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.
Hayley Schultz says
And this is why Ann Patchett is only my favorite author. Ever. Her sentences flow so easily, it doesn’t even feel like “reading”.
Kamil Pitonak says
This is an interesting and novel take on this age-old rule. Thank you for reminding us about it here once again. We should be reading such blog every time we start writing the first draft. And then the second. And then…
Arthur Bruce Graham says
As a wannabe writer, I am an official Ann addict. She is the business. I am blessed to be able to read her musings, her insights, and her wisdom. To chuckle at her wordplay. All I can say is, ‘Thanks, Ann.’ Keep on typing.