Jumping the Figurative Gap
Imagine the scene: you, our hero, drive a plain buckboard buggy up a steep and windy path. The scraggly gray mules are doing their best to gallop, but they’re also dropping steamy, pungent brown rocks with every step, and the buggy squeaks in ungodly howls with every painful jounce. Next to you, coughing through the grit kicked up by your passage, is your sidekick, screaming, “No! No! No! No!” and you scream back, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” You are heading for a cliff, terrifying, a brain-defying drop from red-dusty rocks into a chasm of purest blue sky, with a treacherous landing on the far side that only the delusional would attempt.
“No! No! No!”
“Yes! Yes! Yes!”
“Haw, hee-haw! Hee-haw!”
Jounce, squeak, clop, stink, scream, run, go--
And the mules bunch their sturdy shoulders and leap, and the buggy sails into the air. You, the hero, and your friend, the sidekick, hold on to your hats and scream “Whoa!” while your stomachs drop to your groins and you use your bulging eyeballs to will that buggy to haul you past certain death on sheer chutzpah alone.
And then the buggy changes, morphs, becomes the flaming chariot of the sun, and the donkeys become gallant and noble warhorses, and you, our hero, are Phaeton, son of Helios. You are driving the chariot of the sun around the world. Helios, your father, is next to you, screaming, “Slow down, son, you’ll set the world on fire!”
And you are sure you can make it work, and damned be anyone who gets in your way.
Writing brilliant prose is something like that.
Good prose isn’t just prose, it’s poetry.
Most people assume that poetry has to rhyme, or that it has to be prose shaped funny, or that it is somehow other than the plain, literal workhorse of a fiction writer, but that’s not true at all. I’ve said it before: genre-fiction writers have committed no sins that should relegate their work to sub-literary. They simply write to one purpose—there is no fault in that. There is no reason we can’t jump our plain buggy of workhorse prose across the figurative gap into greatness, but it’s not easy. So, hang on—it’s gonna be a bumpy ride, but in the end, I promise we’ll fly.
Poetry is, quite simply, elevated language. Often the thing that elevates it is removing the thing that is being said from the thing it means. There is a space between the words and the meaning that gives the reader a chance to interact with the words and the meaning—it gives us depth. It gives us engagement. It gives us a whole porn star’s buttload of sensory images, emotions, and experiences to fill in that gap between words and meaning that will make one person’s story personal and meaningful to another person who has never experienced the story. Think of elevated language like you would a powerful visual symbol. If you look at a cross, a Star of David, a swastika, or a caduceus, that visual symbol has cities of literature behind its meaning. You can look at that symbol, and given your experience, your education, your understanding of the world, you can make an entire novel’s worth of connections with one glance.
In poetic prose, the writer strives to do this with words.
In order to elevate language, word-crafters use a number of devices to give poetic resonance to a work. Now, remember what resonance means—if you have a “resonant” voice, it’s a voice that interacts with the air and leaves echoes of sound. These things are not exact. Elevating language, using poetic devices, leaves room for error, for ambiguity, and for the record, editors hate this. It is an editor’s job to make your prose as clear as possible—they are looking out for you. But if you are aware of what you are doing, aware of the room you have left for reader interaction, you as a word-crafter can say, “I did this on purpose. Please leave it. It adds layers to my story,” and you can say it with confidence that you are using resonance to make your story better. If you don’t understand what you have done or don’t have the language to make this distinction, you have to do what the editors say or you have done your story a disservice. This is important stuff. Pay attention.
We’ll start with the most basic word-smithing material of them all: Imagery.
Imagery is very basic. The words paint a picture. The thing is, just like with the visual symbols, a true image has so much more emotional import than just basic description. In my original image, I painted a sensory picture of a specific kind of buggy going off of a specific kind of cliff. That sensory picture had everything: grit of the dust, pain of the buckboard on the driver’s ass, sound of the donkeys, squeaks of the buggy, smell of the donkey shit, the visual of the cliff—an image does not just have to be visual. It is more effective if it ranges the five senses. By itself, the image is powerful—but even the simplest image carries emotion with it. This particular image had exhilaration, desperation, conflict, fear, and courage, all wrapped into one. And that’s just the beginning. As soon as you, our hero, took that cart off the cliff, this image became more than just desperadoes being chased, it became Thelma and Louise, Icarus, Phaeton, Helios, Evil Knieval, Malcolm Reynolds, Holden Caulfield, Apollo, and Batman.
With one reference, you, our hero, became any fool who has, in real life or literature, attempted a great leap across a great height, whether or not said fool succeeded.
And with that leap from the image to all of the things the image represents, we have become a metaphor. A metaphor is a comparison of two unlike things to find a deeper similarity. The image used in a metaphor can completely alter the meaning of the metaphor. Want an example?
A. The sunrise was a pulsating boil on the greasy, green, and hairy surface of a cave troll’s filthy ass.
B. The sunrise was a crystallized outline of a full scoop of orange sherbet in a terra cotta bowl glazed in deepest indigo.
See? The sun rose in both instances, right? There’s your basic meaning. But based on what we compare the sunrise to, we are given a deeper meaning. Seriously, which day would you rather have? One of those days is gross and stinky, and the other is gorgeous, fresh, and delicious! I’m all for option B!
Metaphors come in all shapes and sizes—let’s go from smallest to largest, shall we?
Figures of speech--which include
--similes--a simile is a metaphor which uses “like” or “as”—it’s sort of metaphor shorthand.
The sun rose like a pulsating boil on the greasy, green, and hairy surface of a cave troll’s filthy ass.
--metonymy--Metonymy is a figure of speech in which one specific phrase represents an entire other specific phrase. When we say “the pen is mightier than the sword,” the pen represents the written word, and the sword represents violence or warfare. If I say “literature is food to my soul and balm to my wounds,” I am saying that literature feeds and heals something inside of me. If I say, “Our eyes met across a crowded room,” I am saying our gazes met across the crowded room, not that eyeballs actually walked across the room and shook hands.
--synecdoche--Synecdoche is very much like metonymy. (When I was teaching, I called them the terrible twins.) Synecdoche happens whenever a whole is substituted for a part or a part is substituted for the whole. When Wordsworth said, “The world is too much with us,” he didn’t mean the whole world, he meant whatever specific part of the world was weighing on the mind of someone trying to meditate. When we say “Give us a hand,” we don’t actually mean to dismember oneself and hand over the remainder, we mean “help us with your hands.” (See—that’s an awfully close line.) The fact is, synecdoche and metonymy are behind so many idioms in any language that it’s often difficult to discern where the metaphor stops and the simple word association begins. For example, people forget that “Kleenex” and “ChapStick” are actually brand names that we’ve used so often in synecdoche they’ve come to represent the entire concept, not just that particular brand.
--oxymoron--An oxymoron is when you use two complete opposite concepts or objects to create a completely different idea. The most obvious example of this is “bittersweet”—this word has an entire meaning all on its own. But oxymoron can be used with more complex phrases—“Oh serpent with a flowering face” is one of Shakespeare’s most famous, as is, “has ever a dragon kept so fair a cave!”—both of which are used to describe Romeo, who looked pretty damned good but who managed to destroy Juliet’s family with one sword blow.
--litotes—Litotes is an understatement for a specific effect. Very often, litotes connotes (and that word is an entirely different essay) a very old-fashioned, reserved sort of feeling to whatever is being said. “My mother said--not unkindly--that jumping the cart off the cliff was a very bad idea.” The “not unkindly” is an example of understating something—and therefore pointing out that “My mother” had only the speaker’s best interest at heart.
--hyperbole—Hyperbole is the exact opposite of litotes. Hyperbole is something that is so exaggerated it couldn’t possibly be true. Nobody is hungry enough to eat a horse, men really don’t have the voice of a god, and a penis the size of a submarine torpedo is a physical impossibility. But all these things are not only fun to say, they give the effect of amazement that would be lost with simple adjectives. I mean, seriously—an eight-inch dick is pretty impressive in person, but if you put it in a book that way, people always want to know what you were doing with a ruler when you were getting banged like a screen door in a hurricane.
--allusion--An allusion is a reference to a piece of generally known work in any media. I say “any media” because song lyrics, famous fictional characters, movie quotes, mythology—all of these things fit under the blanket of allusion. However, when a literary work references an extremely well-known, canonically classic piece of literature, that particular allusion will invite an extended comparison of either the metaphor or the entire work to the original work. Very often, if you’re aiming for depth in a comparison, an allusion will open up an entire encyclopedia of literary interpretation with a few well-placed words. (*aherm* For example, when I compared our buggy driver to Phaeton in the opening image.)
Figures of speech often evolve into conceits, which are, essentially, extended figures of speech.
Conceits which extend throughout an entire work become--
--motifs--A motif is a repeated idea or piece of an idea throughout a work. For example, if I was writing a complete novel, and the idea of a leap across space was repeated in large and small ways, with various references to classical mythology, Apollo, Helios, and Phaeton specifically, that would be a repeated motif. Think of a motif as a granny square on a blanket. If you see granny square that’s no big deal. If you see two, that’s starting to mean something. If you more than that, you actually have a complete pattern, design, and function, and they all join together to create something important.
--allegory—Allegory is when a name creates meaning. For example, if we named the guy driving the buggy Apollo, we have just added layer (and an example of motif) to our original metaphor. Allegory can be a very low-level function of metaphor—something as obvious as naming the hero of Pilgrim’s Progress “Christian” automatically turned that work of fiction into a roadmap for all Christians to follow to redemption. It can also be a little subtler. When I named “Naef” in Truth in the Dark, that was a name that sounded like “Knife”. But it also looked like “naïve”—because our bitter, cynical Naef actually had a lot to learn about love. By the same token, when I named his lover Aerie-Smith, that actually has meaning. An aerie is a nest, or a home, and a smith is a builder. Aerie-Smith would build our naïve little Knife his home.
--theme--A theme is a general statement that a work makes about the human condition. Themes are often confused with motifs--and frequently interchanged. If someone says “Clothing symbolism is a theme present in Shakespeare’s Macbeth,” what they are really saying is “Clothing symbolism is a motif present in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.” The motif of clothing is used to highlight the theme of “Appearance is often perilously different than reality.” A theme can usually be stated in a subject/verb sentence, and (for fun!) there is often more than one theme in a complex piece of literature.
(That being said, if you are vigorously discussing a piece of literature and you start using theme in place of motif, nobody is going to toss you off a precipice in a buggy, not even me. In fact, I’ll probably be the first one to break the rule.)
So there you go—Figurative Language 101, the short version. So now you’re asking, “But Amy, what do we do with this language?”
Well, anything you want, really. If you are writing a phrase that you have heard a thousand times before, go back and use a phrase that you have never heard in the history of anything ever. If you want a specific emotion captured by an image, find references to the image, become more familiar with a long-familiar story, remember images, motifs, and figures of speech that can connect with that image, and use them. Don’t hesitate to use metonymy and synecdoche, as long as you’re sure of what you’re doing.
Which brings us to a very tricky point.
Remember that original image? Remember the sidekick sitting next to you, our hero, as you attempt to take that buggy over the cliff?
That sidekick is your editor.
Now an editor has one job and one job only--to make sure you don’t go over that cliff. Your editor wants your story to succeed and not to plunge down into a rock-crusted canyon filled with the disemboweling spires of humility. Your editor wants your buggy to succeed. Your buggy cannot always succeed if you take that thing over the damned cliff. Sometimes, in spite of your best intentions and all of the word-crafting you can muster, your buggy will crash and burn on the rocks of arrogance. Your audience will not get what you had to say, and you will have failed—spectacularly. Your editor is screaming “No! No! No! No!” for a very good reason. But remember, your editor has the option to bail as the buggy leaves the earth. Mine don’t—mine count my failures as their failures, so I’m very careful to listen to what they have to say before I decide to go my own way. I can’t count the times that my editor screaming “No! No! No! No!” has saved me from untold humiliation and embarrassment, and believe me, I’m beyond grateful. Sometimes that leap can be disastrous.
But sometimes I ignore the editor—or the editor is the one egging me on!-- and the work becomes greater than I’d ever imagined.
Sometimes those unexpectedly brave choices are the things that let us fly.