Apt Analogies

When an analogy works, it’s a beautiful thing. The reader has both a richer and more precise understanding of the situation being described.

This is my new favorite, from The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements.

The author, Sam Kean, is talking about the element gadolinium and its many unpaired electrons (he credits this brilliant analogy to Wolfgang Pauli in 1925):

Despite the willingness of electrons to bond with other atoms, within their own atoms, they stay maximally far apart. Remember that electrons live in shells, and shells further break down into bunks called orbital, each of which can accommodate two electrons. Curiously, electrons fill orbitals like patrons find seats on a bus: each electron sites by itself in an orbital until another electron is absolutely forced to double up (p.170).

It’s rare that a book on science manages to make me laugh out loud, but this is so perfect, even a humanities person (and ex-public transportation rider) like myself can instantly picture what’s going on. I totally get it. And can probably even remember it.

Following are three of my analogical attempts. The first one occurs when Saul is first introduced to David. David has just walked into Saul’s receiving room. The place is unusually crowded because people want to see whether this kid will be able to do anything to help the king, which makes Saul feel self-conscious and paranoid and angry that all these people are speculating so freely about his problems.

The whispering in the room that had started up as soon as Saul returned to his throne got louder, worming into Saul’s ears, swirling in his head like dry leaves.

Looking at it all by itself, naked there on the page, I realize that I’m mixing metaphors, with both worming and swirling. It might still work, because there’s a circularity to both motions, but I think I’ll have to decide which I like better and only keep one. It’ll be the dry leaves. But it’s still too wordy. I’ve got a little more work to do there.

The next one comes courtesy of Jonathan, reminiscing with his father about a particularly satisfying defeat of the Philistines:

“And then the Lord made the rest of their army panic until they were swinging their swords like blind men trying to kill bees.”

That’s a pretty good one, although it reminds me a bit too much of me standing at my open screen door yesterday and waving to my neighbor, but the wave turned into wild swiping when a bug flew too close to my face. If I looked even half as stupid as I felt, it had to be pretty funny.

The next one might be my favorite analogy in the entire manuscript. It’s certainly one of the earliest ones. I had this image in my head long before I started writing the Goliath scene.

Goliath was closer to the other end of the Israelite front line with his back to David. “I’m getting bored,” he shouted. “Maybe I should choose my own challenger. Someone from here.” He took a few running steps towards the army. “Or here.”

Wherever he aimed his body, the Israelite soldiers faded away and shifted like a flock of birds in the sky.

If you watched the “Murmuration” video about two young ladies kayaking and the flock of starlings that put on a spectacular shifting show, you know exactly what I had in mind. While googling about to find that video, I found out that murmuration isn’t just what they named that video, it’s the actual name for a flock of starlings. What a gorgeous term. It might tie with my usual favorite word, susurration (a soft rustling sound).

Then again, doing a search for “like,” so I could find all my analogies, I discovered yet another overused word in my manuscript. Will it ever end?