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Fictivity: Weaving the Net of Metaphors

Scientists claim that it’s quite likely that all galaxies swirl around gigantic black holes at their centre. They even claim to have taken a picture of such a thing, or rather of the traces of light it leaves behind.

Quantum physicists say that the particles of the universe are composed of fundamental uncertainties (though they are not sure about it).

Fiction — the ‘sub-creation’ of mini-universes of one kind or another — also contains at its heart elemental ‘incompletenesses’, gaps, missing things, losses, threats, holes, emptinesses, which, in my book How Stories Really Work I call ‘vacuums’. The name suggests what they do: suck in attention, prompt motion, compel action.

They are the basic building blocks of just about everything, it seems.

Powerful stories, classic stories, the kinds of fiction which last for generations, are founded upon vacuums. These vacuums, in great fiction, tap into primal human verities: death, love, loss, joy, the meaning of Life and so on. An author can look as though he or she is telling a story about some made-up characters moving through various scenarios to some kind of resolution, but in actual fact what is happening is a web is being woven to capture greater truths — at least, it is in stories that really work. There is plenty of fiction out there which is just about made-up characters moving through various scenarios to some kind of resolution — only long-lasting, memorable and powerful stories are weaving the web which makes them great.

What is this web made of?


‘What therefore is truth?’ Nietzsche said. ‘A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms: in short a sum of human relations which become poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned, and after long usage seem to a nation fixed, canonic and binding.’ We are so used to metaphors in language life and fiction that we overlook what they are doing to us; we fail to ask how they are functioning.

What is a metaphor?

As we have mentioned before, a metaphor in language is a figure of speech that imaginatively draws a comparison between two separate things. Something isn’t just ‘like’ something else (as in a simile): it IS that something else. The 'vacuum' or gap between one thing and another is closed. Clever authors, using this principle, can link not only the known to the unknown, the concrete to the abstract, the comprehensible to the incomprehensible — they can make all the unknowns, abstracts and incomprehensibles much, much larger, thus increasing the vacuum power of their work.

Thus Shakespeare can have Romeo say ‘But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!’ and turn a young Italian girl into a heavenly body; thus William Golding in The Lord of the Flies can write ‘The sun in the west was a drop of burning gold that slid near and nearer the sill of the world’ and evoke the strange size of the world by suggesting its smallness and intimacy; thus Francis Hardinge can write in Fly By Night, ‘If wits were pins, the man would be a veritable hedgehog’ and create a comic image that lasts in the mind of the reader.

Because this is all about the mind of the reader: how can a writer get inside that mind, connect up a galaxy of ideas and set them swirling about a thematic 'black hole' designed to create a lasting emotional effect? How can a commonplace idea, character, setting, event or item be granted the mystical power to invoke emotional commitment?

It’s done by linking things together through metaphor.

Here are some more examples:

‘But it is just two lovers, holding hands and in a hurry to reach their car, their locked hands a starfish leaping through the dark.’ ―Rabbit, Run, John Updike

‘Her mouth was a fountain of delight.’ —The Storm, Kate Chopin

’Well, you keep away from her, cause she’s a rattrap if I ever seen one.’—Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

‘But now, O Lord, You are our Father, We are the clay, and You our potter; And all of us are the work of Your hand.’ —Isaiah 64:8

‘He could hear Beatty's voice. "Sit down, Montag. Watch. Delicately, like the petals of a flower. Light the first page, light the second page. Each becomes a black butterfly. Beautiful, eh? Light the third page from the second and so on, chainsmoking, chapter by chapter, all the silly things the words mean, all the false promises, all the second-hand notions and time-worn philosophies."’ —Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

‘My thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations.’ —Fault In Our Stars, John Green

'"Life" wrote a friend of mine, "is a public performance on the violin, in which you must learn the instrument as you go along."’ ―A Room with a View, E.M. Forster

In each case, the author takes one thing and connects it with another. It’s not a random process, and it has a distinct purpose and product: done well, it seeks to magnify the vacuum power of the work.

Thus Updike’s lovers become not merely two people rushing towards a car holding hands — which is the basic image being conjured by the writer — but their linked hands become a single, beautiful organism making its way through a primal darkness.

Chopin’s female character has a mouth which issues forth delight like a fountain, transforming her into something more in the reader’s mind; Stienbeck’s female character becomes a grim trap for the unwary, linking death with all its vacuum power with a single human relationship.

Isaiah’s clay and potter take on cosmic dimensions; the burning books in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 perversely connect the heinous destruction of ideas and beauty with an image of beauty; Green’s stars and Forster’s violin metaphor make the reader reflect on his or her own life experiences.

Without metaphor — if it were even possible to extract the figurative from the literal, let alone desirable — we would have commonplace and flat lovers, characters, relationships and statements. Using metaphor, each example resonates with hidden power.

And you want your fiction to resonate with hidden power, right?

Stay tuned for more.


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