (So I'm going purely on what I remember at this point.)

Simile - this is a direct comparison in every sense of the phrase. A simile merely takes two objects and compares them to each other in such a way that the association is extremely straightforward, i.e. "one is like the other." Similes are easily identified by phrases such as "like" and the "as... as" combination:

He was like a shadow that had suddenly sprouted up from the sidewalk: thin, spindly, and ready to cast you in darkness if you so much as moved in front of him.

He was as tempermental as a rattlesnake on a bad day, and as foolish as the man who would have poked it with a stick.

I normally use similes whenever I introduce objects or characters in the middle of a story. I feel that a direct comparison usually implies a greater public consciousness about the subject in question -- as though the description is part of a larger consensus that you tap into when you read the narrative. In addition to that, it also helps you get inside a character's head -- especially under a first-person viewpoint -- and lets you see things based on whatever the character has in mind.

Metaphor - a metaphor is an indirect comparison where a reader isn't automatically forced to compare the two given subjects. Instead, metaphors try to get you to imagine one object as a different object, allowing you to juxtapose the two items and therefore get a general idea of how one acts just like the other in the given context.

He was a shadow that slunk along the walls of the alleyway, a silhouette against the glare of the guttering street lights.

He was a snake, a skunk, a lizard who somehow crawled up from the cracks of wherever they kept lizards nowadays, all balled up with the crocodiles in the sewers below.

Oddly enough, I hardly use direct metaphors nowadays. I try to be a lot more subtle than the examples above, but more often than not, you can see the legacy of my English lessons by the gross exaggerations that I use every now and then. Otherwise I use them in stories whenever I want to put a little distance between the reader and the subject in question; a metaphor seems to add an extra layer of mystery to the situation, as though you're wondering if you're comparing two things in the right way.

Personification - this involves the attribution of human characteristics to an object that otherwise doesn't have them. I figure that, in some situations, it's easier to envision the story's developments if the narration can pander to human experiences and emotion. This, I suppose, is why we get stuff like the samples below:

His shadow slunk along the alley's brick walls, mortally afraid of meeting the street lights' gaze.

He smiled. I didn't know how the sewers had felt about him, how the depths beneath the city had seen fit to unleash his own personal hell upon humankind, but here he was right in front of me, and that was enough.

I use personification mostly as set dressing; I find that if the story's backdrop can be portrayed as "alive" in some way, then it greatly adds to the atmosphere of the tale. I think that I might overdo it every now and then, however, and it usually results in my descriptions giving a sense of gripping unease.

This, of course, was only the coverage of my first lesson in analogy. Years later I would devour reference books that discussed every single foible of the English language: I learned how to use hyperbole and meiosis, for example, and how to express my thoughts in terms of euphemism. Even beyond those, I gained a disturbing love for idioms, gained a wicked fascination with oxymorons, and learned exactly what onomatopoeia was (apart from being one of the stranger words I've ever typed).

So you'll have to forgive me if I think of things in terms of completely different things. That's just the way that my mind works nowadays.

It might not be a fine technical approach, and it might botch up the occasional corporate presentation every now and then... but it's interesting, it lends itself well to storytelling and vivid imaginations, and it does hit people with a sense of understanding without necessarily boring them along the way. As I said, it's a lot like a bunch of little challenges all inserted into the narrative style of each story, just to see if you understand exactly what the writer is talking about.


Dominique said...

There's more than just these three, as far as literary conventions go. I would highlight two more: metonymy and synecdoche. This is when you use a part to stand for the whole ("fists flew furiously").

Sean said...

Dominique: Oh, there's a ton of them out there -- all different terms for different ways of using words in strange and twisty positions. I just felt like pointing out the only three entries in my fourth-grade textbook. :)