Writing 344: Metaphorical Thinking (Theme Part 3)

I’m going to make you smarter. But first, let me tell you a story.

For a long time, I had trouble communicating with people. There would be a universe of thoughts floating around my skull, seeping past the blood-brain barrier in between the in-betweens floating around the synapse, and all I could manage were terse statements; or I would encounter the opposite issue: I would become a font of arcana and ephemera which held interest for few people but myself.

As it turns out, people are not really that interesting in the perambulations of Signore Alighieri or Joyce past a certain threshold; people don’t all like Anime; and people don’t always get things intuitively. One of my chief problems.

For me, and my obsessive nature, I would always be able to piece together things largely by intuition. It’s one of those kinds of intelligence that is innate, but can be developed. I would be watching a magic trick, and figure out how to do it; I would hum a melody, and get it lickety-split.

As a result, people grew intimidated by me; they left me alone; they made me feel lonelier than anything, and I isolated myself. So, I put a premium on effective communication. And good writing is effective communication.

But one of the best keys to effective communication is to be a lil’ smaht.

How do you get smahteh?

Well, continuing our discussion of theme (Jesus), let’s talk about the essence of theme, and my favorite lil’ fractal: metaphor.

Believe it or not, intelligence is one of those things that no one has a straight definition for. Some people think it has to do with how much you know; some people think it’s how much you’re able to do; some believe it’s different types of intellect.

I prefer to equate intellect with metaphorical thinking.

You are constantly thinking metaphorically, whether intentionally or not; and you may even be aware of it. Shows like Star Trek are great at using simple metaphors to explain complex subjects. A point so eloquently made fun of by futurama in the episode “Where no Fan Has Gone Before”.

Metaphorical thinking – or Analogical reasoning, as I refer to it – is the ability to recognize features of one thing, in features of another. It’s why we see that the sky is like the ocean: wide, blue, and seemingly infinite. We all use Metaphorical Thinking to some extent in daily life.

A large component of Intellect is your abilities with it. To make it easier: the more readily you recognize similarities in the unsimilar, the more you can do.

Don’t believe me? Here’s an example.

I’m currently teaching myself a number of languages. For the romance languages, I’ve recognized the fact that the adverbial form of any word is “-ment” in each one. It’s a recognizable feature of all five languages. Further, they each contain “un” “il” “con” and certain features of preposition, syntax, and structure in common.

So what, those five languages are all from the same family.

Well, that’s true, they all derive from Latin (the boring kind of Romance). But if you take it further, you can use even more complex metaphorical thinking.

For example, in Spanish and French – two languages that are mutually unintelligible – the phrase “Your Welcome” is literally translated closer to “It’s nothing”?

Rien is nothing, as is Nada; De Rien, De Nada.

The metaphor here is the recognition of the word “nothing”, and by extension we can use metaphorical thinking to deduce what thanks means in Spanish and French.

But I’m digressing like usual, and intuitively.

How do you get better at Metaphorical thinking, and how do you use it to come up with theme?

Believe it or not, Metaphorical thinking is a skill, not a talent, and you can practice it. You are going to suck at it first, at least as an active skill; but as you use the below exercise more and more, you will come to develop a keen ability to think metaphorically. And the more metaphorically you can operate, the better you will be at identifying the commonalities between your characters, and situations.

The Exercise:

Google search for a random word generator on the internet like this one and generate two words. Once you’ve got those two words, you’re going to find how they resemble each other conceptually. Then find ways in which they differ


For me, I got Mnemonic and Screaming.

Here’s a list of similarities I got:

  1. Memorable
  2. Involve vocalization
  3. Used in situations that are scary
  4. One follows the other, when studying goes wrong
  5. They are forms of communication
  6. They are both reactions to chaos
  7. They can be used to help people understand a situation

Here is how they oppose each other:

  1. One is meant to order the world, one is an expression of chaos
  2. One is cerebral, the other is instinctive
  3. They oppose each other in purpose

I’m not going to lie: this one was hard for me. I don’t normally sit and actively find metaphors. But as I thought of ways in which they are similar, I was also able to find ways in which they differed, and I established a stronger relationship between the two, than I initially thought.

Let’s apply this to theme:

Your theme is an overarching idea, it’s a fractal, and it needs to be able to relate to all the characters metaphorically in some capacity: this includes your main characters, but also your villains or antagonists.

When the theme applies to all of the characters, they can occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. When they occupy opposite ends of the spectrum of your theme, whatever that is, they act in opposition to each other. This makes your theme an engine for story, rather than a message.

That’s a little theoretical though, so let’s look at a good metaphor for what I’m talking about.


Image result for the joker and batman

(Credit to Warner Bros)

The Batman and The Joker, awww yiss.

The above characters are thematic opposites. The theme? Control.

You can reduce most of Batman’s stories into one simple controlling idea that influences the rest of the story: We need order, and structure to survive.

Batman represents control at its most strict. He controls his impulse for violence and darkness through the outlet of crime fighting. He has perfect monetary agency. He’s able to make influential powerful decisions and affect millions through his company and money. He controls his dark side, and let’s his thrill out in the night, against criminals. He’s like Dexter Morgan, channeling the darkness to purpose.

The Joker is not anti-good: he’s a complete lack of restraint in human form. His order is chaos. He abides by no rules, no morals trouble his behavior. He is the Id to Batman’s Superego. He is impulse, and intelligence. His intellect and abilities equal or exceed batman’s, depending on who is writing. But in every iteration, he represents a fundamental lack of restraint.

Notice that if you look at Batman through the lens of “Control” as a theme, and its subsequent sub-themes, you’ll see which of his villains often stand out as the best: the Penguin, the Riddler, Black Mask, ZsasZ: all of his great villains are some perversion or variation of someone who is out of control.

And that may seem like a simplistic assessment, but that’s the point: the theme is not meant to create a specific story, it’s supposed to create a large scale palette from which the conflicts are generated. It can be seen at every level of story.

And it’s a metaphor.

Your Assignment: Perform the Above Exercise for 10 pairs of words. Additionally, watch pieces of narrative fiction that you enjoy, and find the controlling theme, based on Theme as I have defined it currently.

Once you have done so, leave a reply in the comments with what you find; or just keep on going, and doing you. It’s not my job to dictate your behavior, just to guide it.

I look forward to hearing your story, and can’t wait to see what you got.

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