Monday, February 2, 2015

Metaphor and the Beginnings of Stories

Beginning a story can be a tricky thing. There’s a lot of information that you need to get across to your readers right away if they’re going to understand what’s going on: who the main character is, what their personality is like, where they are, what they’re doing, etc. And if you’re writing speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc.) it gets even worse—you’ll probably have to introduce an entirely new world to your readers, complete with fantastic magic or technology, strange aliens or monstrous creatures, and imagined cultures with centuries or more of history.

That is a lot to get across to a reader, and deciding where to begin can be daunting. What can you show the readers that will be interesting and engaging without being so foreign as to be completely beyond understanding? What major elements of character and setting need to be given right away, and which need to be introduced slowly and subtly over time?

Sadly, I’m not here to answer all those questions for you. Maybe someday we’ll dive further into those topics, but this blog is for discussing errors that crop up in prose, not in plotting or content. So today I’d like to highlight a common prose mistake that many writers make in the beginning of their stories: the overuse of metaphors.

Most of you probably remember the simple definitions of simile and metaphor that you’ve been told since elementary school: a simile is describing one thing as being like something else, while a metaphor is describing a thing by saying it is something else even though you don’t literally mean it.

     Simile: The castle loomed over the town like an overprotective mother watching to make sure her children were playing safely.

     Metaphor: The train was a powerful, serpentine dragon winding through the hills, belching smoke from its great mouth.

Simple enough, right? Now I myself am not much of a metaphor man. I’ve heard a lot of talk about the poetic capabilities of metaphor and all that, but at the end of the day I tend to rely much more heavily on similes. If you’re a metaphor fan, then hey—more power to you. Just watch out to make sure you don’t pile up a lot of metaphors at the beginning of your story.

Why? Well, because at the beginning of your story, you haven’t been able to give all of that background we discussed earlier—all of the character, plot, personality, history, culture, setting, or explanation of various fantastical elements that your story might hold. And without all of that background, your readers won’t have any frame of reference to determine whether you are being metaphorical or literal.

For example, here’s the beginning of a story:

     Kalateia stood on the ridge surveying the dusty, bloody remnants of the battlefield. Corpses were strewn throughout the valley below, from mountain slope to mountain slope—her soldiers, the enemy’s soldiers, and hundreds of innocent civilians who’d had the misfortune to live in the valley where the two armies had met. Spider-like gravewagons crawled over the field, harvesting up bodies for use in future battles. The heavy corpses were difficult to gather, zombies clinging to the soil and to one another in a futile attempt to avoid the claws of the gravewagons.

So here’s the five-hundred-and-twenty-three-dollar question: are the corpses literal zombies or not? Are these “gravewagons” gathering up dead bodies that are simply trampled down into the blood-muddied soil and therefore seem to cling to the ground like strange zombies, or are those corpses literally undead and holding on to the ground and each other in an attempt to avoid being harvested? Without additional context, you can’t be absolutely certain, can you?

Even if you’re not writing speculative fiction, metaphors can be confusing at the beginning of a story. They can give your readers a moment where they’re knocked out of the story, where they stop to wonder, “wait, did I pick up a fantasy novel by mistake? What is this?” Sometimes it’s only a moment of confusion, sometimes it can be a few paragraphs or even several pages before they can be sure that you were being metaphorical. Either way, the last thing that you want to do during the first few pages of your story is introduce bumps into an already-steep learning curve. Beginnings are confusing enough—don’t add even more confusion!

You might think that your metaphor is clearly not meant to be taken literally, that there is no way someone could think you actually meant what you said. Something like:

     The bus moved through the field with surprising grace, a bulky cat carrying passengers to destinations unknown.

No one could take that literally, right?


There is almost no metaphor so outlandish that it will be clear to everyone that it’s not literal. So ease up on your metaphor usage until you’ve given your readers time to get some context.

There won't be any new posts for Wednesday and Friday this week, as I'll be busy at the Superstars Writing Seminar! Regular updates will resume on the 9th.

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