Can a story have too many comparisons?
Published: June 1, 2011
Q: Can a story have too many comparisons?
A: Comparisons can be meaningful and encourage the reader to engage with complex ideas on an imagistic level. Still, overuse can be, as the saying goes, too much of a good thing. A tumble of comparisons may prevent the reader from feeling grounded in the setting or action of the story. They may send the reader in directions that lead away from the story’s intention. They may even bring in imagery that confuses instead of enhances the description. For example:
It was ten o’clock and Felicia was sitting at the bar sweating like a pig. She had no idea why Vivian looked like she just saw a ghost. Felicia bit the inside of her cheek and waited, like it was prom night and her date was a half an hour late. She’d had too many drinks. Her thoughts shifted like a tilt-a-whirl.
The images take the reader all over the place—a farm, the supernatural world, high school prom and a carnival. What’s the reader supposed to make of that?
Comparisons invite the reader to consider an idea with more depth. Strong attention to too many ideas can leave the reader fatigued and unclear as to what’s really important in the passage.
I can’t give you a set ratio of comparisons to quantity of pages. So much depends on the specific details of your story and the execution of the comparisons. So, consider what each comparison accomplishes. Does it illuminate a complex or foggy idea? Does it give emotional weight or significance to something that warrants it? If not, lose it to make room in the story—and your reader’s imagination—for the ones that do.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
Send your questions on the craft of creative writing to email@example.com. All of Brandi's other Ask The Writer columns are available to registered users.