No Metaphors in Sight

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by Stella

I’ve mentioned before that somewhere along the way I decided to focus on screenwriting and give up struggling over regular prose, particularly the kind that comes in novel form. Since you’re not supposed to bother with fancy descriptions in a screenplay – the faster something is described, the better – my approach to description has become so functional that my ability to coin a decent simile or metaphor (never anything to boast of in the first place), creaks like the rusty hinges of an iron gate. And I think that just proved my point. But let us proceed nonetheless.

Anyway, since that day of revelation, I’ve (ohgodhelpme) rediscovered the desire to write regular prose, particularly the kind that comes in novel form. But, hello? Creak creak. Rusty over here. I won’t even go in to how much I’ve neglected three of the five senses over the years. When all you need is sight and sound, smell, taste, and touch recede so far into the back of your mind that you forget to even think of them. My characters haven’t smelled, tasted, or touched anything for years. They’re starving for sensation and I’m trying to pick up the slack.

In the mean time, I’ve also forgotten that one of the most annoying parts of writing descriptions is trying to make them not only interesting to read and relevant to the object/subject, but original as well. Meaning, you don’t want rosy lips and starry eyes all over the place because that’s too easy. (If you’re me, you also want descriptions to be as short as possible but that’s a whole other writing complex.) Example: Her voice was a beam of sunlight darting through a glass vessel.

Good for me. That only took me a minute and a half to think of. Granted, it’s not about any specific character – I just composed it at random, which is probably why it was so easy to come up with. But anyway, what the hell am I talking about when I describe her voice as a beam of sunlight darting through a glass vessel? Sunlight implies brightness and airiness; darting implies speed. Now what’s the deal with the glass vessel? The sunlight goes through the glass without hurting it, so it implies that the voice likened to sunlight – which can also be harsh and blinding – is gentle. So I’ve composed a nice little metaphor: interesting (hopefully), relevant (potentially), and original (as far as I know).

Now let’s do some tweaking: Her voice was a beam of sunlight peaking through the shutters. I think the more positive qualities of sunlight previously mentioned are preserved in this new version, but now the metaphor also reveals more about the state of mind of the character describing her. Sunlight peaking through shutters might be interpreted as a welcome intrusion on a person’s gloomy mood. Or, if we replace the word “peaking” which implies a kind of unobtrusive observation, with the word “poking” which is more forceful, we might get the idea that the person, though they may be in a gloomy mood, is not entirely happy about Miss Sunshine’s presence.

With a little tweaking you can get a world of difference between descriptions, and I’ve promised myself to try to remember that as I grind my teeth over various adjectives and figurative phrases. I may never finish that novel, but it can’t hurt to force myself to write descriptions that aren’t purely literal. After all the teeth grinding is only metaphorical.


Paul said...

I'm so glad you agonise about this stuff too, Stella. It's usually worth it in the end, but can be a lengthy process. And sometimes, it's through creating and then tweaking such a metaphor, that we discover something new about our character, which cannot be denied... and then we have to tweak their whole story.

kathleenmaher said...

Such a great example of self-editing, Stella.

Mike French said...

Blimey you've given me a headache! You're good at picking things up and looking at them from lots of different angles! I must admit I'm not so good at the anaylsis with metaphors as you - I just tend to go with what feels right from a lyrical point of view. (As long as it's original and in context.)

O and I've been told I actually do grind my teeth in my sleep!

Stella said...

Paul - I know (damnit!). I think it's awfully inconsiderate of them to make us keep doing that.

Kathleen - thanks! I'm really trying to be good about it.

Mike - Sorry... And your approach is a perfectly good one. I've just had to make up for years where I didn't give figurative language an extra thought.