Notes on metaphor and storytelling

by Gretchen Shirm

While I was writing my first book Having Cried Wolf, a collection of interwoven short stories, I had the acute sense of having ‘got’ something, of having understood a concept fundamental to storytelling. At the time, I thought what I had understood was the form of the short story, that after many years of practising by writing short pieces of writing that had no structure, I had learnt how to ‘turn’ a story around a small incident or event. Now, looking back on what I learnt, I think what I came to understand was something broader and more crucial to story telling in general. Without really knowing it, I think part of what I came to understand was how to use metaphor.

Later this year, I’m presenting a paper at the Stockholm Metaphor Festival (yes, a conference devoted to metaphor) and having now read some theory about how metaphors work, I can see how crucial metaphor is to storytelling. In fact, metaphors are indispensible to all forms of communication between human beings.

At their most basic level, metaphors make comparisons: they are used to elucidate and enlighten that which cannot or cannot easily be described in literal language. They point out a likeness between two or more things. In storytelling, they are often used to explain that which would otherwise be cumbersome and disrupt the poetics or continuity of the story. They allow storytellers to dodge what all creative writing students are taught to avoid: ‘exposition’. Rather than being beautiful but superfluous flourishes of language, when used well they are devices – they perform a function and all well placed metaphors have work to do.

In fact, metaphor is everywhere. You don’t need to have any particular talent with words to deploy them. Metaphor is not exclusive to the domain of the poet or novelist. Most people don’t go through a day without calling on one metaphor or another to explain simply daily concepts. We trade in metaphor constantly, usually without knowing that we are doing it. Here are some examples: emotional ‘baggage’, to ‘grasp’ a concept, to ‘fall’ out of favour. All of these expressions rely on the figurative use of words in order to work. In fact, many ideas that exist in our language are things that we now only understand through metaphor; without metaphor we would have no way to explain the process of ‘falling’ asleep.

 GS 1The rosebud is a metaphor. Photograph: Julien Klettenberg

Metaphor is particularly crucial to good storytelling. It is a way of conveying meaning, and allowing the reader to make the comparison between the two things. Some examples of how metaphor functions in story:

  • Anne Enright’s ‘Natalie’, which I first read in The New Yorker and later in Enright’s story collection Taking Pictures, is about a young woman who is very much caught up in the typical teenage dramas of popularity, dating and an upcoming debutante dance; she’s in her final year of school, and becoming more serious with her boyfriend. It seems fairly clear she will follow the path that is expected of her. But by the end of the short story, the young protagonist comes to understand the superficiality of her own preoccupations and you get the sense the young woman has the sensibility of a writer. At the conclusion of the story, she falls asleep on the bed of her friends’ parents and wakes up suddenly. She tells us ‘It was the smell of those sheets’ that woke her up ‘cool, unwashed; like something I really wanted, going stale.’ The stale sheets from the marital bed resolve the story at a metaphoric level, by making the comparison between her friend’s parents’ relationship and the young woman’s own life. The ‘something’ she really wanted, we infer, was a conventional married life, but somehow to her that idea had grown stale. And all this information is conveyed in one sentence about unwashed linen.
  • Tim Winton’s Shallows. It’s been a while since I read this (my favourite Winton) novel, but I very much remember the beaching whales operating as metaphor. The novel is about the sacrifices we make for those we love and that idea is connected to the way a pod of whales follow one injured whale into the shallows. The pod are all prepared to die for the sake of the weaker whale and in that way, the beaching whales become a beautiful metaphor for love.
  • In Citizen Cane, the rosebud is a metaphor – it relies on our basic understanding of how flowers unfurl. That is, that a flower blooms only in one direction, just as a life happens and once it has happened it cannot be wound back or undone. The rosebud on the sled arrives at the point that the young Kane is taken from his family, the point in other words, at which his life was set on its inevitable course. Orson Welles is able to use that one word to connect all of the events in the film; it explains the life of Charles Foster Kane and at the same time, it explains the way every life moves in one direction.

Of course, metaphors can fail, but when a metaphor misfires it simply doesn’t work as a comparative device. The writer might be asking for an association to be made between two things but to the reader the association simply isn’t there. The metaphor ‘as white as snow’ is not useful, because ‘snow’ doesn’t assist us to understand or elaborate on the colour white. There’s no real comparison to be made.

Good metaphors in storytelling resonate, they sing, they feel complete and natural. They allow the reader or audience to feel they have done the ‘work’ in understanding the story, that they themselves have decoded the meaning the story is offering. They relieve the writer of explaining or ‘spelling out’ the message of their story.

To those who say metaphor in storytelling is formulaic, I say that it is not metaphor that is formulaic. The art is in finding the right metaphor. Of course, a writer who wrapped every short story up with a metaphor, for example, would produce a set of tiresome stories, but that is not the fault of the metaphor. Rather it is a problem with the overuse of a repetitive narrative device.

That metaphor is one of the basic units of human understanding was highlighted again to me recently, while watching the final episode of the HBO series True Detective. Although, the final episode attracted criticism (from Emily Nussbaum at The New Yorker, for example), to me the way the show concluded was profoundly moving.

In the final scene, Marty tells Rust to look at the night sky and asks him to tell a story. Rust says that he is starting to believe that there is actually only one story, the oldest story, that of good versus evil. Marty looks up and comments that, looking at the stars there is more dark than light. A very simple observation and yet, what it was getting at was something about the personalities of these two men, and perhaps of all men. They were two very flawed men who were struggling with the immensity being good. And this is what the simple metaphor of the night sky told us.



Enright A (2008). Taking Pictures, Jonathan Cape, London

Kovesces Z (2002). Metaphor: a practical introduction, Oxford University Press

Ortony A (1975). ‘Why metaphors are necessary and not just nice.’ Educational Theory, Volume 25(1), 45-53

Ortony A (Ed) (1993). Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge University Press

Sacks S (ed) (1978). On Metaphor, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London

Winton T (1984). Shallows, Allen & Unwin, Melbourne