Your thematic metaphor is the unifying idea that emerges as the meaning behind your characters’ adventures in their story world. Once you have identified your story’s thematic principle, the real work begins. How will you seamlessly join theme to plot?
Masterful authors create stories that, on their surfaces, may seem to be entirely plot—and yet are deeply thematic. They do this by getting their readers or viewers to feel and think deeply without being obvious about it. The seams with which they connect theme to plot are held together with invisible threads of highly sophisticated metaphor.
The Power of Thematic Metaphor in Storytelling
The metaphor is one of the most utilitarian techniques in a writer’s tool bag. We use it most simply in basic sentence constructions when describing via comparison (I’ve used the technique twice already in this post—in comparing metaphor to binding threads and in referencing a writer’s skill set as a “tool bag”). At its most macro (and indeed meta) level, story itself is nothing more than a large-scale metaphor; authors create made-up people going on made-up adventures as descriptive metaphors for real life.
It’s no surprise that somewhere in between the sentence level and the story level, we find yet another repetition of the pattern. This is where we come upon the powerful technique of molding plot into a visual, external metaphor for the story’s invisible, internal theme.
This interpretation of story can be applied with varying levels of explicitness.
At one end of the spectrum, allegories (such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Animal Farm) deliberately present themselves as blatant metaphors (for Christianity and Soviet Russia, respectively).
(Successful stories in this category stand in stark contrast with their unsuccessful brethren, which present factual events but fail to transform plot into story by identifying the thematic metaphor or unifying meaning at the core of those events. Ron Howard’s movie In the Heart of the Sea comes to mind. It’s problematic enough on its own, but especially when compared to the famous epic with which it shares source material—the tremendously metaphoric and thematic Moby Dick.)
In between the two extremes, we find any number of varyingly explicit approaches to story-as-metaphor. Most “tales,” “yarns,” and “fables” (as John Gardner distinguishes them) are immersed in the increasingly deeper waters of non-reality (aka fantasy) and therefore increasingly obvious metaphor.
For example, archetypal fiction—aka, genre fiction—is shaped by time-honored metaphors that preconceive the story’s most basic themes—even as the specific details of the author’s individual handling of the familiar storyforms create nuance, irony, and sometimes even inversion. The Hero’s Journey in action stories and the Happily Ever After at the end of romances both come pre-packaged with a certain amount of inherent thematic metaphor.
What Does a Successful Thematic Metaphor Look Like?
I’ve talked several times before about my admiration for the Japanese movie Wolf Children. This is because it presents one of the best blends of metaphoric theme with an anti-formulaic story.
The story is founded on the high-concept premise of a single mother secretly raising her half-werewolf children. That’s a premise that could have been taken in a dozen directions, including some very genre choices (action-adventure or romance, chief among them). Instead, the story is a leisurely, almost “literary” series of vignettes that vividly show the mother’s struggles to protect, provide for, and prepare her children for their adult lives.
This is a story about this particular mother raising these particular children with their very particular werewolf challenges. It is presented in quasi-realistic fashion with little emphasis on the fantasy elements. In short, it’s a very straightforward story that doesn’t really seem to about anything more than what it’s about.
But by the time the end credits roll, to a poignant “remember-when” slideshow of the children growing up, it becomes clear that what viewers have just watched is a deeply wrought metaphor for parenthood. We realize the whole werewolf thing was just a metaphor for the strangeness and the often seemingly insurmountable challenges all parents face in taking responsibility for rearing their children.
3 Questions to Ask to Find Your Best Thematic Metaphor
Your first inkling about a story might be thematic. When this happens, you have the advantage of shaping the plot to be a metaphor for that theme. But more often, what comes first is plot and character. This is trickier, because it means you can’t so much construct your metaphor as discover it. You must look within the existing/evolving plot to try to identify the emerging theme.
This is a delicate process that should remain as organic as possible. Balancing plot, character, and theme is like juggling: you can handle one ball for only a short time before briefly pushing it away in favor of the next ball—and so on, over and over and over again. (I call this the bob-and-weave technique, used when outlining to hopefully achieve a seamless unity amongst the Big Three of plot, character, and theme.)
You must be careful not to impose theme too heavily upon plot (at the risk of ending up with a heavy-handed morality play) or plot too heavily upon theme (at the risk of a contrived and empty thematic argument). Rather, you must carefully examine, weigh, and feel both plot and theme to discover what each is telling you about the other.
Most plots offer certain inherent themes. It’s your job to discover what metaphor your plot is offering from amidst its characters’ entertaining adventures. All you have to do is ask the right questions.
Here are three to get you started.
1. What Does This Story Look Like From Afar?
It’s easy to get mentally buried under all the minutiae of even a brand-new story idea. The characters. The relationships. The action. Individual scenes. Even the character arcs.
All these things are just chips of glittering glass in the overall mosaic of your story. In order to truly see what you’ve got, you have to step way, way back.
Up close, the sinking of the Essex in 1820 seems to be about nothing more than a rogue whale taking out a whaling ship. In the Heart of the Sea certainly couldn’t find any greater meaning than that (or at least not one it was able to cohesively portray). Herman Melville, writing about the same events, stepped back far enough to see something else—which he transformed into a ferociously enduring metaphor about man’s obsessive search for and battle against God, fate, and the meaning of life.
Although great dialogue, interesting characters, and entertaining scenes are important, don’t lose sight of the fact that they’re just the trees in your forest. The forest itself is the story. Only in viewing the entire forest can you identify (and then double-check) what theme is emerging.
2. Does Your Story Have a Shape?
In considering what theme your plot might evoke, try to analyze the many parts of your story for emergent patterns. Stop seeing stars and start seeing constellations.
The more you add to your plot, and the more your characters do in the story, the more you should start seeing patterns. This is where we find the endless variation of theme even in genre stories. Romance stories are always about falling in love. But it’s only from the particular patterns of each book’s characters and their actions that we find the specific metaphors of each book’s themes. Jane Eyre is not Pride & Prejudice and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is not The Fault in Our Stars.
This is true even for different stories within the same series. Whatever the series’ overarching theme may be, each story inevitably offers its own private theme, based on its specific events—as we see in series such as the Marvel movies, each of which is thematically insular (with varying degrees of success).
You can start by looking at your cast of characters. What do they have in common? Don’t just look for areas or traits in which they are similar; look, too, for those in which they are diametrically opposite, since these areas actually have more in common than not.
From there, look at the characters’ relationships with each other. What challenges are cropping up repeatedly, either in comparison or contrast to one another?
Then start looking at your individual scenes and story events. What patterns are emerging? Are you starting to see an overall shape? Are the majority of your story pieces pointing toward a deeper internal meaning?
If not, that’s okay. It could be you either don’t yet have enough stuff happening in your novel for there to be any patterns. Or it could mean you need to do a little careful pruning to eliminate the meaningless and enhance the meaningful.
3. What Does Your Story Look Like When Stripped to Bare Essentials?
This is an extremely important question—but also an extremely tricky one. It’s kind of like asking, “If there was no story, what would the story be about?”
Fortunately, you don’t have to go that far. Rather, the point of the exercise is to strip away window dressing. You’re wanting to remove all your story’s fancy clothing, wigs, makeup until you get down to the flesh. And then you want to see past the flesh itself to nothing but the skeleton.
What does your story’s skeleton look like without any distracting coverings?
Your story’s structure is the best place to start. Consider all the major plot points. What do they tell you about what this story is really about? Do they all align? Are they all pieces of the same whole, all pointing to a consistent answer to the questions, “What is this story about?” and “What does it mean?”
Then go even further. What are your characters’ motivations? Goals? Strengths? Weaknesses? Do they all align? What patterns emerge?
Underneath all the fun fluff of any given story, you will find its archetypal underpinnings. You will (or should) find the universal truths that will make this story resonate. At the deepest level, those truths will be vast. But you will also find, built upon the big truths, some smaller ones. Those are the Truths this story is trying to tell, and those are the Truths the plot must exemplify through the metaphor of its own specific patterns and actions.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How is your plot a thematic metaphor for what your story is really about? Tell me in the comments!
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