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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.

The last word

Plants are fueled by a simple sugar that results from a magic combination of sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide: glucose. To borrow from Dylan Thomas, glucose is “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” When this sweet power source runs low, a plant experiences a chlorophyll shortage, which triggers it to do something remarkable. A plant that’s running on empty favors (that is, stimulates extra growth in) the latent buds at its branch tips. Gardeners call this phenomenon “terminal dominance.”

Did you notice that, like sugar-deprived plants, the sentences in the previous paragraph all push their energy to the terminus? In sentence after sentence, the most important word appears just before the period. Any of these sentences could serve as an example under the Strunk & White “Elements of Style” principle, “Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.”

But beware. Periodic sentences, if you take them too far, become tedious. When you use this approach relentlessly, especially when you front-load your sentences with phrases that delay gratification, your readers, who, if you’re lucky, want to find out what you’re getting at, will begin to focus not on what you’re saying but on your… syntax.

So, by all means, avoid overuse of this suspense-building technique, of which many writers from Cicero to Tolstoy have been masters. Reserve your power.

Then, when you’re ready to make The Big Point, when you’ve reached the climax of your argument, when you’ve come to the main thing that you want readers to remember — whether you’re writing a brochure, a blog entry, an essay, a letter of recommendation, a technical explanation, a white paper, a scholarly article, a poem, or anything else that requires development — when your most powerful word has worked its way down to your fingertips and is practically bursting, you know where to put it: Here.

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