One of the ways that English has to describe things is with comparisons using as…as, as in “as big as a house”. It is similar to metaphorical language because we can describe unknown or alien things by comparing them to known things.
English has a huge number of set examples of these. For example:
- As black as night/coal/pitch
- As white as snow
- As strong as an ox
- As happy as a clam
- As high as a kite
These are fine, but I would not recommend them for your writing because they have been used for so long that they have become cliches. It is much better to create your own examples. But first let’s look at some different types.
Types of As…As Comparisons
There are two main types of these we will look at here. These are: Quantity, and Quality.
These are comparisons that involve measurements, such as big, small, heavy, light, far, near, etc. In other words, they are things that could be an exact comparison.
- As heavy as an apple
- As tall as Mt. Everest
- As wide as the Atlantic
- As big as Germany
- As close as the Mississippi River is to Chicago
These are fine for making exact comparisons but are only good if your readers know what you are comparing them to.
This kind of comparison can be used for exaggeration as well, but only if the comparison is obviously not real.
My hamster ate so much it got as big as a cat
This would be pretty surprising if it were true but could be true, theoretically, if it were a large hamster and a small cat. However, if we exaggerate the comparison to the point of it being unrealistic, the reader knows it is just metaphorical.
My hamster ate so much it got as big as a house.
This is clearly just exaggeration so your reader will understand you just mean it got very big.
This type is for adjectives that you cannot put an exact amount to, such as colors, feelings, abilities, and other subjective things.
The apple was as red as blood.
My brother is as smart as Einstein.
To make these, you simply think of something that embodies the adjective you are trying to compare. For example, for happy, think of a situation where someone is very happy. As happy as a kid on Christmas might be a possibility.
The difficulty with these is coming up with something original since our minds tend to go to certain possibilities. As smart as Einstein or as red as blood are pretty obvious comparisons.
So how can you come up with original comparisons? One easy way is to think of unusual comparisons. However, if you come up with something too unusual, it will be out of place in anything but a comedic/absurd.
The baby’s skin felt as soft as warm butter.
His face turned as red a 1967 Camaro.
Ways to Create Original Comparisons
Here are three ways to create very original comparisons. Since they could produce unusual comparisons, be careful using them in a serious story.
1. Switching metaphorical and literal usage
This method is useful for adjective that have a literal and a metaphorical meaning. For example, the literal meaning of “hot” is having a lot of heat, but the metaphorical meaning is attractive or sexy. So, while we might usually say “In the black dress, she looked as hot as a supermodel”, we could switch the usages. “In the black dress, she looked as hot as a computer running full-speed.” Of course, we want to make sure that the mental picture for the reader is of a very attractive woman, not one that is sweating and red-faced because she is so (literally) hot.
“Was the explanation clear” “Yeah, as clear as glass”
(CLEAR – literal: able to see through; metaphorical: easy to understand)
His tongue was as sharp as a samurai sword, and his personality was as abrasive as 40-grit sandpaper
(SHARP – literal: able to cut; metaphorical: using unkind words, rude)
(ABRASIVE – literal: rough; metaphorical: hard to get along with)
The email stunned me. The accusations poured out, as caustic as lye.
(CAUSTIC – literal: burning; metaphorical: hurtful or damaging)
2. Combining two comparisons
Another way to create original and memorable comparisons is to take two things that embody the adjective you want to compare and combining them. This creates an extra strong impression.
For example, if you want to think of how to say something is slow, think of slow things: snails, turtles, molasses, honey, sloths, etc.. Next think of things that make you slow: being tired, being medicated, having a heavy weight attached to your leg, being very heavy and so on. So, combining two of these, you could have:
When it comes to grading papers, the teacher is as slow as a medicated snail.
On the other hand, to describe something fast, you could say as fast as a caffeinated hummingbird
Some other examples:
- As red as a blushing strawberry
- As deadly as a high-cholesterol atom bomb
- As silent as the ghost of a ninja
3. Creating a scene
All comparisons create some mental picture for the reader, but this last type involves making more of a scene. This is where it takes the whole situation to make the comparison. An example of this is this comparison (not mine):
as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a rocking chair factory
This is effective since we can imagine that a cat would hate getting their tale caught under a rocking chair. Now imagine that the cat has a long tail and is in a rocking chair factory where there are thousands of chairs. Yes, they would definitely be nervous.
“Come in,” she said, in a voice as smoky as a midnight card game.
This also uses technique #1 as well, of switching literal and metaphorical usage. A smoky voice means one that is low and husky, like someone who is a smoker. But we can also imagine a card game in the back room late at night where the players are smoking and the air is thick.
A couple things to keep in mind when using this technique:
- Make sure that other people will probably have the same mental picture as you. This is something you can check by having others read your story. The last thing you want is to cause confusion. For example, if you said, as noxious as Agbogbloshie with a new shipment of iPhone 2s, that would probably be confusing for the reader, unless they knew that Agbogbloshie was a district in Ghana where they reprocess a lot of old electronics.
- Realize that the longer and more detailed your comparison, the more it will call attention to itself. This is fine if it is a funny story, but it is something you usually want to avoid with serious stories. Take a look at this paragraph for an example.
“Why would you do this to us?” she cried, eyes red. “What’s wrong with you?”
“I don’t know,” he said. He slumped onto the sofa, looking as dejected as a puppy whose owner just punted its favorite plushie octopus into the Pacific Ocean.
There is nothing inherently funny about a person kicking a puppy’s toy into the ocean, but the length and detail of this mental image is kind of funny and does not follow the tone of the paragraph. This is something to avoid if you want to keep the tone serious.
Now it’s your turn
- Make a point of looking for this type of comparison when you are reading. Also, listen for people using them in conversation. Sometimes people will come up with very original and quirky comparisons.
- Read back over your writing and see how you have compared things. Can you make the comparison any stronger or more memorable? Does it follow the tone of the story? Is the mental picture it creates clear?
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.