Everything’s a Metaphor—7 Ways to Build Meaning into Your Story

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I should begin by clarifying what I mean by “metaphor.” I do not mean abstract symbolism that you force the reader to dig through, so that he can make-believe he understands what the story’s about, while looking down his nose at the Philistines in the audience.

What I’m talking about is “show; don’t tell” metaphors. These happen in every effective story, whether we consciously realize it or not. They are part of what makes the difference between a story that is just a series of meaningless events and a story that is about something.

The human mind is a metaphorical machine. It associates events, objects, people with our perceptions of them. In a sense, everything’s a metaphor, because our perceptions—not raw facts—determine how we react. And these metaphors, these perceptions, are more important even than the reality behind them.

Not Too Artsy for School

As I said, I’m not talking about the subtle, convoluted metaphors that literary works sometimes wrap themselves in. Rather, I’m talking about obvious metaphors (like the phrase “wrap themselves in” in the previous sentence) that add a dimension of depth to a story, even an ordinary, non-literary story. (“Dimension of depth,” as I just used it, is also such a metaphor.) These metaphors are sometimes so obvious that they fade into the background. Other times, they precipitate “Aha!” moments, those Wow! moments when you finally get it.

A metaphor associates two different concepts based on their perceived similarities. In the mind, this creates a new interpretation of those concepts and deepens their meaning.

That’s a mouthful, but it breaks down into simple elements:

  • a concept that the reader is already familiar with (the source)
  • a concept that you want to illuminate (the target)
  • perceived similarities between the source and target
  • interpreting the target in light of the source

This works because we learn by associating new knowledge, new understandings, with stuff we already know. That’s how our brains store information. So when you encounter a metaphor, it helps you to internalize a new concept by linking it with something you already understand. That’s where the “Aha!” moment comes from.

7 Sources for Metaphor and Analogy in Your Writing

Here are 7 places you can look for metaphors to use in your writing and your stories.

  1. Situations and events that evoke the same feelings. A song that reminds you of a lost love. Or the scent of the beach on a summer day: smells like fun. (“Smells like fun”: that’s a metaphor.) The association isn’t always based on a memory, though. The series of snowstorms we’ve been having in New England reminds me of writer’s block; just when I think I’ve seen the last of it for a season, it hits again— and last week, we got a double portion, two snowstorms back-to-back, over 2 feet of winter blanket. If that’s not a metaphor for writer’s block, I don’t know what is.

  2. Physical descriptors that evoke symbolic meaning. For example, hard features for a hard person. The villain who wears black and has an ugly scar across his face. Harsh weather reflecting a tough economy. A blast of cold air to indicate the presence of evil. “Bitter” circumstances. A “bright” future. A “heavy” discussion.

  3. Characters or situations that evoke analogous moral or ethical dilemmas. Apologists frequently use this sort of metaphor to argue their points. A friend of mine, for example, recently told a story of playing a game of chess against an opponent who was always breaking the rules so that he could win. In that situation, he said, you can’t continue to play by the rules, because if you do, the whole game becomes meaningless. He compared that to unconditional pacifism, arguing that you have to be willing to use force sometimes, to defend yourself. Now whether or not you agree with his premise, my point is that he used an analogous situation to demonstrate his view of an ethical dilemma. You can also use this kind of metaphor in a fictional story to motivate your characters or to connect with the reader by comparing two analogous situations.

  4. A similar-looking or -functioning object that has a deeper meaning in the story. In other words, compare the forms or functions of two objects. The stars as candles. A baseball bat as a club. Or as an electronic “key” card allows entry through a locked door. Maybe a character could build a wall of books, to keep other people out. (Similar form.) Or maybe to her books could be like carrier pigeons, bringing knowledge from around the world. (Similar function.) This can also work by comparing characters or character roles: the director of a band as the CEO of a corporation. Or a bad boss as an alpha-male baboon. (One of my favorites, because of their similar instinctive behaviors.) And it can also work with other senses besides sight: a character might panic at the sound of fingernails scraping across an old slate-board, because it sounds like the screeching tires of an accident she was in.

  5. An abstract concept represented as a concrete object, character, or activity. Like potter’s clay as a metaphor for the human spirit. Or the information “superhighway.” (It’s not a highway of any sort. Rather it’s a bunch of computers connected to each other through a massive data network.) The grim reaper. (Representing death.) “Running away” from your problems. (A classic: you have to “face” your problems, because you can’t “run away” from yourself.)

  6. A characteristic or effect represented as an object or character role associated with the effect. A black cat as a bad omen. A mother representing nurturing. The sun representing warmth. Or double the metaphor, and have the sun represent a “warm” personality. Or the “softness” of a woman vs. the “hardness” of a man (another doubled metaphor).

  7. Solutions smuggled in via the surface structure of the story. I once read about a small girl who was hearing voices. Her psychologist helped her get rid of the voices by escaping under the end of a make-believe rainbow, and letting the voices be washed away by a rainbow stream there. That’s an extreme example, granted.

These aren’t the only sources available to you. Metaphors are everywhere. We use them everyday, in ordinary conversation even. I could say so much more about this topic. But hopefully, this should be enough to get you thinking about the metaphors around you, and the metaphors you’d like to use in your own stories.

Keep writing!


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