Normally I celebrate standout marketing writing. But this week I’m sharing a line from a novel I’m reading.
It’s simple. It’s compact. And it’s perfect:
“His skin was not just clammy but the color and consistency of actual clams.” —Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
Ann is describing a Bel Canto character—a Russian bureaucrat named Fyodorov. I read that line Monday night and I literally LOLed.
That sentence is now in my head. (It’s moved in. Possibly vacationing there.)
I keep remembering it at odd moments (in line at the checkout, in the middle of a meeting). And I laugh suddenly and quietly. Yesterday I was picking out grapes in the supermarket when I thought of it and smiled. A woman across the produce aisle looked at me and then at the grapes, like the grapes had said something funny.
Anyhoo… Let’s break down the science of why this sentence from Ann works, and what we can learn from it.
Specificity: Fyodorov’s pallor is not “gray” but the grayish-white color of clams. Our brains process more specific words more fully because they paint a robust picture, making the writing more real, vivid, tangible.
Specific writing is more relatable writing.
Emotional context: Plenty of other things are gray (kittens, a stormy sky, maybe your hair mid-pandemic). But the cold-water, hard-shelled bivalve with a slippery, viscous interior delivers the visceral wallop needed for a character like Fyodorov, who is similarly cold-blooded, slick, enigmatic… yet also weirdly vulnerable.
Choose your analogies within a broader context. Even you there, writing your biotech newsletter.
Surprise: Comparing the color of skin to “actual clams” is surprising and offbeat. But it’s the wordplay that brings me back to this sentence again and again.
“Clammy” the adjective (unpleasantly sweaty, sticky, slimy) has nothing to do with clams, the creatures. But juxtaposing “clammy” and “actual clams” is unusual, witty, playful. Also a little gross… but just enough to be memorable.
Surprising metaphors are like each of us post-vacation: Fresher!
A fun tool for inspiring fresh comparisons is DescribingWords.