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Fictivity: The Power of Metaphors

Let’s assume that you would like to write a story which attracted as many readers as possible and affected them as strongly as it could, or, to put it another way, was as loaded with vacuum power as possible.

You could write the first thing that came into your head and leave it at that, as many writers do. Any vacuum power which it possessed it would have accumulated by accident, by the random processes of your imagination hooking together what it considered to be a story. A huge number of writers are satisfied with that, call it finished, and send it out for possible publication — and then wonder why they receive so many rejection letters, when they get any feedback at all.

Or you could take what the imagination presents you with and add vacuum power to it — adding in those particular elements described earlier in this series (and delineated in some detail in my book How Stories Really Work), so that readers become engaged with the artificial creations called ‘characters’ and actually care what happens to them as they move through a sequence of vacuum-driven scenes which pull readers forward, glue their attention and morally involve them, culminating in a transmission of key ideas and themes which have an effect. This is the aim of every writer of fiction — the successful and potent transference of ideas and emotions to readers. But it takes something called ‘craft’ to get from the raw material which the imagination first presents to a piece of work which will do the job required of it.

What you need to do is tap into more and more vacuum power: you need to make your lead characters more and more attractive — not physically or even morally attractive necessarily, but possessed of those elements which simply suck reader attention towards them, magnetically. You need to develop plots which are driven by losses, threats, mysteries and so forth so that readers have no choice but to stay up late to finish the book, desperate to find out what happens.

There are many ways of increasing the vacuum power of a piece of fiction, and many of them are described in my book — but one of the key and most satisfying methods is through the use of metaphor.

A metaphor is defined by the dictionary 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; a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else.’ Thus we refer to the beginning of the universe as the ‘Big Bang’ or say that we are ‘drowning in grief’ or that someone ‘lights up my life’, when in each case the meaning is not literal but figurative: the universe (probably) didn’t go ‘bang’; the grief did not produce enough fluid to drown anyone; the person was not actually producing illumination. Language is jam-packed full of metaphors — indeed, it’s almost impossible to say anything sensible or interesting without using them in some way. Try it: try saying something to someone without any use of metaphor whatsoever. It’s very difficult and the results are often comically inadequate and sound like the communication efforts of alien life forms or a simple-minded AI device.

The word comes from late 15th century: from French métaphore, via Latin from Greek metaphora, from metapherein ‘to transfer’, and it is this derivation which gives us the clue why metaphors are so useful to us in communication and in fiction writing they transfer meaning. The word ‘bang’ has connotations of loudness but also triviality; to use it to describe the Creation of All Things is purposefully humanising that otherwise somewhat incomprehensible event. Similarly, to suggest that we ‘drown’ in grief is a case of hyperbolically exaggerating the emotion to create an effect, drawing in the meanings associated with death by drowning. ‘Light’ has so many other connotations that to say that someone ‘lights up your life’ is much more potent than merely suggesting that they are feeding you with photons.

It’s that ‘drawing in’ which is the key. Metaphors draw in the vacuum power associated with otherwise unassociated elements to produce a stronger ‘pull’.

Most master authors use metaphor all the time, explicitly and implicitly. In the words of Ray Bradbury, ‘I've grown up on a diet of metaphors. If young writers would find those writers who can give them metaphors by the bushel and the peck, then they'll become better writers - to learn how to capsualize things and present them in metaphorical form.’

It’s precisely that learning how to ‘capsualize’ things which produces the increase in vacuum power.

Take the Tolstoy example used in an earlier post in this series: on one level, War and Peace is about the Napoleonic invasion of Russia in 1815 — the build-up to it, the minutiae of it, and its aftermath. On another level, it’s about the human impact of all that, as told through a couple of families and a few key characters. But on an entirely different level, it’s about human nature and its relationship to the nature of reality itself. By tapping metaphorically into the highest and most conceptual of these, Tolstoy produced a work which will live for all time.

It’s full of vacuum power because it has connected itself up to the biggest vacuums there are: the universal mysteries of meaning, immortality and so forth.

All great literature has this metaphorical element. E. M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India is about, on the surface, the British occupation of and rule over India in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. It tells that story through the adventures of a handful of characters embroiled in a series of adventures. But Forster also goes beyond that with the use of a few metaphors, so that what the novel ends up being about is the nature of meaning in the universe: the Caves of Marabah, a location visited by two British women in the novel at the suggestion of an Indian native, becomes a symbol of cosmic meaninglessness, and the visit has not only ripples for the characters legally, socially, and politically but also metaphysically.

Even a work of popular fiction like the original Star Wars film trilogy has strong metaphorical elements, featuring as it does a son’s confrontation with his ‘shadow’ in the form of his father. The ‘evil Empire’ and the plucky Rebellion are not just CGI-empowered puppets (at least in the first three films in the series) but symbols of deeper, psychic realities.

The seven character archetypes, as also described in my book, are part of this: it’s all very well having a lead character who does certain things within a particular story, but to magnify the power and emotional impact of that character master authors use archetypes: we read, therefore, not only about Pip the blacksmith’s apprentice in Dickens’ Great Expectations falling in love with Estella, but of Pip as a symbol of youthful humanity falling in live with Estella as a symbol of submerged humanity.

An archetype is a character-shaped metaphor: by moulding certain key figures along certain lines, master authors make them more universally attractive and their adventures more psychologically and emotionally powerful.

Metaphors are everywhere and because they are such potent and ubiquitous tools they demand more examination. Stay tuned.

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