Tropes are like jewels — or — How to put similes and metaphors to work for you

Want to wake up your readers? Poke them with a good trope. (I just poked you with one. Are you more awake now?)

Tropes, aka similes and metaphors, are handy devices that compare one thing to another. As Arthur Plotnik defines them in his stimulating, trope-filled writer’s guide Spunk & Bite (which I review here), tropes “heighten the meaning or clarity of a subject by relating it to something more vivid.”

For example, you might relate a trope to something pointy that you can poke readers with.

What makes a trope good? It has to be, well, just right. And tropes easily go wrong. (For some entertainingly egregious examples, see Bad Metaphors from Stupid Student Essays.) A reader sinks into a good trope comfortably, like Goldilocks easing into Baby Bear’s chair. Plotnik sums it up this way: “A good trope is factory-fresh, unpredictable, economical, and custom-fitted.” The ideal comparison works without working too hard.

You’ll find tropes that work in almost any piece of good writing, whether it’s a poem, a novel, an email, a blog entry, a brochure, a technical manual, or any other vehicle (!) of human communication. For today’s examples, I turn to tropemaster Mary Karr. Here are a few snippets of similitude from the opening chapters of her first memoir, The Liar’s Club.

“It was only over time that the panorama [of the painful memory] became animate, like a scene in some movie crystal ball that whirls from a foggy blur into focus.”

(Thanks to the image, the gradualness of this memory’s return is palpable.)

“The fact that my house was Not Right metastasized into the notion that I myself was somehow Not Right.”

(The trope sneaks in under the cloak of the verb metastasized.  The otherwise abstract Not-Right-ness suddenly takes on the ominous shape of cancer.)

((And in my comment above, the trope sneaks in under the cloak of the verb sneaks. The word trope itself suddenly morphs into a cloak-clad agent of surreptitious activity.))

“[Grandma had] started auctioning Mother off to various husbands when she was only fifteen. Like some prize cow… fattened for the highest bidder.”

(Prize cow. Two little words, and we’re there. Instantly, we “get” Grandma and have no choice but to despise her. Mother’s resentment washes over us. With two little words, Karr achieves what all authors live for: She places us — smack — into her characters’ psyches.)

“To Paolo’s credit, he didn’t give Mother up as easily as the others had. He chased her… like a duck would a june bug.”

(This comparison is both delightfully unexpected and perfectly custom-fitted. The hapless duck had no chance with the june bug.)

“His mother wore an enormous bonnet like a big blue halo.”

(That’s a bonnet we can picture.)

“The boys … are shirtless under their bib overalls; their matching close-cropped haircuts, which Daddy claimed you could rub the river water out of with three strokes of a flat palm, are dark and sleek as seals.”

(Seals are not only dark and sleek; they’re also playful. That hinted-at playfulness rubs off, advantageously, on our sense of the boys.)

“If Daddy’s past was more intricate to me than my own present, Mother’s was as blank as the West Texas desert she came from.”

(This trope multitasks. It answers the question “How blank was it?” even as it delivers information about Mother.)

“The same way tornadoes cut narrow paths — so an outhouse would be left standing alongside a house blown to splinters — the locusts chewed up fields at random.”

(This comparison of a locust swarm to a tornado is so cognitively natural that you hardly notice it as a writerly device.)

“The morning Mother decided to go back to Daddy, she and Grandma had a fight about whether her lipstick was too dark. Grandma had brought it up at breakfast and just clamped down on it like a Gila monster.”

(You can practically see Grandma’s mouth frothing.)

Some of Karr’s most affecting tropes can’t be easily snipped in to this list because they’re woven together over multiple paragraphs. For example, her comparison of East Texans’ use of the term nervous with Homer’s use of the Greek term ate (ah-tay) requires serious unfolding. This particular trope is so long that I almost spared you its heft. But experiencing the texture of such a masterful protracted metaphor is as satisfying as slipping on a luxurious robe; you wish that you could linger in it forever. Here, then, is Karr’s handiwork. Slip it on, and see if you agree.

“I knew that neither of my parents was coming. Daddy was working the graveyard shift, and the sheriff said that his deputy had driven out to the plant to try and track him down. Mother had been taken Away — he further told us — for being Nervous.

“I should explain here that in East Texas parlance the term Nervous applied with equal accuracy to anything from chronic nail-biting to full-blown psychosis. Mr. Thibideaux down the street had blown off the heads of his wife and three sons, then set his house on fire before fixing the shotgun barrel under his own jaw and using his big toe on the trigger. I used to spend Saturday nights in that house with his daughter, a junior high twirler of some popularity, and I remember nothing more of Mr. Thibideaux than that he had a crew cut and a stern manner. He was a refinery worker like Daddy, and also a deacon at First Baptist.

“I was in my twenties when Mr. Thibideaux killed his family. I liked to call myself a poet and had affected a habit of reading classical texts (in translation, of course  — I was a lazy student). I would ride the Greyhound for thirty-six hours down from the Midwest to Leechfield, then spend days dressed in black in the scalding heat of my mother’s front porch reading Homer (or Ovid or Virgil) and waiting for someone to ask me what I was reading. No one ever did. People asked me what I was drinking, how much I weighed, where I was living, and if I had married yet, but no one gave me a chance to deliver my lecture on Great Literature. It was during one of these visits that I found the Thibideauxs’ burned-out house, and also stumbled on the Greek term ate. In ancient epics, when somebody boffs a girl or slays somebody or just generally gets heated up, he can usually blame ate, a kind of raging passion, pseudo-demonic, that banishes reason. So Agamemnon, having robbed Achilles of his girlfriend, said, ‘I was blinded by ate and Zeus took away my understanding.’ Wine can invoke ate, but only if it’s ensorcered in some way. Because the ate is supernatural, it releases the person possessed of it from any guilt for her actions. When neighbors tried to explain the whole murder-suicide of the Thibideaux clan after thirty years of grass-cutting and garbage-taking-out and dutiful church-service attendance, they did so with one adjective, which I have since traced to the Homeric idea of ate: Mr. Thibideaux was Nervous. No amount of prodding on my part produced a more elaborate explanation.

“On the night the sheriff came to our house and Mother was adjudged more or less permanently Nervous, I didn’t yet understand the word.”

diamondsWant more? Take up one of Karr’s books and go trope-hunting yourself.

For that matter, go trope-hunting in any good writer’s work. Discover your own gems. Admire them from all sides. Feel their edges. Study the way they gleam. Then don’t be surprised when your own writing starts to show a new sparkle.


“It’s hard to keep all the rules in mind while I’m writing,” writes fellow blogger Elizabeth.

It’s not hard. It’s impossible.

Well then what should be happening in your mind as you write? My answer involves seeing and seeing and seeing again. But before I can answer, I have to address a bigger question…

How does the creative mind work?

One way to explore this question is to observe designers as they sketch. Gabriela Goldschmidt, who wrote the 1991 article The Dialectics of Sketching, did just that.[1]

Goldschmidt analyzed the comments that architects made as they sketched during the early stages of designing. She discovered that the sketchers’ thoughts followed a “pendulum pattern,” a “swaying movement” between two kinds of seeing: “seeing as” and “seeing that.”

She developed a way of depicting this mental cycle, this “ping-pong pattern” between “as” and “that” modes of seeing. Her depictions look something like this:


Seeing as, seeing that, seeing as, seeing that.

When the architect is “seeing as,” something in the sketch reminds him of another thing. For example, as he sketches a library, he might see a group of shapes as a puzzle, or a series of aligned items as an axis, or a certain spot as a dome.

In “seeing that” mode, the architect uses a “nonfigural” eye. He sees in terms of “generic architectural rules” or “design values and beliefs.” He might see that a building needs a strong relationship to its site, or that trees are important because they provide shade, or that an atrium would be appropriate.

Each kind of seeing — as and that — informs the other. Back and forth.

All the while, the architect sketches. He erases. He adds squiggles. He pauses. Insight by insight, the architect ushers his rendering of library and grounds to a point of satisfaction.

What does all that have to do with writing?

Goldschmidt makes no claims about what goes on in writers’ minds, but she acknowledges that “‘seeing as’ and ‘seeing that’ are not unique to sketching.” I believe that words (which came into the world as squiggles) can stimulate what Goldschmidt calls “visual thinking” or “design reasoning” as much as any picture can.

Do words do this for you? Do the “dialectics of sketching” resonate with the way you write?

I’ve been told that most people would say No. Maybe you wonder why I’m bothering with this topic.

I’ll tell you why. This back-and-forth process — my own kind of “sketch-thinking”  — drives my best, most satisfying writing. It’s here, between ping and pong, that the good stuff happens. When people talk about craft, this is what they’re talking about.

How does the dialectic (as-that) process apply to words?

As I experience it, “seeing as” amounts to seeing a particular word or group of words as another thing. That thing might not be visual (“figural” as Goldschmidt would say), but when you’re in this mode, your mind, like a sketcher’s, generates an equation. Your brain equates something you’re looking at with something else. In the instant that your eye lands on a word or group of words, you involuntarily make the connection — so fast that you don’t even realize you’re thinking, “Hey, this reminds me of… [fill in the blank].”

For example, you might look at the word t-r-e-e and see it as a noun (a grammatical equivalent). You might see the same word, tree, as a family (a metaphorical equivalent). You might see a paragraph as an introduction (a functional equivalent).

In other words, the “as” is an equal sign. That fill-in-the-blank thing on the other side of the equation carries with it unavoidable fresh knowledge. Everything you know about nouns or families or metaphors or introductions suddenly comes to bear on what you’re writing. New possibilities emerge.

In this way, each flash of “seeing as” insight moves your writing forward.

When you’re “seeing that,” you see instead in terms of rules, values, and beliefs about what constitutes good writing. You might see that singular nouns need singular pronouns, or that all metaphors involve both similarities and differences, or that an introductory paragraph should snare the reader’s interest.

Each “seeing that” flash moves you forward too, prompting you to correct an error, to expand an idea, to add what you hope will be an irresistible opening line, or perhaps to see another word as something else… and on and on.

When I’m “in the zone,” I oscillate between “as” and “that” a lot. A whole lot.

Should everyone write everything in this sketch-y way?

Neeeeeeeeew. Sometimes it’s appropriate to jot down words as they come to mind and leave them pretty much alone. Minimal tampering. Get ‘er done. You’re wasting time if you belabor transitory messages — emails, for example (not counting the ones asking for a raise).

The same is true for sketching. Outside of the design context, people often simply “represent images held in the mind,” as Goldschmidt puts it. They stop there. Even a master architect grabs a paper napkin and tosses off a map to his (painstakingly designed) house without a single as-that blip. No design thinking is required.

At its extreme, that kind of nondialectic sketching or writing looks like this:


It takes discernment to determine how flat or bumpy your line should be for the job at hand. For some of us, it also takes self-control (sometimes more than I possess) to revise — as in re-vise, see again differently — only as much as is warranted.

How do I get in the game?

You’re ready to ask for that raise. You’re in the ping-pong game. How do you play it?

It’s not like you can flip from one kind of writerly seeing to another at will or in strict alternating order. “Time to put on your seeing that glasses, everyone!” Uh… no. But you do want to be adept, and keep getting adepter, at using different kinds of eyes.

How? By looking. Look at words. Look and look and look again. Play with them. Swat them with your left hand, swat them with your right. Bone up on your bdelygmia skills.[2] Get your Garner on.[3] Embrace your inner word nerd. Whatever you’re reading, watch for what works and what doesn’t. Figure out for yourself why or why not.

And keep reading my blog. Subscribe even. (See that little white “Sign me up!” button? Over there, at the top right.)

Before long, you’ll be lobbing away with the best of them. Now, you notice a grammatical problem that needs fixing. Now, a metaphor suggests itself. Now, you’re hearing the voice of Mr. Fitz, your eighth-grade English teacher, telling you that your ending should hark back to your beginning.

So, Elizabeth, the pressure’s off. All you need to keep in mind when you write is one thing at a time. The trick is to keep looking. There is always more to see.

[1] The Dialectics of Sketching appears in the Creativity Research Journal, 4: 2, 123–143.

[2] Bdelygmia: The Perfect Rant

[3] Sign up for Bryan Garner’s Tip of the Day. Buy Garner’s Modern American Usage.