Using Analogies is like Giving Yourself an Ink Blot Test

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Did the title work?  Maybe not, which is one of the challenges with analogies.  They’re like jokes in that they depend on the audience and don’t always hit their mark.  You can share an analogy that has one person nodding in agreement and another scratching their head in confusion.  Why is that?

Well, the big thing is that analogies require pre-existing knowledge.  I remember one from the animated X-Men that was ‘Nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs’, which I’ve been told is a Southern expression.  Pretty simple to understand as long as you know what a cat and a rocking chair are.  You also need to know how painful that experience would be.  If you’re missing any of those elements, you’re going to have to explain what you meant.  Again, this is like a joke where it loses its impact if you have to explain it.

I’ve noticed that I use analogies a lot.  People may have picked up on that in comments over the years.  By analyzing myself, I tend to use an analogy for one of two reasons:

  1. Explaining a difficult subject.  Example:  The Big Bang is like when you put an burrito in a microwave and it explodes.
  2. Humor.  Example:  That’s as useful as a slotted spoon when eating soup.

Both areas have shown analogies to be useful in getting a point across.  This is because it simplifies and familiarizes things.  If a person doesn’t understand a concept then it can be made clear by connecting it to something they do know.  It won’t give them an intricate understanding of the details, but they can get the general idea.  This opens the door to introduce the more nuanced and difficult pieces.  Take the Big Bang example where the person now gets that something exploded outwards.  Now, you can explain how this created the galaxy (mess) and the planets/stars/etc. (burrito pieces) exist individually instead of connected.  Eventually, you can phase out the comparison and they’ll be left with the information as well as a simple way to explain it to others.

Analogies can be used in writing too. They’re really useful in non-Earth fiction.  As the image states, they can be used to pump up your stories.  Narrators can explain things in a fictional world by connecting it to the real world.  Characters can explain magic systems, historical events, and other unfamiliar pieces of world-building with a simplification for those who don’t know.  It helps the readers know what is going on without getting an info dump or being talked to directly.  Analogies are so common in our lives that this tactic makes them feel organic.

This doesn’t mean analogies are perfect and safe.  As I said, they depend a lot on pre-existing knowledge.  There’s also an issue where a person might not like analogies and see them as idiotic.  I’ve met many who are able to grasp concepts easily, so they see analogies as ‘dumbing down’.  Even if they’re not the target, they will feel like they are and the analogy can come off as insulting.  Doesn’t matter with some people that others might need it, so you can inadvertently rub someone the wrong way.  Can you do anything to avoid this?  Only by not using analogies, but then you’ll have people who don’t understand.  Best to weigh your options on which scenario you would rather deal with if you have to.

Another challenge with analogies is just coming up with them.  They aren’t easy regardless of the time we take to craft one.  A long time can lead to us second guessing our connections and making a mess.  Too little time can create an analogy that makes about as much sense as playing chess on a highway.  I’ve found that there’s a balance between instinct and conscious thought with these things.  Rush into it to see what comes up first and then come back to it later.  A first shot at an analogy is rarely on point.  If you can’t understand it a week later then you need to do it again.

So, what do you think about analogies?  Got any favorites?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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26 Responses to Using Analogies is like Giving Yourself an Ink Blot Test

  1. L. Marie says:

    This one from Forrest Gump: “My mama always said, life was like a box a chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Great post. As you mentioned, the frame of reference is important. If someone doesn’t understand the comparison, the analogy falls flat. I don’t tend to go the analogy route when I think of adding figurative language to a story. And I use any figurative language carefully, since an advisor once told me that my use of it irritated her! (A long story. I will not repeat here. But that’s the gist of the conversation.)


  2. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    Give Charles your thoughts in the comments under his original blog post 😃


  3. L. Marie says:

    Analogies seem to come naturally to you. 😄

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Good post, Charles. Analogies are fun, and when they work do explain things better. My wife and I were talking about some new shoes. I wanted a pair of sneakers and she wanted me to have something more expensive. I settled the issue with an analogy. “At my age, getting those expensive shoes would be like putting new Pirelli tires on a 49 Ford.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I tend to use a lot of them. They seem to come up more in my Story Empire posts where we’re trying to teach something. I tend to just wing them when I need one.


  6. I love analogies and, even more, metaphors. Good ones take some work. Great examples. I don’t use them enough for humor/sarcasm. Great reminder, Charles.


  7. Helen says:

    As a fellow frequent analogy user, this post had me giggling and nodding in agreement. Analogies were something that I started using in my teens, and I noticed they made people laugh and relate to me more. My use of analogies are even something that my husband loves about me, and are, for the most part, something that is loved as something that I use to lead, inspire and generally relate to other people.

    I do know what you mean when you say that some are affronted by analogies, and actually I tend to think of that as a “them” problem, rather than a “me” problem. If they feel that I’m trying to insult their intelligence, then perhaps it is because they are insecure about their perceived level of intelligence, and hence they feel insulted by my “dumbing down”, though still for others, perhaps it is just added words and hence a waste of time. By and large I find that the ones who doesn’t appreciate analogies are the very same people who tend to brush others up the wrong way anyway, and so it pays to grant myself a little bit of leeway not to take their criticisms personally. People like what they like, we don’t have to please everyone.

    I can’t think of any favourites, but there are bound to be some. It’s a Sunday, my brain doesn’t work at full capacity on weekends! A great read, thankyou for making me smile.


    • Cool. My analogies tend to confuse the people around me. Think it’s because they prefer straightforward explanations instead of anything creative. While it is a ‘them’ problem, it does kind of become a ‘me’ problem in that I have trouble getting my points across. It’s weird too. You’d think connecting new information to old would be a good thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Using Analogies is like Giving Yourself an Ink Blot Test – Written By Charles Yallowitz – Writer's Treasure Chest

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