Extended metaphors in prose resonate with the reader, even if she isn’t sure what it is the author has done to trigger that resonance. In Part One of this series I explained that making use of a recurring metaphor advances both plot and character development. We looked at how to identify a key theme that needs to be articulated and then identify elements of scene that could be used to amplify that theme.
One challenge in a book-length work is finding ways to return to the metaphor over hundreds of pages while still doing so in a fresh way. In that case you’ll want to look for some consistency in your scenes. Do many of them occur in the same place, say an aging castle or penthouse apartment or an English garden? You’ll find a lot of material to work with, both literal objects in the room but also broader associations with what that type of setting is. (The mood an aging castle evokes in you differs from a penthouse apartment, yes? If you can say why that is, the answer(s) you come up with will help you generate more ideas.)
Let me give you a practical example from Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road. Now the nature of a road trip book is that one is constantly on the move, so we don’t have a recurring setting. Or do we? William Least Heat-Moon and John Steinbeck believed we did. Heat-Moon in Blue Highways personified the van in which he drove across the country, calling it “Ghost Dancer.” Steinbeck did similarly with his camper truck in Travels with Charley, which he named “Rocinante,” after Don Quixote’s horse. With these personifications, the authors not only created additional “characters,” they also created “vehicles” (pardon the pun) for metaphor.
Steinbeck also made liberal use of his skill as a fiction writer with Travels with Charley; in other words, we’ve learned he made a lot of stuff up. I chose not to do that with Committed, putting me in a bind in terms of vehicle personification because I didn’t drive the same vehicle across the country (one rental car in New England, my car in the mid-Atlantic, a different rental car for the rest of the country). And, frankly, a rented white Nissan Altima Hybrid is hardly as sexy as Heat-Moon’s 70’s full van. But a setting needn’t be glamorous or exotic to launch an extended metaphor, so the car’s passenger cabin became a chamber of solitude in which the author works through the emotions and questions that the trip is raising within him.
His lack of ability to hide from those thoughts is set up fairly early in the book, with a true and at the time traumatic incident. This is from “August 20: North Carolina and South Carolina”:
As we leave the Biltmore estate a road sign informs us that turning right leads to Charleston, South Carolina. A left brings us to Knoxville, Tennessee. I glance at Marisa, who smiles in agreement as I make the right turn. As the driver, I control the car speakers, so I fire up my portable music player as I start down the interstate. After a minute of not hearing any music I glance down at the player and see the screen is frozen. I fiddle with it, turning it on and off with my right hand while my left holds the steering wheel. Such multitasking is reckless, I know, but I am compelled to bring this device back to life. It is unthinkable that I am facing three weeks of lengthy drives with no recorded music to distract me. I filled this player specifically for this trip, hundreds of hours of rock, blues, and gospel to provide energy and classical to wind me down. My record-label and music-publisher members would be pleased to know that all of the music was acquired legally. But now that is all gone.
Thoughts race. Bile rises in my throat. I hear my doctor’s voice reminding me of the importance of staying calm in the face of the unexpected. I do not feel calm. I want to take this thin metal contraption with its brand name frozen on the front screen and hurl it out the car window. I want to whip the car into a violent U-turn and thread through the oncoming traffic so I can smash the unfaithful plastic player under two tons of unforgiving steel. Instead I glance at Marisa. Lost in her own music, she has not detected my growing rage. Nor do I wish her to. I focus on the road ahead, counting the white highway dashes whizzing by on the left the way I used to count letters when I would pyramid as a child. The repeated flicks of paint dance across my mind in a rhythmic staccato. My heartbeat synchronizes with the beat, then my breathing joins in harmony.
The death of the MP3 player creates, narratively, the opening for the father and daughter to converse, a key plot development of Part Three of the book. But the reader has now been informed that the narrator has lost a key source of distraction during his long drives between interviews. Fast-forward ninety-nine pages and the reader is alone with the narrator as he departs Lincoln, Nebraska, near the end of Part Five:
The sky has grown overcast while I was inside with Pippa and Nutley. A gun-metal gray blanket rises from a creepily flat horizon. I turn on the FM radio to provide a distraction, and hear two men engaging in a monotone drone-off while reading ad copy. The first informs me a local sporting-goods store is running a special on bowling shoes. Be the first among your friends to get a shiny new pair in Nebraska red, he says. The other, in a voice even slower and flatter, responds that the timing is perfect, because a local bowling alley is about to start its annual customer-appreciation handicap tournament. Only able to take so much excitement in one day, I return the car to silence, and to my thoughts, welcome or not.
What follows is three pages of exposition that weaves together the changing flora of the Great Plains and Rockies with a flashback to a time in the narrator’s teenage years when religious faith carried him through a difficult time, a look back that opens his eyes to a different possible future and queues up Part Six, the final section of the memoir.
So we’ve identified the car’s passenger cabin as the setting from which I could launch extended metaphors, and some steps I took to set clear in the reader’s mind that such launches naturally fit with the story. In Part Three of this series, I’ll identify how specific metaphors were in fact launched from this vehicle (sorry, still love that pun) in the final draft of Committed.