One of my favorite figures of speech—one I describe in my latest book—is what I call the Mr. Potato Head. This cataloging figure breaks down a person or object into constituent parts, and then pretends that those parts came from elsewhere.
The journalist William Allen White used this device beautifully in his obituary of publisher Frank Munsey.
“The talent of a meat-packer, the morals of a moneychanger and the manners of an undertaker.”
With just three phrases, White gives you a vivid image of the oily crook. You can use it as a form of self-deprecating humor.
When I play tennis, I have the agility of a tank, the aim of a mole and the response time of FEMA.
The Mr. Potato Head comes in handy when you want to call attention to a variety of characteristics by exaggerating them. Say you want to describe a party you went to last Saturday: a chaotic, drunken mess with bad music, badly dressed guests, and the kind of mayo-drenched snacks that give people food poisoning. Instead of droning on and on about how awful it was, try chunking up a nice Potato Head.
A lovely party! The food of a bachelor’s fridge, the music playlist of an aging hair-band roadie, and guests straight out of “Dumb and Dumber,” without the witty dialogue.
Creating your own Mr. Potato Head isn’t hard. Just take a characteristic or part of the subject you want to describe, and come up with an analog for it. Then take the next characteristic or part, find an analog, and continue until your subject is thoroughly spudded. An analog is something that’s analogous—an analogy. We’ll get to the metaphorical kinds of analogies later. In the meantime, just look for similarities that create the effect you want. If you intend to make a subject look great, use flattering comparisons. Do the opposite if you want to abuse someone or something.
The book had the prose style of the Congressional Record, the characterization of a computer manual, and the suspense of a phone book.