Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Visual Metaphors

The greatest thing in style is to have a command of metaphor -- Aristotle

Graphic novels may be all the rage now, but using pictures to tell a story dates back at least 11,000 years, according to a recent archaeological find in Syria (looks like a quilt pattern, doesn't it?)

The job of the fiction writer is to use words to create images in the mind of the reader, something that sounds easy until you sit down and try to describe a character, event, place or period in time neither you or the reader has experienced. Often we rely on metaphors and similies as translators to compare the fictional moment to something the reader understands. In Act II of As You Like It, William Shakespeare described life with his famous metaphor All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players; not much different from how we today compare women and men to soccer moms or armchair warriors.

I frequently use strong, simply images from nature as visual metaphors to illustrate a point about writing. Take the spider web, which Sir Walter Scott used in this metaphor: Oh, the tangled webs we weave, when we practice to deceive.

Plot, the spider web of story

When you're plotting a story, imagine the main conflict is the center hub of the web, the subplots are the anchoring strands, and the characters, dialogue, setting, events etc. are the threads connecting all of them together. The reader's attention is the fly your web needs to catch and hold onto, so the entire construct has to be strong, tight, ensnaring, and not offer too many holes.

The antagonist, always the snake in the grass

Two thousand years ago, Virgil wrote Latet anguis in herba, literally the snake lurks in the grass. It's been a popular metaphor even since, and probably this most obvious visual to illustrate the menace, subterfuge and other elements created by an antagonist in a story.

Two roses -- the hero and heroine of a romance

In Act II of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare employed a metaphor to express the importance of what something is versus what it's called with Juliet's lines What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. This may have also been a personal metaphor/private joke of his, as in Shakespeare's day the Rose Theatre was a rival to his Globe Theatre, yet was rumored not to have very sanitary accomodations for the patrons.

With their beauty, sweet smell and sharp thorns, roses are a universal symbol for romance and lovers, and two roses twined together make an interesting metaphor for the hero and heroine of a love story.

If you could use a single visual metaphor for your WIP, what would it be?


  1. Red and Blue, blending together to make violet. I have two opposing groups who must work together in order to survive, so that's the overarching metaphor for the whole work.

  2. A white rahke (knife) lying in a pool of fresh, wet blood.

  3. I don't think I've ever heard plot described so clearly. Thank you for the visual aid.

  4. Anonymous2:38 PM

    metaphor for my current WIP: a muddy tug-o-war between public and private foes as my protagonists struggle to hold hands together in the middle.

  5. "Tiger, Tiger, burning bright..." - William Blake

  6. Like blood, which can be hot and passionate with life, or sticky and icky with death.

  7. Weeds require good soil just as much as flowers do.

    This is more of a metaphor for my antagonist in comparison to my main character. I don't know if it works, but I liked the sound of it when it came to mind.

  8. Anonymous3:50 PM

    Yes, but what is the asterisk for?

    RE: ...William Shakespeare described life with his famous metaphor All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players*; not much different from...

  9. A beautifully carved mask that hides a hideous face.

  10. My WIP is a labyrinth with sides of deep, thorned brambles.

    That's one of my WIPs anyway. I tried to think of a metaphor for my main novel but it wasn't coming so this is for my graphic novel (no joke :D)

  11. My WIP is a labyrinth with walls of thorned brambles.

    That's for one of my WIPs. I tried to think of a metaphor for my main one but it didn't come. This is for my graphic novel (no joke :D)

  12. Probably my protag taking a massive swipe at his enemy, and hitting his friend instead.

  13. Mine would be a house of cards, the cards being a tarot deck.

  14. My current WIP is a meat grinder with gold fixtures.

  15. A big steaming pile of.... genius!

    Kidding. lol.

    Wow. I'm drawing a complete blank. I'll have to think about this some more. Maybe a tandem bicycle on a open roadway? Signifying to people who have to work together to reach a common goal. The bike seems a little more leisurely/romantic than a car.

  16. Anonymous wrote: Yes, but what is the asterisk for?

    That's a draft mark that should have been deleted -- I have a habit of starring everything I quote to make sure I mention the source, in this case, Act II of As You Like It. Tom posted the piece for me and sometimes he doesn't catch my weird drafting marks. I'll erase it now, and thanks for catching it.

  17. A Harley with the chrome shiny and the seat worn.


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