Shaun Levin

You Can’t Force It (Metaphors, Memories and Insights)

In Writing, Writing Exercises on February 23, 2012 at 2:30 pm

A story needs to go places. Even on the level of the sentence, a story needs to go places, and by places I mean unexpected places. Huge twists and turns, perhaps, but what I’m thinking about are little surprises along the way, like a turn of phrase, like a metaphor, a simile. Like: “Claudio… has been making passes at Clay like a Roman cafe waiter with a schoolgirl on a junior year abroad” or “Tall and thin, with skin the colour of an old penny and a face as angular and humourless as that of a Byzantine saint” or “the doors make a heavy prosperous sound when they slam, like a vault closing”.* Metaphors or similes that delight, that make us smile, that don’t eject us out of the story, but make us feel the writer has left this metaphor in the story to entertain us. As writers, we have to feel good about our metaphors, proud of them.

The other thing is flashbacks. Memories. More often than not it’s awful when a writer says something along the lines of “And suddenly he remembered that…” and you land up feeling that this memory has been put in there for some purpose, for some backstory purpose, and not because it emerged with integrity out of the telling. Flashbacks have to feel like something that could not be repressed, that they appeared at this very moment in the story because they had to, there was no other choice. “Suddenly…” is never a good way to start a sentence.

I’ve been thinking that in a short story, one flashback is often enough. More than one and it becomes a story with flashbacks, about flashbacks, about the past, and not what’s happening in the now of the story. Of course, some stories are about the past. Some stories are a flashback.

I like a story that has a moment of realization, a point in the story – often towards the end – where the character learns something, where a kind of epiphany happens. Stories like that are satisfying. Satisfying in the way that a pub at the end of a long walk is satisfying, or home. An insight is something to carry into the future. Flashbacks are about the past, and metaphors are about the now of the telling, the sentence that is unfolding before us on the page, like a carpet unravelling, like a wave receding to expose what is there on the sand.

Memories, insights and metaphors are the moments of a story’s virtuosity, the moments when a story does a little trick, a dance. We are surprised. We are amused. Sometimes they leave us breathless. One precise insight, one bubbling-up memory, one good metaphor and the story is lifted to a higher plane.

An exercise: Take a story you’ve already written. See if you have all three elements in it. Is there a memory that expands the range of the story? Does it take us to a different place? Somewhere geographically different, further away. Does it make the story bigger, help it cover more ground? And is there an insight at the end of the story, a realisation, a moment in which the character (and the writer, too) understands something? Then have a look if you can change that realisation, make it the opposite of what you thought it was going to be, and see how that changes the story.

And the metaphors and similes? How many of those do you have? Follow some of your sentences and see where you can add a metaphor at the end, a metaphor that will allow you to play a bit, that allows you to follow your imagination. Be literary. Be the kind of writer you admire. Entertain yourself. Metaphors take practice, the practice of letting go, of seeing where your imagination carries you. You can’t force a metaphor. Or a memory. Or an insight. You have to let go into the story to let them emerge. You have to, as a friend of mine says, be your own typist. Take dictation from your subconscious.

* all quotes are from the stories in Andrea Lee’s Interesting Women. And yes, out of context, a metaphor/simile can sound odd.


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