June 22

Literally Metaphorical

Do you remember when you were studying literature in school and the instructors would talk about all the metaphors in the stories? One instance I remember was when an associate professor was discussing a story in which the author had a character walk into a room that was painted blue. He asked the class what the blue room meant. Most of us replied that it meant nothing more than the room was blue. His response was something like, “Yes, the room is blue, but what does that MEAN?”

The discussion then devolved into a weird pinball argument about whether or not the author was depressed, or it signified the protagonist was depressed, or a longing for clear skies, or perhaps an obsession with the author’s mother who may have had blue eyes. Yeah, that was an interesting afternoon.

At the time it had me wonder about metaphors in fiction. Specifically, do authors insert metaphors on purpose? Is it a conscious act, thought out in advance? Or does it happen organically and unconsiously?

Personally, I’ve never thought much about metaphors when I’m writing. Well, that’s not entirely true. I do think about them on occasion, but not too deeply. For example, in my short story I use a chess piece, the knight (horse piece) as a connection to home for my protagonist. It’s mentioned at the beginning of the story, then later at the end to tie things back together.

The thing is, when I went back and reread the story after letting it rest for a few days, I realized I had some deeper metaphors embedded in the narrative, things I hadn’t planned to do. Weird, right? And not just because I did this, but also because I hadn’t noticed it in earlier stories I’d written.

So I went and reread some of the stories I’d written in the past few years and, sure enough, I found metaphors I hadn’t consciously added to the narratives. Mind. Blown.

Which brings me back to my earlier question – do authors use metaphors consciously or unconsciously? Or is it a mix? It seems to me that using them on purpose would somehow dilute them or make them feel forced, but I’m also a writer who tends to let my stories tell themselves without much pre-planning.

This is definitely something that needs more research, if only to satisfy my curiosity.


Copyright 2021 Richard Bist. All rights reserved.

Posted 2020-06-22 by RB in category "Creativity", "Writing


  1. By Lila Lockheart on

    My metaphors aren’t often planned out either; like you say they tend to feel cheapened or forced when they are. I feel that’s true for most writers. Sometimes, you can spot forced metaphors when reading a book. They feel clumsy or ungainly, not related to what’s happening.

    There are parts in my stories where regular prose doesn’t feel adequate. Not for not being flowery enough, but because it isn’t conveying the story’s essence. Sometimes waiting makes a metaphor present itself, but it still can’t be forced. It just takes a little time for a flash of insight.

    1. By RB (Post author) on

      I think you said it much better than I did…and in fewer words!



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