The dictionary defines this as a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. For example: “I’m weeping a pool of tears.” But in a story context metaphors can be a theme that you use in a story to give it substance.
The English word “metaphor” originates from the Greek metaphorá, which means “to transfer” or “to carry over.” A metaphor transfers meaning from one subject on to another so that the target subject can be understood in a new way. By defining something metaphorically, you create a powerful symbol that can be used in your story.
Here is how a metaphor can be used in a larger sense. In JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Smaug the Dragon is one of the villains of the story. But the story has a larger theme about insatiable greed. The dwarves in the story are a race in love with gems and gold from under the earth. They want their mountain full of treasure back which was stolen in the past by Smaug. But what is a dragon but a metaphor for greed. Dragons covert gold and kill for it, but it is something they have no use for since they don’t eat it and can’t spend it. All they do is hoard it. Which is basically what the dwarves did with it and intend to do with it. Once the dwarves get their hands on it again they have no plans to share it with anyone, even though many people who helped them lost their cities and lives in the process. The gold also inspires greed from the goblins who want to take it from the dwarves. In the middle of this is the main character, Bilbo Baggins, who doesn’t care about wealth and serves as a conscience for the other characters.
Greed is played out in various way as metaphors in this novel (and film) to great effect. This is something you can do in your story. Pick something you want to discuss and use metaphors so that you aren’t beating people over the head with it. They are a very handy and often powerful way to get an idea across without being obvious to your intention.
One of the greatest sins a writer can commit is to preach a message. No one likes being preached to except the converted. Your job is to convince people that your message is correct. As we will discuss later, your story will be about something. Metaphors are a tool you can use to symbolize a thing, an experience, a place, a person, a monster, etc. Using them drives home a point you want to make indirectly.
It’s important to remember that a lot of things in life can serve as perfect metaphors. As an exercise, start thinking of possible metaphors you can use in dialog, or as thematic symbols. It will make your job more fun.
You can make a whole story that’s a metaphor. It’s called an allegory. An allegory is a complete story with an extended metaphor throughout to illustrate complex ideas in a comprehensible way. Many writers have used genres like historical or science fiction to tell an allegorical story. The movie High Noon was an allegory about McCarthyism and the hero was metaphorically standing up against the injustice the outlaws were bringing to town. Here is a good example how you can tell a story using metaphors without preaching because the movie is a classic and McCarthyism is a historical footnote. The film lives on because it’s metaphor is universal and thus can be seen in different ways by future generations. You don’t want to date your work by being too literal. Metaphors and allegories can work to your advantage.
Setting a story in the past or a future society removes it from the politics of the now. You can say what you want to say without beating people over the head with a message about something that may be forgotten a few years after your story comes out. The best fiction deals with universal truths. Those kind of stories stand the test of time.
Issues and problems aren’t that diverse in reality. They always call into similar camps. The players change but song remains the same. So by changing the time and place, you can talk about issues near and dear to your heart without turning into a lecturer. The story’s demands will require you to think it out clearly and who knows, you might learn a thing or two in the process.
REMEMBER: Remove your story from the present to make the plot more universal.
Excepted from The Secrets of Writing. Available now.