5 Analogies for Writers That Will Keep You Focused and Sane – Part 1

The first in a 5-part series.

I discovered the power of a deftly wielded analogy back in the dark ages when I was a minor league baseball player.  A pitcher, to be more precise. 

How dark?  Let’s just say I was on a mound in a crumbling old wooden stadium in Vancouver, British Columbia (the Class-A Northwest League) when the PA announcer interrupted the game to inform all 612 folks in attendance that Richard Nixon had resigned as President of the United States.

Not that I cared at the time, I had a two-run lead to protect.

Having discovered first-hand that a 96 mph fastball wasn’t going to be enough to make it at the professional level – many of mine left the ballpark before I could crank my head to watch – I set out to learn the fine art of throwing a killer breaking ball. 

To be specific, a slider.  The pitch dubbed by the great Tom Seaver – who named his dog after it – as the great equalizer.

This nasty little gem of a pitch is a cross between a fastball and a curveball, but with a completely unique spin and an elbow-abusing requisite motion.  Having already learned the art of throwing a very mediocre curveball, I initially and naively believed that a slider was simply the same pitch, only thrown harder.

Many of those hastily left the ballpark, too.

(It should be noted here that the reason a ball actually curves, or slides, has to do with aerodynamic law.  Physics.  Remember that as we move forward.)

It wasn’t until a coach used an analogy to clarify and visualize the intended spin that I finally got it.  The spin on a fastball, from the hitter’s perspective, is south to north.  The spin on a properly thrown curveball is north to south.  And the spin on a slider is…

… just like a perfectly thrown football.  It spirals.

When thrown well, and hard, both the batter and the catcher see a tiny dot in the middle of the approaching baseball, which is the axis of the rotation.

A football.  Now it was clear.  And now I had a strikeout pitch that rendered my fastball orders of magnitude more effective and – soon – the tendons in my elbow to the consistency of overcooked pasta. 

My curve still sucked, but that’s another story.  As is the story of my pro career, which in a flicker of literary irony ended because of the damage the slider imparted to my arm. 

Such is the price we pay in pursuit of our dreams.

I remain a fan of analogies as a teaching tool to this day.  

Here’s one now.

Your Story is a Vehicle

Think of your story as a means of transporting your reader to another place and time.  Into another life.  Perhaps another world.

Great stories are vicarious, but they are also studies in motion.  You can only sit in a cool car stalled in a parking lot for so long before you understand that you are going nowhere.

Vehicles, as we understand them, have a few major and essential parts in addition to a long list of options and accessories.  As do our stories.  When we, as designers of our story-vehicles, focus on those accessories to the detriment of the essentials, bad things happen.

The worst of which is that nobody will buy your vehicle, must less ride in it.

Vehicles come in all sizes and shapes, with a wide breadth of power and options.  Some have two wheels, some four, some eighteen.  Some required tracks.  The coolest vehicles even fly.

But what makes a vehicle an effective means of transportation is non-negotiable.

It must have an engine. 

Something that generates power to create momentum.

It must have wheels or wings.  An engine without wheels or wings is something that sits on blocks in a parts warehouse.  Or, in a junkyard.

It must have a cabin of some sort, a place for passengers to buckle in for the ride.  The passenger experience is critical to the success of the vehicle in the commercial marketplace.

And, it must have operating controls, a means of driving or piloting the thing.  The vehicle must have a predictable response to prompts from an operator, rather than running at random and chaotic speeds.  (The exception here is found on the freeways of Phoenix, by the way.)

The loss of any one of these essential parts dooms the vehicle to either a repair shop or a crash.

And at the design stage, to nothing beyond the drawing board.

Too many writers don’t understand that specific parts are essential to their stories. 

They’re all about the paint and the chrome.

A great story may have a lot of style, but it is never a victory of style over substance.  And substance always comes from what’s under the hood, no matter how cool the paint and how shiny the chrome.

These frustrated writers focus on one part – even if it’s an essential one — to the exclusion or detriment of another.  Which also results in a crash, or the need for a massive repair.

Make no mistake, the engine of your story is the plot. 

And like an engine, you can’t just toss one together however you please.  There are principles of physics and mechanics in play, and if you mess with them the thing will stall when you need it most.

Not a good thing when it happens at 30,000 feet.  Or on that freeway in Phoenix.

An engine requires fuel.  In the case of your story, that fuel is the compelling nature of the concept upon which the dramatic sequence is built.

No fuel, no forward momentum.  Even if the engine is otherwise structurally perfect.

The wheels – or wings – of your story are your characters. 

In an effective story we experience plot through character, and we experience characters through plot.  When the two are separated, you have nothing more than a junkyard littered with perfectly fine auto parts that are going nowhere until they are once again fused in the hands of a trained mechanic.

Too much character without a compelling story… that’s boring.  Something that moves really, really slow. 

That mechanic – the story engineer – is you, by the way. 

You are both the designer, mechanic and operator of the story you are creating.

You are also the driver or pilot of your story.  The parts are worthless without you, without your deft touch and judgment.  A bad driver can crash a perfect engine without ever knowing what went wrong.

Your reader isn’t making decisions, they are simply along for the ride.  Within this analogy, you are in complete control of the speed of the ride.  The comfort or thrill of the ride.  The temperature of the cabin.

Even the music.  Your writing voice is the music that gives the ride its personality and tonality.

If the stereo sounds like cats in a slaughter house, nobody will buy the otherwise perfect car.

This isn’t an auto show or a drag race, it’s a new car dealership.

Sometimes, in our desire to achieve unprecedented creativity and originality, we can push the limits of commercial viability too far. 

You don’t see dragsters in the street, nor do you see aerobatic bi-planes waiting at the gate at the airport.

This isn’t experimental writing, this is commercial fiction.  You are writing for money, to obtain an audience. 

Design your vehicle accordingly. 

And try for that great equalizer while you’re at it, something that will be a cross between a fastball and a curveball that leaves the hitter frozen and the fans delirious.  (A mixed metaphor, I know, but sometimes more is better.)

Something that takes the physics of dramatic theory and gives them a fresh new spin.

Or not. 

There’s something to be said for restoring a classic Ford in your garage using parts taken from old lawnmowers and smoothie blenders.  Making up your own physics as you go along.

Just don’t expect to sell the darn thing.  The only people who will hop in and go for a ride with you will be family and friends, who are simply being nice.

If you want to break into the commercial market, you need to understand that the whole of your story must be a sum in excess of its parts, both essential and optional, artfully assembled.

Only when that aspect of your design works does the paint and trim count for anything at all.

Larry’s new book, Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” is available now at bookstores and online venues.  At this writing it is the #1 bestselling writing book out there.

Up next: four more writing analogies to help keep your head straight.

Meanwhile, feel free to share any writing analogies that help keep you focused and sane.

10 Comments

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10 Responses to 5 Analogies for Writers That Will Keep You Focused and Sane – Part 1

  1. As another old, broken-down pitcher, I liked your slider story. I never got far enough in my pitching career to even learn a slider (High school was about as far as I got), but oh how I wish my dad/baseball coach had taught me to throw a changeup!
    Analogies are a great way to explain a concept differently, which may resonate with a certain segment of readers. Thanks for continually pounding the podium about plot, character, structure, etc., in unique ways. It’ll become second nature to me one of these years.

  2. I am certainly no athlete, but I did like your analogy. As far as an analogy of my own, I’ve recently posted about needing to take a stand when it comes to your writing: to choose an audience, rather than try to appeal to everyone. If you try to be universally appealing, your writing winds up like a politician who, in an effort to offend no one and maximize votes, speaks from both sides of his mouth and consequently stands for nothing. He doesn’t get support. Then you look at, say, King Leonidas from the movie 300. There’s a guy who knows exactly who his “audience” is — and he’s certainly not afraid of offending others with his specific stance! Not only that, but his audience is willing to march into certain death with him.

    I’m not saying your readers are going to march into hell for you, but choosing the right audience and being clear in your voice and who you appeal to will create die-hard and supportive fans.

    Okay, a weird analogy. But I figured I’d give it a shot. 🙂

  3. I believe the only thing you left out in your metaphor is High Octane Fuel. It dramatically impacts the way that engine runs. Far too often, I slow my pace. I stutter and the engine misfires. These moments of inconsistent forward motion have to be eliminated either in the editing process or never written into the book. Keeping yourself propelled by high octane fuel that runs smoothly, maintains your velocity at a relative constant, and prevents the engine from stalling even for a brief paragraph, is essential. The interruption to speak of the past or ramble on about an inconsequential character or event, unless it serves as a device that smoothly continues the acceleration to climax, is trash in the fuel line. High test. High Octane Fuel. Premium unleaded. That will get you to the place you want to go.

  4. Debbie Burke

    Larry,

    Analogies are WONDERFUL! Much of the craft of writing is ephemeral, vague, and damn near impossible to pin down. Your great analogies transform loosy-goosey concepts into concrete tasks or tools, something I can touch, taste, grab, and use to improve my story. I constantly refer to several of your excellent past analogies.

    One is for creating unique characters: the 12 components of a body (head, two arms, two legs, torso, two eyes, two ears, one nose, one mouth) that can be put together in literally billions of combinations, with no two people looking the same. I think of that whenever I see a crowd. It pushes me to be more creative and imaginative when creating characters.

    The other is story architecture. After 7 pantsed novels, you finally convinced me of the value of having a blueprint (AKA the dreaded “outline”) before I start to slap together a house. My latest WIP is effortlessly flowing onto the page without any sense that my creativity is being stifled.

    Your analogies also have value-added components. What I know about physics and baseball would fit in a thimble. But when you describe the tiny dot axis of rotation of a slider coming at the hitter, I understand exactly what you’re saying.

    Thank you, Larry, for all your wisdom.

  5. Larry,

    Another post hit out of the park. For awhile, I was driving down the street with just an engine and no chassis (as a writer). I would wave at the residents of my storyville and they would look at me like I had two heads. Finally, a group of master mechanics started to share with me that I needed to add a chassis, plugs, wiring, fuel tank, and etc to build a solid muscle car.

    Thank you for being that master mechanic for me and helping me to trailblaze my own path as a writer. 🙂

  6. I love analogies as a writing tool. Works perfectly for me. E.J. is right–you are a master mechanic!
    Thanks, Larry!

  7. Shan

    Off subject: Larry, I’m just reading your novel Bait and Switch. The book is great but I’m more intrigued by your advertising executive, Wolfgang Schmitt, as a central character in a TV series based on his Bullshit in American journal entries. Have you ever thought of that?
    I think it would be great and would resonate with the public, especially now.

    Shan

  8. If we writers aren’t interested in exchanging our work for $, what are we doing reading Larry’s blog?

    Re automobiles: There are probably lots of car enthousiasts who spend years and bunches of bucks building a “great” show car. Only trouble is, it has to be trailered or towed because it’s all glitz and isn’t street-legal.

    Make your writing street-legal (automotive) or air-worthy (certificate for an airplane) as well as “beautiful.”

  9. Pilgrimer

    Larry, I am new to writing and just began work on my first novel but I quickly came to see the value of outlining when I sat down to “begin” and froze, no idea how to begin the story, not because I didn’t have anything to say, but because I had so much to say I couldn’t decide what to start with. After another restless night trying to get a handle on this, it came to me that writing is very much like drawing. When we draw a picture we don’t start at point “A” and draw each part of the picture in it’s finished form as we move across the page. Instead, we sketch out the basic outline to determine the overall size and shape and composition of the picture, and then we go back and fill in all the details and shading and shadowing. That analogy led me to work first on a basic outline that has since become more detailed and has provided me direction so now when I sit down to write I know exactly what scene I am supposed to be writing and can relax and enjoy the journey without having to stress over the destination.

  10. @Pilgrimer — LOVE this analogy, it’s perfect. Thanks for sharing it with the Storyfix community. L.