Meaning and Metaphor



More thoughts on fully realizing your fictional world…  gull

No matter how fantastical or faraway your fictional world, it begins inside you, as the writer. We are all from some place, even if we are displaced. All a product of what we know and don’t know. Of who are, our culture, our parents, the landscape where we were raised.

If you doubt this, the next time you have an opinion about something, ask yourself where the opinion comes from. Your parents? Your culture? The books you read or movies you watch?

When I ask myself where I am from, I get many different answers, but they often begin with the natural world. I’m not only from water, but from mountains, canyons, trees and starry nights, the sprawl of a river town and its highways, as Ray Carver writes about in “Highway 99E from Chico”


The mallard ducks are down

For the night. They chuckle

In their sleep and dream of Mexico

And Honduras. Watercress

Nods in the irrigation ditch

And the tules slump forward, heaving

With blackbirds.


Rice fields float under the moon.

Even the wet maple leaves cling

To my windshield. I tell you Maryann,

I am happy.


I tell you Maryann, I am happy. Carver remembers this highway, this windshield, these birds, this trip, because of the emotion behind it.

If we seek to understand the emotions behind what we write, it can make our fictional world real.

Another California writer, Brenda Nakamoto, who writes about growing up as a third generation Japanese in Peach Farmer’s daughter, talks about creating her book out of a sense of needing to understand her roots, and a yearning for a grandfather she never met.

In missing the rural farm where she grew up, Nakamoto recreates it with sensory details. The peaches heavy on the trees, and her Dad’s old Ford truck bleached to the color of a faded sky.

And while she never knew her grandfather, who killed himself before she was born, she re-imagines him as an immigrant on a ship bound for Seattle. Although he was only 5 feet tall, she sees him as “a big so huge I cannot put my arms around it.”

A big so huge, I cannot get my arms around it. I love that line. And in creating place through specific details, Nakamoto’s world has become universal.

What makes a fictional world believable? How to you find the right words that will paint a place that feels every bit as real as Dad’s old Ford truck bleached to the color of a faded sky?

I believe these exquisite details emerge through the work of mining your own subconscious, to uncover your true reasons your writing. As Alice Hoffman says, don’t write what you know, write what you feel.

And when you are writing what you feel, symbol and metaphor naturally follow.

Listen to this moment in The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo when Rob cries at his mother’s funeral:

“They were both dressed up in suits that day; his father’s suit was too small. And when he slapped Rob to make him stop crying, he ripped a hole underneath the arm of his jacket.

’There ain’t no point in crying,” his father had said afterward. “Crying ain’t going to bring her back.’”

That hole in his jacket underarm is a symbol for the whole in Rob’s life.


In Cynthia Voights Homecoming, the story of four abandoned children walking to their grandmother’s house, the children are in constant search of food.

“Dicey and James pulled mussels from the rocks and washed them off in the water, while Maybeth and Sammy climbed back up the hill for twigs and larger pieces of wood. Soon they had a large mound of mussels waiting beside a crackling fire…”

Food in this way becomes not just a meal, but stands in for the missing mother, their loss and their yearning… a type of extended metaphor that TS Elliot called an Objective Correlative: or a “Set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula for a particular emotion.”

In my own novel The Lucky Place, I returned to my water roots with my character Cassie. In this scene she is realizing that the stepdad she loves may die, as she walks into the ocean and is swept under:

“I’m underwater.

I’m rushing backward and down and hit something hard and sand stuffs my mouth. My cheek burns. When I hit I can’t hold my breath and I suck in water. I can’t find the air. I kick out for the surface, but it’s not there. My chest aches enough to burst. The blue is gone, replaced with black and bits of silver star. I’m sucked out to sea and I’m going to die.”

She doesn’t die, though, and is spit back out.

“My cheek feels scraped where it hit the sand, but nobody realizes. Nobody knows how scared I was. Or that I finally understand. Cancer isn’t a gypsy curse. It’s a huge smashing wave. It catches you and drags you out. And anybody can be spit back up, and anybody can drown.”

Earlier I said that just as in the real world, a fictional is not simply a place, but what is happening to a character in that place. And that what is happening to a character—the tension between her inner and outer landscape, at just that moment, is not static, or generic. It is specific, in motion, has cause and effect, like a crackling fire or a crashing wave, and if it rings true it’s because it’s part and parcel of the story itself.

Take the opening scene in Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light which not only begins in motion, but sets the story world beautifully in time and place:

“When summer comes to the North Woods,” she writes “…time slows down. And some days it stops altogether. They sky, gray and lowering for much of the year, becomes an ocean of blue, so vast and brilliant you can’t help but stop what you’re doing—pinning wet sheets to the line maybe, or shucking a bushel of corn on the back steps—to stare up at it. Locusts whir in the birches, coaxing you out of the sun and under the boughs, and the heat stills the air, heavy and sweet with the scent of balsam. As I stand here on the porch of the Glenmore, the finest hotel on all of Big Moose Lake, I tell myself that today—Thursday, July 12, 1906—is such a day. Time has stopped…”

Time has also stopped for the reader. We want it to, at least the time outside the novel. While in the world of A Northern Light time is already on the move. Soon a girl’s body will be brought to the porch, and that idyl will be shattered.

Donnelly has created a perfect fulcrum between this sweet moment and what will happen next. And it’s worth noting that her character is crossing a threshold –literally and figuratively in this moment. And so are we, as readers.


A story world is created from within, they are your themes that manifest in your character’s point of view. This world is already moving as your reader crosses your story threshold. It is dynamic, changes as your character changes, is the world where your character is hot, or cold or moody or in peril. It is the place where a character first makes love or loses a loved one. It is set in time and has a spot on the map. It begins in the white hot center of experience, in all its sensory detail, and is the spark between your character’s inner motives and outer action. And building your world with emotionally powered, specific details allows your individual story to become universal.

Katherine Paterson notes in Spying Heart that the Japanese word for idea is “i, which is made up of two characters—the character for Sound and the character for Heart—so an idea is something that makes a sound in the heart (the heart in Japanese, as in Hebrew, being the seat of intelligence as well as the seat of feeling).

Paterson is talking about the “power of the imagination” that comes from the sound of a writer’s heart. It’s from this imagination that we create the symbols and metaphors that invite young readers in to figure things out for themselves. To be caught up in a story so fully that their own imagination then allows them to, as Paterson says, “listen to the sounds of their own hearts.”

                                                                                     –zu vincent

One thought on “Meaning and Metaphor”

  1. Helen Pyne says:

    Zu, this essay is beautifully written and so illuminating. Every note of the piece sings! Some of the books you mentioned are new to me, and I look forward to reading them. I’ve tucked this gem of an essay into my teaching files and am sure I will pull it out often.

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