The Magic of Metaphor

This article was first published in the print published Writing Magazine in 2013.

What is metaphor?

The English word ‘metaphor’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘to carry over’. When we use metaphor in language we take words from one realm of experience, and use them in another. ‘When he swam, he was a fish’ is a simple example. In explaining this to you, the writer, I may be teaching a grandmother to suck eggs (another metaphor of course). However, the subject of metaphor is more all encompassing, and profound than most of us realise.

        The poets among you will probably make conscious use of metaphor already. But what if you write screenplays, or thrillers, or if ‘flowery’ language just isn’t your thing? Well, you’re still using metaphors. Metaphors are everywhere. We can hardly say a sentence that doesn’t have one in. Even in is a metaphor. Can you see why? I’ll explain later.

        In my psychotherapy work, I see that we manifest our inner, emotional lives, in the world, through metaphor all the time. As a screenwriter, I try and get this down on paper. I’ve discovered that, as Aristotle[1] said

‘The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor…’

Through mastering metaphor you can bring fictional worlds alive and give power to characters. I’m going to take you now on a journey into the art of great writing, and suggest how you might write as skillfully as Leonardo Da Vinci painted.

Metaphor, the body and the brain

The first thing to know is that it’s not just about how we use language. We construct our world through metaphor. We can only conceptualise by making comparisons between different realms of experience. There is both neuro-scientific and linguistic evidence for this. Let me explain, in simple terms, how this works in the brain. The areas of the brain that control our hand movements as well as what we see, hear, taste, and smell are very close to each other. Overlapping signals are wired in translation. That is, they all connect to one another. So, for example, each visual cue has an associated sound and a hand signal.

        Now let’s look at the role of the body. Many metaphors originate with the body because being embodied is our primary and most continuous experience. To give an example, we know how it feels physically when things move from outside to inside our bodies, or vice versa. Food, urine and faeces are the most basic examples. Each of us is a container with a bounding surface and an in-out orientation. From this we create a psychological concept of how it is to feel emotionally ‘included’ or ‘excluded’. We then extend this to other realms of experience. When we speak of walls and fences, prisons and sanctuaries, in and out, armour and wounds, barriers and the rupturing of barriers, we know it through the feeling in our body. The ‘container metaphor’ is one small thread of a web that goes wider and wider, connecting everything.

        We always conceptualise the less clearly delineated in terms of the more clearly delineated. Physical orientations, objects, substances, war, food, and buildings, aresome of the realms that are structured clearly enough to have their own terms, but there are many concepts that we can only know through metaphor. Love, time, ideas, understanding, arguments, labour, happiness, health, control, status, morality and many others require metaphorical definition, because they are not clearly enough delineated. As an example, let’s stick with the container metaphor and look at the idea of ‘love’. This concept we only know by relating it to more solid entities, for example place ‘Harry is in love’, or a journey, ‘Harry fell in love’. Place and journeys are two threads, two metaphors, that give us a handle on the concept of love,

Mona Lisa’s smile

To go deeper still into the connections, we can look at the patterns that underlie all of life, we can look at physics. Leonardo Da Vinci was a master of metaphor, as well as of the physical sciences. He worked in areas including mathematics, engineering, astronomy and costume design. He understood the connections between these realms. His ‘theme sheets’ juxtapose images related to subjects as diverse as costumes, shipping lanes, hair dye and flying machines. He studied the natural laws that governed all things, and then he felt into his physical, embodied experience and allowed his imagination to find the metaphorical connections, and represent them on paper. There was one source of ideas for the many disciplines he practiced. He saw no need for division.

        In one of his ‘theme sheets’ he places a drawing of the Alimentary Canal that takes food from the mouth through the body, side by side with a drawing of a shipping channel, which he hoped to build in order to connect Florence to the sea. How beautifully one mirrors the qualities of the other! This was a man who could see the whole universe in the smile of a woman. Extraordinary.

         How Da Vinci used drawing is no different from how we use words. Words are a meta-language for experience. The great joy of writing is that through it we can show and tell about any aspect of life. Everything we describe is operating by the same natural laws, and we are all creating our world through the use of metaphor.

Becoming a better writer

So how can using metaphor help you to be a better writer? We need first to look again at the well-used writer’s adage ‘show not tell’. In ‘The Politics of Experience’ R.D. Laing wrote,

‘I can see your behaviour, but your experience is invisible to me’

 Here he makes a very important point. To write good fiction, we have to find ways of making abstract terms, qualities and emotions into solid images, to show the inner world of people in the outer world. How does our character’s appearance and behaviour convey their internal state?  We can make conscious choices to place symbols, to utilise metaphor.

        The way a character adjusts their body, for example through posture, voice, speech, or mannerism, can convey a great deal. Physical states like drunkenness, exhaustion, feeling hot or cold or illness are also excellent metaphors. The way people ornament themselves through clothes and make-up can say everything. It’s all in the detail. Why would it say about your central character that she wears a red hat, rather than a blue one that day, that she wears a hat at all? But beware, don’t overload your character. Symbols are loaded with meaning, so one or two per character is usually enough. The experiencing of emotion is what the writer, character and reader have in common. In conveying this through symbols we hook our reader, and keep them engaged.

        The psychologist Robert Plutchik considered there to be eight primary emotions- anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, acceptance, and joy. He described joy as being,

‘…often felt as an expansive or swelling feeling in the chest and the sensation of lightness or buoyancy, as if standing underwater.’

Feel into this now, and ask yourself how you might convey joy to your reader. Allow the ideas to swell, to bubble, to rise up from your unconscious.

 It’s also helpful to practice listening to the language around you, and try and notice which realms we commonly connect to which other realms. Anger, for example, often utilises the more solid realms of ‘cooking’ and ‘heat’, as well as the colour ‘red’. What other examples can you find? Above all, to become a good, even great writer, seek out the work of those authors who have mastered metaphor, who, through precise use of detail, bring their work alive.

Indra’s Net

There’s a fabulous metaphor for metaphor that I’d like to leave you with.

In the Avatamsaka Sutra, part of the Buddhist canon[2], the image of Indra’s jewelled net is used to illustrate the interactions and intersections of all things. The net is woven of an infinite variety of brilliant jewels, each with countless facets. Each gem reflects in itself every other gem in the net, and its image is reflected in every other gem. In this vision, each jewel contains all the other jewels[3]. This is the beauty and the power and the magic of using metaphor in our writing, as we allow our novels, plays, poems, stories, and autobiographies to find the connections, and reveal life in all its vivid colour.

[2] Avatamsaka Sutra

[3] ‘The Sun My Heart’ Thich Nhat Hahn p68