Writing

What Is Analogy? Definition and Examples of Analogy in Literature

Written by MasterClass

Aug 19, 2019 • 5 min read

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“She’s as blind as a bat.” “You have to be as busy as a bee to get good grades in high school.” “Finding that lost dog will be like finding a needle in a haystack.” Comparing two objects or ideas is common practice in the English language, as useful in writing and literature as in everyday figures of speech. While there are many forms of comparison, one literary term that encompasses most types of comparison is known as an analogy.

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What Is an Analogy?

An analogy is something that shows how two things are alike, but with the ultimate goal of making a point about this comparison.

The purpose of an analogy is not merely to show, but also to explain. For this reason, an analogy is more complex than a simile or a metaphor, which aim only to show without explaining. (Similes and metaphors can be used to make an analogy, but usually analogies have additional information to get their point across.)

What Is an Example of an Analogy?

Consider this analogy, meant to communicate futility:

“What you’re doing is as useful as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Here, the speaker is using a simile to compare the task being done to the task of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But, the ultimate goal is not just to compare one task to another, it is to communicate that the first task is useless—by comparing it to a similarly useless task, such as rearranging deck chairs on a ship that famously sank into the sea on its maiden voyage.

2 Different Types of Analogy

In writing, there are two predominant types of analogies:

  1. Analogies that identify identical relationships. The modern word “analogy” actually comes from the ancient Greek word for “proportionality,” and Greek scholars used analogies to directly illustrate similar relationships between two pairs of words, often for the purpose of logical argument. These analogies take the form “A is to B as C is to D.” An example of an analogy that identifies an identical relationship is “Black is to white as on is to off.” In this example, the relationship between black and white (that they’re antonyms, or opposites) is exactly comparable to the relationship between on and off (on and off are also opposites).
  2. Analogies that identify shared abstraction. This type of analogy compares two things that are technically unrelated, in order to draw comparisons between an attribute or pattern they share. For instance, consider the analogy, “Raising children is like gardening—nurture them and be patient.” This example compares the pattern that is similar in both raising children and gardening. This type of analogy is useful in writing because it can help make abstract ideas (like raising children) more concrete by drawing on readers’ background knowledge of familiar images (like gardening).

How Do You Write a Good Analogy?

In writing, analogy can be useful to explain an unfamiliar concept or idea. Using an analogy to link this idea to something that is familiar can help the reader better comprehend what you’re trying to say. It’s also a catchy and clever way to help get a point across. To write a good analogy, keep these points in mind:

  • Try to create easy-to-understand imagery. If you’re trying to explain to your reader how one thing is similar to another, you have to make sure the example you’re using is common and easily understood. The point of an analogy is to encourage deeper thought, and that won’t work if the readers are unfamiliar with the image you’re conjuring.
  • Work to compare and contrast. Think about the idea you’re trying to get across. When trying to find something commonplace to compare it to, think about possible connections between the two things—both similarities and differences. Which evokes the most powerful image? Which will be able to set up the comparison the clearest?
  • Think of ways to inspire. The best analogies both explain and inspire. As a literary device, an analogy is a powerful way to communicate a message. However, it can also turn an idea into a vivid image in the reader’s mind that will stick long after they’ve finished reading.

2 Examples of Analogy in Literature

Both of these analogy examples demonstrate the deft use of comparison to serve a higher purpose.

  • William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1597). “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet. So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called.” Here, Shakespeare is using Juliet’s words to compare Romeo to a rose. The implication is that in her eyes, Romeo’s last name doesn’t change who he is, or what he is—the same way that calling a rose by any other name doesn’t change its intrinsic characteristics.

Analogies can also be less logical, instead trying to create a mood with the comparison:

  • George Orwell, “A Hanging” (1931). “They crowded very close about him, with their hands always on him in a careful, caressing grip, as though all the while feeling him to make sure he was there. It was like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water.” Here, Orwell makes a comparison between a dead man and a fish. What he is trying to evoke is not a new idea, but a sense of the supernatural, by suggesting that at any moment the man could come back to life and wriggle out of the crowd’s hands.

What Is the Difference Between Analogy, Simile, and Metaphor?

While analogies, similes, and metaphors are closely related because they are all used to compare different things, here are some tips to help you distinguish between these three figures of speech:

  • A simile is saying something is like something else. For example, “Life is like a box of chocolates.”
  • A metaphor is often poetically saying something is something else. For example, “Life is a box of chocolates.”
  • An analogy is saying something is like something else to make some sort of explanatory point. For example, “Life is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get.”
  • You can use metaphors and similes when creating an analogy.
  • A simile is a type of metaphor. All similes are metaphors, but not all metaphors are similes.

Learn more about the differences and similarities between analogy, simile, and metaphor in our complete guide here.

Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, learning how to correctly use literary devices like analogy, simile, and metaphor is essential to good writing. Award-winning author Judy Blume has spent decades honing her craft. In her writing MasterClass, Judy provides insight into how to invent vivid characters, write realistic dialogue, and turn your experiences into stories people will treasure.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Judy Blume, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, David Baldacci, and more.

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