Igniting the Reader’s Imagination
Why do authors use metaphors? I think it’s fair to say without metaphor most prose would be very poor, fiction far from fantastic, and poetry impossible.
Most of us remember being taught about metaphor and other literary devices at school. A few of us may have deepened our understanding of such things at University. Unfortunately the meaning and use of metaphor is often taught in such a bland and uninspiring way as to render it both dull and forgettable.
This is a great shame. More than that, it’s a travesty.
Metaphor properly understood and skillfully applied is the most potent magical instrument in the writer’s toolkit.
Allusion, diction, epigraph, euphemism, foreshadowing, imagery, simile, symbolism and personification are nothing but nuts, bolts, spanners and screwdrivers compared to the magic wand of metaphor.
What is a Metaphor?
But we are obliged, for the sake of clarity, to begin with the dictionary definitions. This we find in the Oxford English Dictionary:
A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.
This is the definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary:
an expression, often found in literature, that describes a person or object by referring to something that is considered to have similar characteristics to that person or object.
And from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money); broadly : figurative language.
Describing one thing as if it was something else? Saying something is what it isn’t? A figure of speech? Well, yes, that’s all true. But it’s rather superficial and does little to show the power of metaphor and still less to instruct writers in the most effective ways to use it.
Let’s dig a little deeper. Time for a bit of etymology, methinks.
Metaphors as Literary Magic
Here’s a Greek word for you:
Transliterated into English that’s metapherein. That’s the origin, via Latin and Old French versions, of our modern word, metaphor. It throws considerable light on the meaning and purpose of metaphor. And as we’ll soon discover, the purpose of metaphor is all about meaning.
This Greek word comprises two units, meta and pherein. They each have an independent meaning.
Meta signifies something which is “changed, altered, higher or beyond.”
Pherein is a verb form, meaning to “bear or carry.”
So this combination of terms gives us “to lift up into a higher, transformed state.”
Now that makes the subject of metaphor a little more exciting, right? It’s not a dull literary device to be drilled into literature students’ baffled brains. Nor is it just describing one thing by likening it to another. It is much, much more than that. This business of transformation and transcendence those clever old Greeks were trying to express applies both to the writing itself and to the effect it has on the reader.
So let’s create a new definition of metaphor, shall we? Here it is.
Metaphor is a magic wand which empowers your writing to transcend the limitations of literal meaning and transports the enchanted reader to a higher level of experience and understanding.
That’s what metaphor is.
Metaphor is How Writers Show, Not Tell
Writers are always being told to “show-not-tell” and “give the reader a powerful emotional experience.”
But does anyone ever tell you how to do that?
Some try, and many of those that do suggest the former comes from endless action sequences, and the latter from ratcheting up the conflict at every turn.
I agree that good fiction must have conflicted characters who are constantly forced to act. But I don’t agree that action and conflict alone achieve the immersion effect – that experience the reader has when the world of everyday melts around her and she’s transported into the world of the book.
But that’s what we’re striving for when we aim to show-not-tell and lead the reader into a powerful emotional experience.
The Transformative Power of Good Fiction
We want the reader to be imaginatively enthralled and metaphorically transported.
I’ve argued elsewhere in this blog (here) that the oft-quoted maxim that conflict is the heart of all fiction isn’t true. Conflict is certainly necessary. But it’s not the heart of what makes fiction work. The heart of good fiction is transformation.
If your protagonist undergoes multilevel transformation – psychological, emotional, and circumstantial – your reader will be enthralled and experience transcendence.
And what is the magic wand which confers transformative, transcendent power to your writing?
Reading fiction is not primarily an intellectual experience. Of course, the best fiction does have an intellectually satisfying theme, but that’s not necessary to tell a good story.
A story is not a sermon, or a treatise, or an essay.
It’s a story.
It’s not about expounding an idea, philosophizing, hermeneutics, or exegesis.
It’s about igniting the fires of mental imagery, heating the crucible of emotion, transforming the base metal of everyday experience into the alchemical gold of the mythic, the fantastical.
Just as an essay or scientific paper demands to be written in a certain style, structured within the limitations of analytical prose, so a work of fiction demands its own language.
It doesn’t matter if that fiction is cast as ‘literary’ or ‘genre-specific’, it all partakes of the fantastical, speaks of things that never happened, to people who never existed, in worlds which – however similar to our own world – are created by the collaborative imaginative powers of writer and reader.
The language demanded of this extraordinary and uniquely human endeavor is the language of myth, of symbolism, of the fairy tale, the dream, of fantasy. It is metaphor.
To awaken the reader’s inner vision, to touch her heart, to enthrall her, demands using a form of language which surprises, turns a thing on its head, jolts her out of the soporific acceptance of the lazy, hum-drum speech used in everyday life, and awakens her senses to something new.
The transformative power of the metaphor achieves all of this. It takes the ordinary and renders it extraordinary. It takes the impossible and renders it true.
Showing Respect for the Reader
The use of metaphor demonstrates the highest respect for the reader.
Metaphors are generous.
What I mean by that is they offer a vision, an opening into an inner experience, which only becomes knowable by its resonance with the personal sentiments, memories, hopes, emotions, visions and fears of the reader.
Metaphors communicate by suggestion.
The work of interpretation is in the reader’s mind. The generous writer gives up the meaning of her fiction to the reader, that she may make of it something unique and personal to herself.
And that is a uniquely powerful proposition.
To understand the answer to the original question – why do authors use metaphors? – ask yourself this: Have you ever read a book in which the author seemed to know and understand your most intimate and private thoughts, feelings and experiences? A book so moving and profound that it remained with you for the rest of your life? You were experiencing the power of metaphor.
Writing fiction in any other language than metaphor is to be little more than a witness giving a factual description of events to a court. In fact, the fiction writer who eschews the proper use of metaphor is one who gives false evidence.
Why Do Authors Use Metaphors? A Final Word
The metaphor is a golden key offered to the reader, which opens her own store of truth. In itself it isn’t true. But it leads to truth.
It says something is something it isn’t, remember?
But by a mystical alchemy, it transforms that lie into a powerful truth in the experience of the reader.
In fiction, the proper use of metaphor is the mark of true genius.
That’s my answer to the question, “Why do authors use metaphors?”
What do you think? The comments section is for you.
If you’re a writer, or know a writer, or aspire to be a writer, or whoever you are, I would love to hear your insights, experiences, thoughts, critiques, or reflections in the comments.
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