I read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol this Christmas and came across this comparison:
Marley's face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in
the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark
This probably meant something in 1843 that made Dickens’ readers think, “oh, yes, exactly.” But I envision an evil, monstrous lobster, emanating a ghostly glow, clicking together its giant claws of doom. Beware! Beware the bad lobster! It lurks in your dark cellar, waiting to pinch you into oblivion! (I really need an upstairs laundry room.)
I started thinking about bad comparisons even before I read A Christmas Carol, because I love me some bad comparisons. Oh, they don’t seem like bad comparisons when I write them. They make perfect sense to me. Then I get the comments back from my critters: “this confused me.” Once I called the pain of hitting one’s funny bone “silvery.” Because when I hit my funny bone, it feels like there’s an electrified silver wire running from my elbow to the silver fillings in my teeth. What, that doesn’t happen to everyone?
I’ve run into the same problem in books I’ve read. I complained recently about a book that compared the feeling of despair with the taste of a green persimmon. What does a green persimmon taste like? If I eat one, will I taste the despair? Heck, I don’t even know where to get one. Wegmans? This comparison jolted me out of the narrative like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.
I’ve been on the alert for comparisons in my reading ever since. I’ve discovered that too many comparisons in a chapter will make me lose interest. If I spend too much of the chapter comparing this to that, my brain can’t keep up. I’ve also noticed:
1) A good comparison is universal. If I say “as soul-sucking as a trip to the home improvement store,” I know that’s incredibly soul-sucking. But it may be possible other people don’t find home improvements stores as exhausting as I do.
2) A good comparison doesn’t mix up the senses. I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, such as comparing emotions to music. I can wallow in self-pity like I’m living in an old Radiohead album—or was that another weird comparison? I’d better learn to be more comparison-conservative. In Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days, she compares her main character’s pain to “a hammer blow to the jaw.” Now that’s a good comparison. Notice she didn’t compare the taste or smell or sight of something to being hit with a hammer.
3) A good comparison uses the setting. In Libba Bray’s Rebel Angels, she describes a bad neighborhood in Victorian London: “ramshackle buildings that stand as stooped as beggars.” The buildings become beggars themselves; the atmosphere of the rundown alley is drawn perfectly in one phrase.
So for 2008, I’ll be scrutinizing my comparisons and using them more conservatively. I’ll avoid weird comparisons like a box of bees. Every time I craft an original comparison, I’ll run it past the Bad Lobster. Is it universal? Does it confuse sight, sound, taste, feeling? Does it enhance the setting? I broke my addiction to semicolons; surely I can break the odd comparison habit.
Kate, Miss Apprentice Writer