Metaphor in Stories: the Lake, the Void, and the Skating Rink

Photo © 2011 Lori L Stalteri CC 2.0 BY

Over the past weeks here in New England, we’ve been inundated with snow. And between snowstorms, the air turns bitterly cold, as sub-freezing air blasts down from Canada. For the privilege, I get to drag myself out of bed at an ungodly hour each morning and scrape the frost off the Saturn, with its broken blower and no heat. Then I drive my Firstborn daughter to school, as the feeling gradually escapes from three to five of my toes.

During one such trip, as I was driving by the Merrimack River, thinking about The Alchemist, which my Firstborn read for school. The river, with its layer of ice floating on top, inspired enlightenment. I saw that there were three kinds of stories: the lake, the void, and the skating rink. And my favorite of these is the first.

The Lake

A great story is like a lake. When you look at it, you see the surface: ripples, waves, frozen ice in winter, circular perturbations when it rains. Sometimes a boat will skim along its face, and sometimes its edges will lap up on the shore. If the weather gets cold enough, you can go out onto it with ice skates or snowmobiles. But there’s always an unseen aspect to the lake, even when the surface is completely frozen over, a flurry of activity within its bulk, an entire ecosystem hidden beneath the surface. And if you choose, you can always go deeper, and deeper, and sometimes even deeper still, each time finding new wonders within.

In the same way, a great story has a surface plot. And you can read and enjoy it for its surface. But there’s deeper meaning behind the surface of a great story. There are themes hidden within its words, spiritual discoveries on its pages. A great story is not just an escape; it is about something. And each time you read it, a whole new world of wonder awaits you.

Talyn exemplifies the Lake. Talyn is a story about a warrior who saves her people, the Tonk, from a powerful wizard who wishes to subject them. But that’s just on the surface. Go a little deeper, and you see that Talyn is an epic tale about cultures that clash, the abuse of power, about friends and enemies and peace and war and chivalry and manipulation and love and sex and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Another example: The Second Summer of the Sisterhood (Ann Brashares’s second Traveling Pants book). One of the story threads therein, one of the most powerful story threads in the series, involves Bridget seeking out her grandmother, Greta, whom she hasn’t seen since she was little. Bee pretends to be someone else, so that Greta will hire her to help sort through Greta’s attic. All so that Bee can learn more about her mother, who had killed herself years ago; so that Bee can learn more about what her mother was like before she started wrestling with depression. Now, that’s a powerful story on its own. But when you look under the surface, you see that Bee is on a spiritual quest, looking for identity and purpose. This is something that each of us wrestles with at least once in our lives.

The Void

As I mentioned, my Firstborn read The Alchemist in school. This is an example of the second type of story, the Void, where metaphor takes center stage. It is like the Lake, except without any surface, or at least none that you can take at face value. It’s like you’re swimming along in the forever emptiness of space, and you suddenly come across the prototypical sci-fi-plot “void.” And once you enter the void, you lose contact with all references back to the real world, you can’t to tell your up from your down, you suffer from sensory deprivation, and you eventually start seeing things that don’t exist, which apparently is the desired goal of reading such a story.

The Alchemist, in case you’ve never been forced to read it, is a tale of a bunch of people with far too much free time on their hands who wander through the desert spouting gibberish to one another. Now, I won’t go so far as to say that there is “no story” to The Alchemist: at one point, there was actually the promise of a battle… Of course, the battle never occurred–at least not before I gave up making fun of the book–but at least for a moment, I believed there might be a battle. Anyhow, by and large, the main point of The Alchemist seems to be to prove that, yes, Paulo Coelho could have written “Stairway to Heaven.”

Seriously, though, The Alchemist is of a type of literary mumbo-jumbo that means nothing, and means everything, or means anything you want it to, or anything you can see in it. Meaning is in the eye of the beholder. So deep, it’ll make your brain explode. Either that, or it’s an advertisement for hallucinogenics.

Uh, sorry… I was trying to be serious. (Not very successfully.)

Metaphor requires structure. Before you can associate one thing with another, you need to identify the objects you’re trying to associate. This is the problem I have with the Void. It leaves the story itself open to interpretation. This way, people can read it, make up stuff about it, and feel like they’re intelligent for doing so. But because the story doesn’t mean anything definite, it can’t really be about anything specific, so it can’t really reveal anything about the human condition, and its readers can’t really learn much (if anything) from the story itself.

However, you can still read this kind of fiction–if you like it–to get your neurons firing in potentially strange ways. It’s kind of like a dream state, where normal rules of logic don’t apply.

The Skating Rink

The Skating Rink is the converse of the Void. If the Void is everything under the surface, without a surface, the Skating Rink is the surface of the Lake, with nothing underneath except a concrete floor and refrigeration coils. What’s happening on the surface is all that’s happening.

This is escape fiction. My own personal guilty pleasure in this area is Janet Evanovich. I like her style: funny and romantic. But I’ve never read any deeper meaning in her stories. Therefore, it’s what I read when I don’t really want to think about anything meaningful. Pure escape. As I said, a guilty pleasure.

Back to the Lake

The power of the Lake, though, is that you can read it for pure enjoyment, or you can get more out of it. And you need both the surface and the underneath, both of them together, in order to accomplish that.

Keep writing!
-TimK

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