Useful Metaphors

Scaffolding_copy‘Kill your darlings,’ the writing teacher’s commandment for which this site is named, is a most useful and robust metaphor. It doesn’t just tell writers to mistrust themselves when they become especially enamored of a bit of their writing, but it recognizes the emotional depths to which our attachment goes. Those too-finely wrought images or overly-clever turns of phrase are our darlings, our pets, special and precious only to us. We become so emotionally attached to them that it’s murder to remove them.

Finding metaphors like this to think about writing problems gives the process some emotional depth while allowing us to see (or hear or smell) the problem differently, as if from someone else’s eyes (ears or nose), like getting another opinion without requiring an actual person to read or workshop (or criticize!) your writing.

Like all good writing programs and craft books, the Novel Incubator program, of which we Dead Darlings bloggers are all graduates, is chock full of useful metaphors for thinking about the novel writing process. In class, we talked about signatures, inciting incidents and wounding events, about points of attack and unstable ground situations, about character arcs and points of view. Just on their face, these terms convey a visual and, in some cases, emotional sense— a tribute to the writer in the teacher who originated them. For me, such metaphors become a ‘scaffolding’— a meta-metaphor, I guess — which when constructed over my own writing, allow me to think about my novel in new ways and to see where it is and isn’t working.

Take the scaffolding of the ‘character arc’ concept — the shape a character’s development should take over the course of a novel, a growth, a trajectory over time. Place it over your book, over each of your significant characters, and compare. Does your character fill the scaffolding? Or does the scaffolding rise and fall, an empty arcing framework of ladders, planks and pipes, while your character sprawls flat on the foundation, stubbornly refusing to grow or change, to do anything new or interesting?

At writing conferences — The Muse and the Marketplace, for instance — I find the most interesting sessions to be the ones where the presenters come up with arresting metaphors through which to view the writing process. This past Muse, Lynne Barrett, in her session “Crossing Paths: The Map of Opportunity in Story,” suggested writers think about plot very literally as plotting out the movements and actions of characters through settings, the plot as map. She encouraged us to consider settings as crossroads where characters meet and conflict happens, as places where characters are safe or endangered, where characters do or don’t have access, where coincidences can believably happen or not. A map becomes a useful metaphor not only because it suggests physical locales and settings but also the journey a novel and its characters take.

Using her metaphor, places become building blocks of plot every bit as important as character development and incident. Give places certain rules and properties, and unlikely things can happen: a boy and girl from different cultures meet and become a couple because she’s a nurse at a hospital to which he’s admitted as a patient but his interfering friends are not; a boy sees the wrong man blamed for a fight but keeps it a secret because he witnesses it from the top of a railroad boxcar he was forbidden to climb.

‘The Snowflake Method’ is another useful and popular metaphor for how to plot out a book. The notion is of a kind of snowflake that starts out as a very basic shape, a triangle or a pentagon, and then grows more complex with the addition of sides and facets until it becomes uniquely multi-faceted, filagreed and ornamented. A novelist starts out with an idea, a character or two, a conflict, an event, a setting. He adds characters, conflicts, events, settings — sides and facets that complicate and complexify the story, giving it depth and dimension. The idea of starting from the general and moving to the specific is nothing new, but rather abstract. However, if you picture the development of a novel as being like the formation of a snowflake, you can visualize the process all at once, see a highly complex whole built up from simple shapes and figures. It makes the enormous task of writing a novel seem possible, taken one snowflake facet at a time.

A similar metaphor I like to use is sculpting, specifically with clay. Sometimes, I’m slapping on big gobs of content just trying to get the shape of the thing, the balance, the size. Other times, I’m moving in with sharpened tools, carving out sentences, molding scenes and chapters. I’m moving in and out, backing away to see the whole, then moving into concentrate on its parts, the details, colors and ornaments, back and forth. If I think of writing using this metaphor, I feel better about being sloppy and slapdash sometimes, knowing such an approach is needed occasionally just to get the basics, the broad outlines, right, before moving back in to fine-tune.

Many extremely useful writing metaphors can also be found in music, the various interweaving strands of consonance and dissonance, the building and resolution of a movement, each character being a distinct and different instrument or voice, coming into harmony or discord with other characters, the antagonist to the protagonist. From music, we learn the value of having a few distinct voices or instruments, but not so many as to create a cacophony. We see the importance of developing and then returning to melodies (characters or settings) to establish the reader/listener’s familiarity and credulity, then deviating from them, changing key or tempo, so that the listener is constantly being surprised and delighted, wondering what changes are coming next.

What metaphors do you use to aid you in your writing?  What lens do they offer you for seeing the issues in your writing that you couldn’t see otherwise?