Moving Beyond Literal

A desire to elevate ourselves beyond the plane of the ordinary is a major reason that we read novels. Depending on the author, the precision applied to making characters and plot events outsized extends to the prose. A well-wrought narrative focuses mainly on laying out the unusual world of the scene’s point-of-view character, but that picture is marred if the physical descriptions are pedestrian. We expect, given the level of talent, that they will sparkle as well.  

A useful tool in that regard is a metaphor. Rather than torturing the prose to capture an exact word picture, an analogous element is inserted. In modern literature, authors have moved beyond the poesy of yore, such as one of my  favorites: “What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” Today’s prose is more stripped down, which means that metaphors have to be more precise. 

For most writers, not just of the aspirational variety, the jump from the went-there, did-that level of descriptions can be mystifying. How do those guys write such great stuff? Part of the reason is that they fuse seemingly unalike elements. Let’s take the sense of smell, a criminally underused tool in fiction. How does adding smell to a description work? Here is Jennifer Egan in A Visit from the Goon Squad, describing a black leather couch: “Its cushions sighed out the most delicious smell of leather.”

The reader grasps the sensation instantly. Cushions do sigh when you sit down, and leather does smell nice. Yet it is the combination of the two that produces the striking effect. You can also use smell in a wider context, truly metaphorical. James McBride in Deacon King Kong writes, “Drugs were a damn stinking fish, the smell of it taking over everything.” Here a vice that ruins so many urban communities is given a new twist, because we all know how noxious fish can smell. 

You can also choose to mix different types of paradigms, the physical and spiritual. You pick an adjective that describes the physical object and ask yourself, how could I apply that to an idea? An example is provided by the brilliant stylist Kevin Barry in Night Boat to Tangier: “It was the most perfect orange he had ever seen. It glowed like new love.”

It is also useful to think in terms of extending a metaphor. The parallel you have drawn may not be as striking in its simplest form as it would be if you keep running with the idea. Here is one by Anthony Doerr in All the Light We Cannot See: “A ghastly creeping terror rises from a place beyond thoughts. Some innermost trapdoor she must leap upon immediately and lean against with all her weight and padlock shut.” This example is outstanding no matter which way it is viewed, but the author seized the idea once it sprang forth and kept expanding it.

Exercise: More than other types of writing, you need to let a metaphor sit until you fully embrace it as final copy. Many ideas that seem fabulous when you jump out of bed at one a.m. become dulled in the morning light. Read it the next day, then the next week. Don’t be satisfied until you next read over the entire draft.

“There are metaphors more real than the people who walk in the street."               —Fernando Pessoa

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.