Once, mere minutes before a boyfriend broke up with me, I sat outside a subway stop in the rain, waiting for him to meet me at the designated break-up time. OK, I didn’t know it was going to be a designated break-up time. I thought we were meeting for a date, possibly a riveting Scrabble game. But I remember I was running late, and lucky for me, I grabbed an express train at a crowded transfer station. When Dude finally got there, he apologized for his lateness, he said he had to take local because the stations were so crowded and the lines were apparently caught in train traffic. We realized that we were actually on the same local train at one point, but whereas I risked the swap, he decided to stay on. Later that night, when I was walking past Lincoln Center with plastic Duane Reade bags of all of my stuff — Scrabble game included — I laughed at that fateful metaphor glaring right at me. I also cried but that was about the break-up, rather than seeing the metaphor.
It’s something my writer friends and I indulge in often. Bad day? It’s funny that happened because I did happen to move the bed against the wall, so maybe there is a wrong side! Break-up? That’s weird, because we were on the same train, then weren’t.
See? Writer friends and I indulge in the selfish, yet fun game of life metaphors as I feel like most people do because we want life to have patterns as much as anyone — like religious people — and also because we can’t stop writing, even if it is our reality.
It’s why people narrate themselves out of self-consciousness. Sure, it’s a pretty old trick, opening the floor for laughs and channeling discomfort into something outside of ourselves, but we’re realizing and even wanting life to be a book or scripted. It’s also because we’re just plain inclined to do it. Right?
We probably do it without noticing. But we feel quite chuffed when we see it.
So when I was in workshop and we came across a story with too planned of a metaphor, we all shot it down. We see it! The reader sees the seams in your writing! Stop. Stop. Stop! Cloudy skies? Someone found a dead rat on their porch? These things do not bode well, and it’s fine if the reader senses it too. Heck, as a reader, I love it when I feel clever. Throw me all of the metaphors to read into! I want to think that I can figure out life better than your character and his or her tragedy.
But even so, in that workshop, we talked about how clunky it felt to place metaphors in a story. That tree that grew and then died when the mother died? Pretty obvious. The too perfect weather on the bad wedding day? Saw it coming. Did this make us terrible writers? We saw clearly the devices that were being used, we saw the man behind the curtain. The suspension of disbelief is off, and we, as young writers, felt like we didn’t do our jobs. We wanted metaphors to happen as naturally as possible, but we’re the ones constructing the narratives. They plum don’t do that.
Here’s how I handle it. The best guard against this is either pointing it out. The character is well on the game of the weather being foreboding as we all are, or maybe the character can be sarcastic about the ominousness about everything. We’re clued in together.
Don’t beat the reader’s heads with it. We got it. The train crash was a metaphor for shit hitting the fan. Don’t keep talking about the train crash, talk about the shit after. Think about the showing, not telling rule. Don’t focus too much on it, because by that point, I’m going to feel like you think you’re clever, too clever for the reader.
Go for the unusual metaphor. What else can describe the meaning of life if not bean cakes? Discuss.
Don’t underestimate all of the factors you’ve planted in the story. The metaphors shouldn’t be the only stand outs and doing most of the work. When the story is good, when the prose takes over, when the character’s intensity blocks me from seeing what he or she should’ve seen coming — gray overcast? Dead cat? Ominous fog? — then you’re doing your job.