Let’s begin at the beginning and define our terms. What is a Metaphorical Object? Here are the lexical definitions.
Metaphorical: a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance.
Object: a material thing that can be seen and touched.
In literature, we tend to use metaphors for description.
“He was the lion of the battlefield”
“The butterfly of her pencil flitted over the paper.”
Metaphors are an extremely powerful literary device, and sometimes they can carry the message of the story on their shoulders. (That’s another metaphor for you.)
You can make the message of your story about 10 times stronger by using metaphors, and in this post, I want to show you one of the ways to do that: metaphorical objects. Let’s start with an example and then find out what makes it work.
This example is from an old Christmas movie you might be familiar with, called It’s a Wonderful Life.
In the movie, the main character, George, has a lot of problems going on in his life (as all main characters should). In his house, there’s a staircase, and the top of the first post in that staircase is broken. Every time he walks up the stairs he absentmindedly puts his hand on the top of that post, and accidentally takes it off. Then, looking annoyed, he puts it back on or sometimes slams it back on in frustration.
But then, at the end of the movie, after he’s learned some important lessons, he does it again. Walks up the staircase, and accidentally takes the top off the post. But this time his reaction is different. He gives a laugh, kisses the post-top, and sets it back in its place.
The End… Kind of. Let’s take a look at what happened here: The broken stair post represented everything that George felt was wrong with his life. But at the end of the movie, when he learns to be thankful for what he does have, his reaction is different. He’s even thankful for a broken stair post because even with all the problems in this world, it’s a wonderful life!
Okay, but why does this work? And how?
Let me introduce you to something I call the duck, duck goose concept.
Remember playing that game? Duck, duck, duck, Goose! You never know when the person walking around the circle is going to say goose, or who they’re going to tap on the head. It’s the same with hot potato, musical chairs, and metaphorical objects. Every time the George pulls the top off the post, it’s duck, duck, duck… Then you trigger your object when your readers least expect it; something about the process changes, and… Goose!
Books are all about change, character growth, plot twists… Etcetera. If something doesn’t change from the beginning of your book to the end, then there’s definitely something wrong.
Your metaphorical objects can represent that change, or foreshadow it, using the ongoing duck, duck, goose method. In my book, Honey Butter, the metaphorical object was a major part of the plot, and I used my ‘goose’ for a plot twist.
If you haven’t read my book yet then skip the next section, as it contains spoilers, and go straight on to the next example.
In Honey Butter, the main character, Jamie, collects paint cards. She has her box of paint cards with her at all times, it’s more than just a hobby, it’s an obsession.
Jamie is rather self-centered at the beginning of the book, but as the story goes on, she not only makes an incredible new friend, she learns to be grateful for the people in her life that she already has. One by one, she begins to give away the paint cards in her collection, each time she grows closer to someone, she gives them one.
She’s giving away what she used to reserve only for her, and the more she gives away, the less she needs them for herself. And each time she gives them one, it’s duck, duck, duck… Goose! But I can’t give away the goose, now can I? My metaphorical object plays a larger role than most objects, so I would be giving away the big plot twist.
Here’s another example, this one just made up.
12-year-old Ruby is bored with normal life, always making big plans, and always in a hurry. Every morning she goes downstairs, pours hot water into a cup of tea, and then hurries back upstairs to makes big plans about an adventure she’s going to go on – someday anyway. But she works so long every morning that the tea get’s cold, and when she finally comes back downstairs, she takes a sip, frowns, and pours out the rest of the tea. (Duck…)
Day after day throughout the story this ritual is repeated. (Duck, duck.) But then at the very end, Ruby has learned an important lesson, that adventure can be found anywhere and that the little things in life matter. In the last chapter, she doesn’t go upstairs to do her planning while the tea cools, instead she stays downstairs and drinks her tea with her family. This time, the tea is still hot. (Goose!)
Okay, enough examples. How do you make your own metaphorical object? Below are a few of my suggestions for creating them. Note I say ‘suggestions’. When it comes to creating a book, there is no wrong, only write.
I think part of the reason this kind of metaphor is so powerful is that the object is literally part of the story. The characters can touch it, smell it, and maybe hear it, depending on what it is. For this reason, both the characters and the reader have a closer connection to it. It works really well when it’s an item the character cares about, say, a special mug. If your reader cares about the mug, they not only care that the problem is solved but how it should be solved. They wouldn’t, for instance, want the character to smash the mug or buy a new one. If the object represents the character, then buying a new mug would mean trying to be a new version of themselves. It’s just another way to make your readers root for the character.
Not Too Similar
This goes for all metaphors, not just metaphorical objects. The things you are comparing should only be the same in the way you are comparing them. You wouldn’t, for instance, say that a frog was as green as a toad.
Don’t Overly Acknowledge
The metaphorical objects lose some of their power, I feel if it’s acknowledged too much. It takes away some of the magic. This is where show, don’t tell really has to be used. And remember, you don’t need to spell out every last detail for your readers. The beauty of a book is that it can be interpreted many different ways.
For instance, with my tea example, we wouldn’t want Ruby’s mother to say something like; “Ruby dear, you really need to remember to drink your tea, it gets cold every morning!” She might, though, sigh and shake her head as she watches Ruby pour it down the drain.
A Few Ideas
Now we get to the fun part: playing with some different versions and spin-offs of this duck, duck goose concept.
The examples I showed before have the ‘goose’ happen at the end, representing the character’s transformation. But there are really many other ways to do it.
Instead of representing character change, it could represent environment or community change. Or the relationship between characters. Maybe the ‘goose’ is what sets off the climax.
It can also be a great way to provoke emotion in the reader, for instance maybe there are two friends who have a watch that they share, and they take turns wearing it every day. (Duck, duck, duck…) Then one of the friends moves away and the other friend has no one to exchange the watch with anymore. (Goose!)
There could also be more than one change. Then even perceptive readers won’t see the second one coming because they think the ‘goose’ already happened.
It’s like saying ‘duck, duck, duck, Moose! Just kidding, Goose!’
Take my last example with the watch. The two friends exchanging the watch each day was the duck part. Then one of them moving away was the goose part. But what if it wasn’t? What if the friend moving away was ‘moose’. Then maybe the first character starts exchanging the watch with a new friend, and that was the ‘goose’.
So what do you guys think? Where have you spotted metaphorical objects before? What are other ways to use them that I haven’t covered? Do you think this could work in your own story?