Using Extended Metaphors in Your Writing – Part One

One element of creative writing that I struggled with in my MFA program was the use of metaphor, particularly ones extended across long passages. I bemoaned my struggle from one of my Vermont College of Fine Arts residencies. But as I progressed in my studies I came to realize I was too hard on myself, wondering why when I sat down to write I didn’t immediately see how to tell my story in such a literary way. Metaphors, I learned, don’t have to spring directly from your head in the first draft like Athena from Zeus.

As it happens I didn't take a photo of the Haverhill, Massachusetts, Korean War Memorial. I did take a picture of this boot, one of many symbolizing the history of the town as a major shoe manufacturing location. During the revision process, all mention of this boot and Haverhill's history was excised, as it didn't advance the plot or character development.

As it happens I didn’t take a photo of the Haverhill, Massachusetts, Korean War Memorial. I did take a picture of this boot, one of many symbolizing the history of the town as a major shoe manufacturing location. During the revision process, all mention of this boot and Haverhill’s history was excised, as it didn’t advance the plot or character development.

Writing is about revision. Successful use of metaphor emerges from the revision process.

This is the first of a three-part series in which I break down how I made use of extended metaphors to advance both plot and character development (yes, I’m using fiction-writing terms for a work of nonfiction) in my book Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s RoadIn this post I’ll discuss the importance of identifying the theme you want to advance through metaphor.

A key theme of Committed is the question of leading a life of authenticity. A related theme of the character’s inner conflict is that of passivity vs. action. The book’s introduction occurs a year before the road trip that forms the basis of the story; in that scene the narrator takes a bold action on behalf of his children. But when his road trip begins in the subsequent chapter the narrator himself is paralyzed: creatively, professionally, and emotionally. How as an author could I demonstrate that to the reader in a subtle yet impactful way?

I chose to open that first chapter not with the narrator arriving at his first destination or conducting his first interview. Instead I chose this in-media-res opening:

I refuse to tell my story.

The man with a matted gray beard, tattered Army-issue jacket, and carved-wood cane presents no such resistance. While killing time in this Haverhill, Massachusetts, park before my first interview, I stand with him before a memorial to local residents lost in the Korean War. Like many of its ilk, the memorial eschews subtlety. A statue atop a ten-foot block of granite depicts an oversized soldier. His pose suggests motion as he leans forward, bayoneted rifle leading the way. But he is frozen, frustratingly unmoving. The only motion comes from the flags, flapping in the light morning breeze, tethered on the eight poles that encircle the soldier. 

The key to an extended metaphor is making sure we return to it. That doesn’t mean the narrator in Committed needs to return to this physical statue later in the book; that’s good, because he did not. As it happens, after visiting this memorial he interviewed a novelist, made a purchase at Heavenly Donuts, and left town. No, in this example returning to the metaphor requires another vehicle to be found.

I could have ended that first chapter with my interview of Portland, Maine, photographer Brian Fitzgerald. Instead I chose this:

I see so much of myself in Brian. But perhaps that is why I find myself wanting to leave. Once I have sufficient footage I move on, declining his invitation to join him and his wife for dinner. The path to my motel means I need to cross the Fore River, but the drawbridge spanning Casco Bay is up. In front of me an elderly man in an aging sedan honks. I’m not sure what he’s hoping to accomplish. None of us can move, not until that drawbridge is lowered. Surely he sees the flashing light to our right informing us of this fact. It’s possible he can’t see the drawbridge itself, though. I can’t. There are too many cars, and too much development. I feel restrained, held back, as motionless as the Korean War statue I saw this morning in Haverhill. I run my usual self-diagnostic, looking for racing thoughts, checking to see if I have growing rage that is not proportional to my situation. I don’t believe I’m becoming manic. Perhaps I see more today what is wrong with my life and how I also lack any insight on how to improve it. And so I sit, waiting for that unseen drawbridge to move. I am staring ahead at an obstruction I know is there, and yet it remains frustratingly beyond my line of sight.

If you’re a fiction writer you have an advantage on me; you can make things up. As it happens I was struck by my conversation with the homeless man in Haverhill, and summarized it on a voice recorder after it occurred. I also shared a real-time summary of my time stuck before the drawbridge on that voice recorder. Many other seemingly mundane occurrences I documented that day did not make the final draft of Committed, but these two did because they helped me advance a metaphor.

In Part Two of this series I’ll discuss how to identify a recurring vehicle for your metaphor (unlike using both a statue and a drawbridge) and in Part Three I’ll examine how to tie together the various appearances of your extended metaphor.

ADDENDUM: Part Two is now live.

Do you find as a reader that the use of metaphor helps deepen your immersion in the story you’re reading? Do you seek to make use of them in your own writing?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

23 Responses to “Using Extended Metaphors in Your Writing – Part One”

  1. Thanks for this — my craft group has worked with metaphor/simile for the past four meetings. It’s a rich area of writing practice and the exercises we’ve played with have yielded unexpected fruit. Both Janet Burroway and Priscilla Long’s books have interesting ways to unearth metaphors. I’m trying to make 5 similes a day in 2015. I look forward to your next posts on this!

  2. Me likey. I’m going to forward this post to my weekly writing critique group. This talk of metaphor reminds me of advice I once read about (not metaphors but) similes. In advance of deploying one, it should be set up. If the simile can be likened to a plane taking off, then the writer should have the simile taxiing on the runway beforehand. I.e., some hint of the wordplay in advance. Jeez, writing is hard.

    • Like Chekov’s point about making sure the gun is on the wall in the first act if it’s fired in the third, yes? (I think I’ve paraphrased him correctly.)

      “Jeez, writing is hard.” You said it.

  3. I like that you point out that honing broad metaphor mostly happens in later drafts, Patrick. It’s not really possible to know what the prevailing theme of a novel will really turn out to be before a first draft is written, and it’s usually only on letting a first draft sit, then going back and cold reading it, that these patterns and meanings become clear. We may have vague ideas of what they will be during the writing, but I try not to spend too much time on them until later drafts.
    Looking forward to the next posts in this series.

    • I never truly appreciated the role of rewriting until I wrote COMMITTED. I wish I had kept track of how many drafts I went through; with some chapters it was dozens. Learning the ropes as a daily and wire reporter meant there wasn’t a lot of time for editing, but oh my is it essential for creative writing, not just to improve existing prose but to fully explore possibilities that emerge from the revision process itself (which leads to more revisions).

  4. Thanks for posting this, Patrick! The beginning/end attention to the theme’s metaphor😀

  5. I love these two passages. You say fiction writers have an advantage, and maybe that’s true, but it’s surprising how often opportunities to use metaphor occur in real life. We may not notice them, but, as you said, they show up during revision.

  6. Oooh, I’m looking forward to this series already, Patrick!

    Stephen King in his book ‘On Writing’ also talks about the importance of highlighting the theme of your book with the use of recurrent metaphors, and he too says they most often don’t show up until after the first draft is completed. It’s definitely taken me until then with my current w-i-p, to the point where I may now have to reconsider the title of it since it kind of IS the theme as well. (Otherwise I’ll be that numpty who goes “Well yeah, I wrote this novel all about redemption, and I’ve called it… um, ‘Redemption.’ “)

    I loved how you did that in ‘Committed,’ and I’m actually surprised to hear you say you struggled with it on your MFA, since it seems to flow so naturally in the book, as if you were doing it without even thinking about it. I guess it’s the same kind of magic as in Kermit the Frog; it was Jim Henson making sure no-one saw him waggling his limbs at the bottom that made him seem so real.😉

    • Hi Wendy! I don’t know if you saw, but I’ve posted Part Two; the final one should be live next week.

      I need to read “On Writing,” many people have cited it to me. Good to know his experience echoes mine!🙂

      Thanks for your words on Committed. I struggled early in the program, when to be honest with you I hadn’t written much of the book as currently published, so it was early in the process.

      • ‘On Writing’ is certainly a great read – even if you were to take out all the writing advice you’d still be left with a cracking autobiography, written with a lot of self-deprecating humour. The only issue I had with it was that the guy clearly underestimates just how much his natural talent – and, more importantly, the unconditional support he’s received from family and friends throughout his career – has helped him to achieve the crazy level of success he’s had, which occasionally makes him somewhat dismissive of those who haven’t been as prolific (an attitude best illustrated by his comments about Harper Lee.) However, since that comes from him being basically a down-to-earth guy who hasn’t ended up swept off on his own fame-cloud I guess I can’t hold such things against him.🙂

        *now runs away to read Part 2*

  7. Catching up on your blogs here, Patrick.

    This is the type of blog I love. Simple, concise, and I come away a little wiser–like a rejection from a girl who is way out of my league. I wrote my whole novel before I discovered the true theme (I wonder if this is normal?). I do play with metaphors but I never revisit them–guess what I’ll be doing after I read part II and III.

    • Hi Kevin,

      I’m so glad you like what you’ve found! I will say that some of the themes in my memoir, including the central theme, emerged in the process of writing it, so by anecdotal evidence I would say that your situation was not unusual.

  8. Hey Patrick

    I refuse to believe that you had any trouble with ‘extended metaphors’ in college😉 You are ‘au naturale’

    I can’t wait to buy your book – there is a comfortable rhythm to your prose, making it hugely addictive, like the seductive voice of a speaker guiding a meditation! #HUGS

    LOVE

    Thanks again #HUGS
    Kitto

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  3. Using Extended Metaphors in Your Writing — Part Two | The Artist's Road - January 19, 2015

    […] reader, even if she isn’t sure what it is the author has done to trigger that resonance. In Part One of this series I explained that making use of a recurring metaphor advances both plot and character development. […]

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    […] Part One of this series I emphasized the importance of identifying a theme in your work, and how that […]

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