Metaphor, Figurative Language, and Silos

My parents have a patio that backs up against a small pond, surrounded by a forest preserve along the opposite side from where I’m sitting. It’s pretty, lush, and verdant (green!). The air conditioning unit just kicked on, and it’s drowning out the sounds of distant birds squawking (I haven’t learned my bird calls yet) and the pitter-patter of the usual Florida afternoon rain against the gutters. It’s nice outside, even though it’s humid and warm. My dad will go days without stepping outside. When I asked him about this, he just shrugged. I don’t know how he does it.

I had been giving metaphor and figurative language a lot of thought, not lately, but in general, when I find a great metaphor in a book I really enjoy it. Here’s a couple I love:

Arthur Dent was grappling with his consciousness the way one grapples with a lost bar of soap in the bath.

The Restaurant At The End of The Universe

“Thousands of refugees wailed as if attending a funeral, the burial of their nation, dead too soon, as so many were, at a tender twenty-one years of age.”

The Sympathizer

Creativity with metaphor and figurative language is a gift, but I think it can also be learned. These don’t come naturally to me. I had been searching for books and articles that go beyond definitions to figure out how I could learn this. And then, after much thought and contemplation, it dawned on me: metaphors compare what something does, not what something is. For example, if I say, love is fire, I’m saying that love burns (what love does), rather than love is painful (what love is).

In the first simile, Arthur Dent grapples with his consciousness because he is confused. Rather than Adams trying to relate grappling with confusion, he relates grappling with being lost (a verb!), and somehow comes up with a hilarious image of groping in the bathtub for a lost bar of soap. In the second simile, Nguyen relates the death of Vietnam with the death of a person with mourners. He relates it with the way one feels after a tragic, violent death, rather than what it is. I hope you follow what I’m saying.

As of late, I have been feeling quite siloed. Perhaps it’s COVID. Perhaps it’s me checking out from my military unit. Perhaps it’s combining households with my parents and having everyone in one place. Perhaps it’s me. Whatever the reason, my mind is a pinball machine and my thoughts rattle around with no place to go. See! I’m getting better already.

Handling Character Descriptions A La Tom Wolfe

I’d never been so happy to sit and watch Penny play soccer as I was the other day. The rain from earlier in the afternoon brought with it fresh tropical air and a blue-streaked sky, and it was good to sit back and watch the kids do normal kid things. The league has taken great pains to reduce COVID risk: the teams are small, the drills are spread out, and the scrimmage time is short, to name a few things. The field where she and Nick play sits at a slight elevation, surrounded by a giant pond with a sprawling hospital campus in the background. On the north side of the field is another, larger lake, with a wakeboarding water park, climbing tower, and mechanical zip-lines.

As I struggle through my character descriptions, I want to take a look at how a character description master does his thing and what I might be able to incorporate into my writing. On the drive to Florida, we listened to Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons, and I was struck by how vividly Wolfe sketched each character. He’s famous for doing a few things: 1. He presents characters from different points of view so that the result is multiple character descriptions of the same character. 2. He uses unconventional means to start a character description. See this excerpt below:


I am Charlotte Simmons

Rather than do the usual thing of going straight into a physical description of Hoyt, Wolfe uses the scene to make Hoyt active and create a sense of movement. So, in addition to getting the information of what Hoyt looks like, the reader gets the picture of Hoyt looking in the mirror, checking himself out, thinking he looks pretty hot because he’s got great teeth, a masculine square jaw, hazel eyes, and he’s jacked! The physical description is active in this scene.

First They Killed My Father

Here’s another example of the same thing, but in a less flamboyant style. The author, Loung Ung, offers a description of her mom from her perspective as a child, overhearing her mother’s friends talk openly about how beautiful she is. In this way, we can picture Ung’s mother moving through the house, handling domestic life (and reprimanding Ung) with effortless grace and beauty.

It looks like well-executed character descriptions do two things:

1. They serve to fill the scene and become part of the movement of the scene.

2. They serve to reveal the interior life of the character by only mentioning pertinent physical details, i.e., Hoyt is jacked therefore maybe he’s vain; Ung’s mother is beautiful, so much so that her friends envy her, therefore maybe she’s conservative in her ideas of femininity and is not endeared to her daughter’s tomboy tendencies.


The Zoom and the Pan in Descriptive Writing

Today is the last day of projects at my house. The crew replacing many of my windows have been here since 10 am and are now attempting to replace the glass on the sliding glass door where my darling dog, Poppy, left hundreds of tiny scratches. Since the door is open, rather than air condition the back yard, I have turned off the central cooling unit and now sit at my kitchen nook in sticky solitude at a balmy 85 degrees.

In my letter from my editor, one of the (many) helpful things she recommended was for me to consider how I draw my scenes. “We need the zoom and pan,” she said. I think it’s relatively easy to tell what is zoom and pan in visual media. In literature, it’s a bit more tricky.

In this excerpt from A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s description of the countryside has this panning camera feel as he guides the reader through the village, the river, the plain, and the war.

In this excerpt, we (slowly) zoom in on the scene, taking in some sculptures, the chair, the cap, frescoes, and the lovely but doomed Catherine Barkley.

In each of these examples, Hemingway has guided the reader through the description, and it has a fluid, kinetic quality, much like the active panning and zooming of a camera. In writing, this movement feels more explicit since it’s words that must guide the reader through the scene. Frankly, it’s hard to put into words how this pan/zoom thing is different in words versus visual. Maybe it’s the same. The only difference is the difference between words and space and time. In other words, the medium. (Duh).

But like many things done well, if you don’t look for the pieces, you won’t notice them. It’s interesting to see what draws in the reader through Hemingway’s lengthy descriptions. Now for some reverse-engineering, here is a screenshot example from a favorite cinematography technique from Breaking Bad. One of the show’s trademarks shots is the use of what they call near/far, like this kettle that’s in the foreground, and the bokeh dramatic action in the background. How would words convey this or something like this? I’m searching for literary examples.

How to Handle Minor Characters and Groups in Fiction

As I work on my re-write of my manuscript, a bunch of things are clicking that hadn’t before, which is very encouraging for me! I think I have figured out how to hack into my main characters’ made-up souls to make them believable and interesting. Of course, one thing is sketching them out on my spreadsheet, and another is presenting who they are in some clever way in the story itself. (!)

One area that continues to elude me is how to handle minor characters and groups in fiction. I consistently fumbled this in my manuscript, losing my editor along the way, not making it clear who she was supposed to focus on, and who was unimportant.

Last night Steve and I watched Twilight (I know. I know.), and though I’ve never read the books, I know Stephenie Meyer had to create these high school cliques for Bella to blow off in favor of her vampire boyfriend. In visual media, perhaps showing minor characters and groups is less tricky, because you can simply put them in the background of whatever the main activity is (like Bella in the cafeteria first noticing the Cullens) and it doesn’t distract from where the audience is supposed to focus. In the movie, when Bella first notices the Cullens, she’s physically surrounded by other teens and the Cullens slow-motion walk to their table in the corner of the cafeteria. Here is the book excerpt of this scene setting up this moment from Twilight.

In this excerpt, we have two people, Bella mentions by name and one girl who she is talking to but is not named (since Bella quickly forgets her name). We get the sense that the cafeteria is full of teenagers. We know that Bella is surrounded by other people at the table (“several of her friends”), and is generally feeling like the new kid in school.

Looking at this closely, I notice a few things that Meyer has done.

  1. Each minor character Meyer introduces gets his or her little paragraph.
  2. The “group” in paragraph two has its own little paragraph.
  3. The scenery of groups and individuals is finally painted in the last paragraph.

My take-away from this little analysis is that it takes more words than I thought to develop minor characters. Also, it’s still necessary to develop minor characters and groups by citing some characteristic or behavior, to orient the reader and build the scene.

All that doesn’t seem too hard, does it?!

Figuring Out this Writing Business

Today we were supposed to pack ourselves up with our two cats and head back to Florida for the foreseeable future. As it is, some work on my house got delayed, and we’ve been set back another week. I have decided to make lemonade and be happy that I would get the chance to work on my writing projects. I sent off my book review, which is supposed to run in October. I also wrote another piece that is a stretch for me personally and technically. It’s a piece that had been on my mind since last year. I sent it off to The Atlantic and, big surprise, I have not heard back from them.

A few weeks ago, I had blogged about book reviews and said that it’s best not to attempt to pitch your first review with a major publication. I specifically even said, The Atlantic. So now, maybe I’ll take my advice and find a more niche place for my piece. I’m not disappointed about it, so much as I am somewhat frustrated. While there is a lot of excellent writing advice on the internet, some things are tough to teach yourself. It’s a ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ situation. And since I don’t personally know anyone who writes for a living, well, it’s a lot of trial and error.

Fortunately, I reached out to U.S. Air Force Academy grad and romance/science fiction author Susan Grant, and she has very kindly made herself available to share what she knows about writing and selling fiction. I’m very thankful for my women service academy group; otherwise, I would not have found her. I regret to say that we women, as a group, don’t appear to be as attuned to networking as a professional philosophy, as men. But I think this is changing. As more women move up in the world and remember to share what they do and what they know, and other women think to reach out to them and leverage their experience, this will improve. It’s funny how much of an afterthought it is, at least for me, but I don’t think I’m the only one. But I’m hopeful this will change and that maybe someday I’ll be in the position to pay it forward.