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Short Story Metaphors and Characterizations

It is impossible to write a good short story without a compelling main character or group of characters. The fact that a well-written short story requires refined characterization skills is enough to show why the use of metaphor in the genre is prolific. In such, understanding metaphor as a path to characterization is vitally important for the short story writer and is one of the many factors that make the genre so uniquely complicated to write.

In Poetics, the revered Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote: [T]he greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor… [it is] a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars. This perception he speaks of isn't always easy to come by, which means that metaphor, when used correctly and in its most potent form, isn't easy. It involves layers of meaning and imagery, and reflects the author's own scope of knowledge. The way it will be read and interpreted is based on the individual reader's unique and varied scope of knowledge, creating thousands of potential possibilities when it comes to interpretation of the work.

Beyond the limitless possibilities, metaphor as a literary device allows one or two words to carry the weight of many. With successful use of metaphor, an author can speak volumes through the use of a single word or phrase, and induce the reader to understand the character in a more intimate way or in a more specific way. You can have a character who is pale, but describing a woman's "bone white skin" immediately calls to mind the macabre, and has subtly mixed a mood of mortality and death into the story with the use of that one simple description.

Why metaphor works

Metaphor is one of those indispensable literary devises that encourages interpretation based on the reader's own experiences and background knowledge. In this way, it serves to create layers of meaning for each individual reader, giving him or her the pleasure of interpretation—an interpretation that might indeed be vastly different than what the author intended. This unique characteristic of metaphor adds depth to literature, particularly short stories, in that it helps the reader intuit a great deal of information within a short period of time. You could write, "he felt nervous opening the door" and the reader could empathize with him, at most. However, you could write that "his hands were two large land masses quaking, and the door was the fault line," and an entire new layer of interpretation opens up. He isn't just nervous, this isn't just some random door—in fact, opening it could be his very raison d'être.

Consider some of the following literary metaphors written by famous authors, and how such language helped solidify these writers' place in literary history:

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.

William Shakespeare

Dying is a wild night and a new road.

Emily Dickinson

In the eastern sky there was a yellow patch like a rug laid for the feet of the coming sun…

Stephen Crane

…when I laid down the paper, I was aware of a flash—rush—flow—I do not know what to call it—no word I can find is satisfactorily descriptive—in which I seemed to see that bedroom passing through my room, like a picture impossibly painted on a running river.

Charles Dickens

…impressions poured in upon her of those two men, and to follow her thought was like following a voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one's pencil…

Virginia Woolf

The many faces of metaphors

A common error many beginning writers make is the assumption that metaphor is limited to certain parts of speech when in fact, you can make use of the metaphor in several ways. For example, you can use a metaphor as:

  • A verb ("The smile that invaded her face was evidence enough.")
  • An adjective ("His imprisoning stare demanded her attention.")
  • An adverb ("He spoke musically, each word in crescendo.")
  • A prepositional phrase ("She looked at me with the eye of an eagle.")
  • A modifier ("At her feet lay the pieces of torn paper, a graveyard of ink soaking in the puddled rain.")

The eye of a poet

Using metaphor is the only way to achieve profound characterization. No one knows this better than the poet, who is generally more limited in word count than even the short story writer, and must say as much as possible in a format that is famished for words. For this reason, as an exercise in perfecting one's craft and the use of metaphor, try looking at your short story's rough draft with the eyes of a poet. If you had to reduce an entire short story to a poem—and its main character(s) to poetic figures—what images would you use in doing so? Which parts of the story would be the focus and what metaphor or imagery would you use to elicit the desired response from your reader?

You can take this exercise one step further and actually write that poem. When it's finished, convert it back into prose and use the metaphors it introduces as highlights of your short story's climax or dénouement; or, use the imagery randomly throughout your short story to deepen the level of characterization you have already developed.

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