June 24, 2017

Come to your senses

Analogy helps readers experience your story

What does an epilepsy seizure taste like?

Help readers experience your story

More colorful copy Use all your senses to make your messages more creative. Image by Joe Shillington

That’s the question Paul Harding answers in this passage of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Tinkers:

“Howard had epilepsy. His wife, Kathleen … cleared aside chairs and tables and led him to the middle of the kitchen floor. She wrapped a stick of pine in a napkin for him to bite so he would not swallow or chew off his tongue. If the fit came fast, she crammed the bare stick between his teeth and he would wake to a mouthful of splintered wood and the taste of sap, his head feeling like a glass jar full of old keys and rusty screws.”

Take a tip from Harding and bring readers to their senses: Use description and analogy to show readers what your subject looks like, smells like, tastes like, feels like or sounds like.

Here’s how …

Sound it out

Sound is one of our most primitive senses, writes Stephan Rechtshaffen, M.D., in Time Shifting. Use it to reach readers’ emotions more than their thoughts.

Harding does that in Tinkers, this time using onomatopoeia and analogy to describe what a coming seizure sounds like:

“Tinker, tinker. Tin, tin, tin. Tintinnabulation. There was the ring of pots and buckets. There was also the ring in Howard Crosby’s ears, a ring that began at a distance and came closer, until it sat in his ears, then burrowed into them. His head thrummed as if it were a clapper in a bell.”

On the scent

Scent is the sense of memory, nostalgia and emotion. It’s more closely aligned with our feelings than our intellect, Rechtshaffen writes.

In Tinkers, Harding uses analogy to give us a whiff of something putrid as Howard performs a good deed for a hermit:

“Stepping closer, Gilbert opened his mouth and Howard, squinting to get a good look, saw in that dank, ruined purple cavern, stuck way in the back of an otherwise-empty levy of gums, a single black tooth planted in a swollen and bright red throne of flesh. A breeze caught the hermit’s breath and Howard gasped and saw visions of slaughterhouses and dead pets under porches.”

In another passage, Harding uses scent to show Howard working at a new job:

“Two months after he was hired, he was promoted to head of the produce section and he made a paradise of fruit and vegetables. He made Thebes in oranges and lemons and limes. He made primeval forests of lettuce and broccoli and asparagus. He was enchanted by the smells of wax and cold water and packing crates, of skins and rinds breathing rumors of the sweet pulp beneath.”

Get a feel for it

With description, you can make your readers’ skin itch and head throb. In Innocent, Scott Turow uses analogy to show how a hot day feels:

“The sun was so intense that you felt as if you were being hunted, and the air was as close as a glove.”

See here now

We say “I see,” to mean “I understand.” How can you help your readers see — and believe — your story?

In Tinkers, Harding uses analogy to show us an old man’s room as he lies dying:

“One grandson or another (which?) had stapled the insulation into place years ago and now two or three lengths of it had come loose and lolled down like pink woolly tongues.”

In Tinkers, Harding brings banker Edward Billings to life with this image:

“Edward stood a foot and a half higher than George, like a fleshy Olympian pear trussed up in a three-piece suit.”

In Innocent, Turow uses metaphor and simile to paint this picture of defense attorney Sandy Stern:

“To top it all off, the last drug he took, a second-line chemo agent, left him with a bright rash all over his body, including his face. From where the jury sits, it must look as if he has had a large fuchsia tattooed on one side. The inflammation crawls up his cheek and around his eye, reaching in a single islet up above his temple and pointing cruelly toward his bald head.”

In The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman uses description and analogy to help us see news editor Craig Menzies:

“He sees in the glances of his colleagues a thirst to know what connection he could possibly have with this much younger woman: she, in a purple frock and green-and-black striped tights, a smile so spontaneous it seems almost to surprise her; and he, in a blue oxford shirt and brown corduroys, pudgy despite the weekend sit-ups, a horseshoe of chestnut hair around a bald dome that glistens when he is agitated, and glistens often.”

And in The Imperfectionists, Rachman also uses description and analogy to show us where much of the action takes place:

“The paper was established on Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, a broad east-west thoroughfare lined with dirty-white travertine churches and blood-orange Renaissance palazzi. Many of the buildings in central Rome were colored as if from a crayon box: dagger red, trumpet yellow, rain-cloud blue. But the paper’s dour seventeenth-century building seemed to have been colored with a lead pencil: it was scribble gray, set off by a towering oak door large enough to swallow a schooner, though human beings entered through a tiny portal hinged within.”

How can you use analogy to help your audience members “see” your subject?

Model these masters: Report with all your senses.

  • Paint Pictures In Your Readers’ Minds

    Think of description as virtual reality: Describe a scent, and your readers’ primary olfactory cortexes light up. Describe texture, and you activate their sensory cortexes. Describe kicking, and not only do you stimulate their motor cortexes, but you stimulate the part of the motor cortex responsible for leg action.

    But write abstractly — aka, the way we usually do in business communications — and readers’ brains remain dark.

    Want to stimulate some brain activity around, say, your CEO’s latest strategy or that brilliant Whatzit you’ll be releasing later this month? Description is the answer. But it’s not easy for those of us raised on the inverted pyramid and just the facts, Ma’am, to research for and write description.

    At New York creative writing workshopMaster the Art of the Storyteller — a two-day creative writing master class on Sept. 25-26 in New York — you’ll learn how to:

    • Dig up descriptive details: Try WBHA, the most overlooked reporting tool there is
    • Tune in to sensory information: Use our travel writer’s tip for going beyond visual description
    • Answer the scene-writer’s question: You can’t write good description without it
    • Take on The Popcorn Project: Practice our four-step process for writing vivid description
    • Communicate, don’t decorate: Use this tip to avoid stimulating readers’ gag reflexes instead of their cerebral cortexes

    Learn more about the Master Class.

    Register for Master the Art of Storytelling Workshop in New York.


    Browse all upcoming Master Classes.

    Would you like to hold an in-house Make Your Copy More Creative workshop? Contact Ann directly.

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