thematic metaphor

How to Make Your Plot a Powerful Thematic Metaphor

How to Make Your Plot a Powerful Thematic MetaphorYour thematic metaphor is the unifying idea that emerges as the meaning behind your characters’ adventures in their story world. Once you have identified your story’s thematic principle, the real work begins. How will you seamlessly join theme to plot?

Masterful authors create stories that, on their surfaces, may seem to be entirely plot—and yet are deeply thematic. They do this by getting their readers or viewers to feel and think deeply without being obvious about it. The seams with which they connect theme to plot are held together with invisible threads of highly sophisticated metaphor.

The Power of Thematic Metaphor in Storytelling

The metaphor is one of the most utilitarian techniques in a writer’s tool bag. We use it most simply in basic sentence constructions when describing via comparison (I’ve used the technique twice already in this post—in comparing metaphor to binding threads and in referencing a writer’s skill set as a “tool bag”). At its most macro (and indeed meta) level, story itself is nothing more than a large-scale metaphor; authors create made-up people going on made-up adventures as descriptive metaphors for real life.

It’s no surprise that somewhere in between the sentence level and the story level, we find yet another repetition of the pattern. This is where we come upon the powerful technique of molding plot into a visual, external metaphor for the story’s invisible, internal theme.

This interpretation of story can be applied with varying levels of explicitness.

At one end of the spectrum, allegories (such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Animal Farm) deliberately present themselves as blatant metaphors (for Christianity and Soviet Russia, respectively).

Chronicles of Narnia

At the other end, fact-based or docudrama stories (such as the The Great Escape or I, Claudius) evoke the metaphorical inference of theme by extrapolating and/or shaping a meaning from actual events.

The Great Escape James Garner Steve McQueen Fourth of July

(Successful stories in this category stand in stark contrast with their unsuccessful brethren, which present factual events but fail to transform plot into story by identifying the thematic metaphor or unifying meaning at the core of those events. Ron Howard’s movie In the Heart of the Sea comes to mind. It’s problematic enough on its own, but especially when compared to the famous epic with which it shares source material—the tremendously metaphoric and thematic Moby Dick.)

Chris Hemsworth in the Heart of the Sea

In between the two extremes, we find any number of varyingly explicit approaches to story-as-metaphor. Most “tales,” “yarns,” and “fables” (as John Gardner distinguishes them) are immersed in the increasingly deeper waters of non-reality (aka fantasy) and therefore increasingly obvious metaphor.

For example, archetypal fiction—aka, genre fiction—is shaped by time-honored metaphors that preconceive the story’s most basic themes—even as the specific details of the author’s individual handling of the familiar storyforms create nuance, irony, and sometimes even inversion. The Hero’s Journey in action stories and the Happily Ever After at the end of romances both come pre-packaged with a certain amount of inherent thematic metaphor.

What Does a Successful Thematic Metaphor Look Like?

I’ve talked several times before about my admiration for the Japanese movie Wolf Children. This is because it presents one of the best blends of metaphoric theme with an anti-formulaic story.

The story is founded on the high-concept premise of a single mother secretly raising her half-werewolf children. That’s a premise that could have been taken in a dozen directions, including some very genre choices (action-adventure or romance, chief among them). Instead, the story is a leisurely, almost “literary” series of vignettes that vividly show the mother’s struggles to protect, provide for, and prepare her children for their adult lives.

This is a story about this particular mother raising these particular children with their very particular werewolf challenges. It is presented in quasi-realistic fashion with little emphasis on the fantasy elements. In short, it’s a very straightforward story that doesn’t really seem to about anything more than what it’s about.

Wolf Children

But by the time the end credits roll, to a poignant “remember-when” slideshow of the children growing up, it becomes clear that what viewers have just watched is a deeply wrought metaphor for parenthood. We realize the whole werewolf thing was just a metaphor for the strangeness and the often seemingly insurmountable challenges all parents face in taking responsibility for rearing their children.

3 Questions to Ask to Find Your Best Thematic Metaphor

Your first inkling about a story might be thematic. When this happens, you have the advantage of shaping the plot to be a metaphor for that theme. But more often, what comes first is plot and character. This is trickier, because it means you can’t so much construct your metaphor as discover it. You must look within the existing/evolving plot to try to identify the emerging theme.

This is a delicate process that should remain as organic as possible. Balancing plot, character, and theme is like juggling: you can handle one ball for only a short time before briefly pushing it away in favor of the next ball—and so on, over and over and over again. (I call this the bob-and-weave technique, used when outlining to hopefully achieve a seamless unity amongst the Big Three of plot, character, and theme.)

You must be careful not to impose theme too heavily upon plot (at the risk of ending up with a heavy-handed morality play) or plot too heavily upon theme (at the risk of a contrived and empty thematic argument). Rather, you must carefully examine, weigh, and feel both plot and theme to discover what each is telling you about the other.

Most plots offer certain inherent themes. It’s your job to discover what metaphor your plot is offering from amidst its characters’ entertaining adventures. All you have to do is ask the right questions.

Here are three to get you started.

1. What Does This Story Look Like From Afar?

It’s easy to get mentally buried under all the minutiae of even a brand-new story idea. The characters. The relationships. The action. Individual scenes. Even the character arcs.

All these things are just chips of glittering glass in the overall mosaic of your story. In order to truly see what you’ve got, you have to step way, way back.

Up close, the sinking of the Essex in 1820 seems to be about nothing more than a rogue whale taking out a whaling ship. In the Heart of the Sea certainly couldn’t find any greater meaning than that (or at least not one it was able to cohesively portray). Herman Melville, writing about the same events, stepped back far enough to see something else—which he transformed into a ferociously enduring metaphor about man’s obsessive search for and battle against God, fate, and the meaning of life.

Although great dialogue, interesting characters, and entertaining scenes are important, don’t lose sight of the fact that they’re just the trees in your forest. The forest itself is the story. Only in viewing the entire forest can you identify (and then double-check) what theme is emerging.

2. Does Your Story Have a Shape?

In considering what theme your plot might evoke, try to analyze the many parts of your story for emergent patterns. Stop seeing stars and start seeing constellations.

The more you add to your plot, and the more your characters do in the story, the more you should start seeing patterns. This is where we find the endless variation of theme even in genre stories. Romance stories are always about falling in love. But it’s only from the particular patterns of each book’s characters and their actions that we find the specific metaphors of each book’s themes. Jane Eyre is not Pride & Prejudice and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is not The Fault in Our Stars.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before

This is true even for different stories within the same series. Whatever the series’ overarching theme may be, each story inevitably offers its own private theme, based on its specific events—as we see in series such as the Marvel movies, each of which is thematically insular (with varying degrees of success).

How to Write Powerful Themes - According to Marvel

 

>>Click here to read about each MCU movie in The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel

You can start by looking at your cast of characters. What do they have in common? Don’t just look for areas or traits in which they are similar; look, too, for those in which they are diametrically opposite, since these areas actually have more in common than not.

From there, look at the characters’ relationships with each other. What challenges are cropping up repeatedly, either in comparison or contrast to one another?

Then start looking at your individual scenes and story events. What patterns are emerging? Are you starting to see an overall shape? Are the majority of your story pieces pointing toward a deeper internal meaning?

If not, that’s okay. It could be you either don’t yet have enough stuff happening in your novel for there to be any patterns. Or it could mean you need to do a little careful pruning to eliminate the meaningless and enhance the meaningful.

3. What Does Your Story Look Like When Stripped to Bare Essentials?

This is an extremely important question—but also an extremely tricky one. It’s kind of like asking, “If there was no story, what would the story be about?”

Fortunately, you don’t have to go that far. Rather, the point of the exercise is to strip away window dressing. You’re wanting to remove all your story’s fancy clothing, wigs, makeup until you get down to the flesh. And then you want to see past the flesh itself to nothing but the skeleton.

What does your story’s skeleton look like without any distracting coverings?

Your story’s structure is the best place to start. Consider all the major plot points. What do they tell you about what this story is really about? Do they all align? Are they all pieces of the same whole, all pointing to a consistent answer to the questions, “What is this story about?” and “What does it mean?”

Then go even further. What are your characters’ motivations? Goals? Strengths? Weaknesses? Do they all align? What patterns emerge?

Underneath all the fun fluff of any given story, you will find its archetypal underpinnings. You will (or should) find the universal truths that will make this story resonate. At the deepest level, those truths will be vast. But you will also find, built upon the big truths, some smaller ones. Those are the Truths this story is trying to tell, and those are the Truths the plot must exemplify through the metaphor of its own specific patterns and actions.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How is your plot a thematic metaphor for what your story is really about? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Mark A. Moore says

    I really like the idea of stepping way back to get an idea of the overall theme along with stripping away the fluff so the backbone can be viewed. This is my first novel and I’m only about 1/8 of the way through. I have not hit my first plot point but the theme seems to be emerging (consciously on my part, trying not to be heavy handed). This is a fascinating exercise. My biggest concern is how to keep this going for 80,000 meaningful words.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      One of the most difficult things in writing a novel is maintaining objectivity. Because an author is responsible for every tiny detail of a story (right down to things as comparatively inconsequential as character eye color), we can (and generally do, at least at some point) lose the forest for the trees. Identifying the structural backbone is one of the easiest ways to zoom out for a more eagle-eye view. It’s not fail-proof, by any means, but it helps a ton.

  2. Cass Lee says

    More than being informative and enlightening, what you’ve said above on fiction being metaphors has also been on my mind for some time.

    The funny thing, though, is that I could only discover the theme after I’ve fleshed out the plot points in my story, not during the outlining process. Imposing particular themes upon my stories forces the muse into hiding and the resulting stories, should I bulldoze through them, end up contrived, preachy and just plain unpublishable. Just last month, I’d finished the first draft of my WIP (a YA romance with AI/tech overtones) and I was intrigued at how I’d arrived at my desired conclusion for both protagonists even though I was faffing all the way. Even in the opening line. (I’ve learned to outline and structure and plan my novel from your writing guides, and here I was, pantsing! What a terrible student I am.) As I wrote, I was monitoring my word count and noticing the % where my plot points should fall — I didn’t even plan the summaries, let alone the details, of my plot points.

    From your observations, how closely do published works of fiction or movies align with the theme(s) / metaphor(s) their writers originally envisioned for them, or even the spirit of the original theme/metaphor?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s a hard question to answer, since I’m rarely privileged to whatever the author’s initial intent may have been. From my own experience, though, I will say that theme has a way, not so much of changing from outline to draft, but of deepening. The complexity grows vastly by the time I start writing the actual book.

  3. I enjoyed the podcast, particularly where you mentioned the balance of plot, character, and theme to prevent theme becoming a heavy handed morality lesson. I have noticed that, recently, themes of stories are less subtle than they used to be. In AP English forever ago, it was a bit more difficult to pinpoint the precise theme. Now, it’s painted on thickly in bright, broad strokes and requires no thought whatsoever. I’m not a fan of the hero’s journey or templates which are like plug-n-play stories. Same old song and dance with nothing new brought to the table.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The Hero’s Journey is an archetypal story that has been around for ages and will continue. It’s a deeply powerful and personal storyform that resonates because, as humans, we all encounter its arc in our own lives. However, there’s a big difference between writing a Hero’s Journey well and, as you say, “plugging and playing.” The Hero’s Journey, in itself, is no guarantee of an excellent story. Rather, as with any great story, the whole has to be a sum of well-executed and uniform parts.

  4. I understand that this isn’t a religious blog, so if this comment is breaking some unwritten rule, I apologize. I’d like to ask you what your thoughts are, as a Christian, on The Wolf Children, as the plot revolves around painting a romance between a human and a non-human as beautiful.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I take it as a fantasy, even an allegory. Since werewolves do not exist, their presentation in the story is meant to be symbolic (in the same way as an elf or alien might be), rather than a serious analysis of a literal real-world conundrum. So I have no problem with it.

  5. Joan Kessler says

    I usually don’t discover the theme until well into a story, or even after it’s written. I’m fine with that. The prompts were interesting, and I discovered that two characters have the same patterns but for different reasons because they believe different lies. Loved your line about seeing the constellations, not just the stars.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Two characters have the same patterns but for different reasons because they believe different lies.”

      I love it when this happens. It’s one of my favorite ways to see theme dramatized.

  6. David Snyder says

    Hi Katie,

    This is really great and timely as usual for me.

    One thing I have found that has helped me with all of this in a project I have been working on this year is to look for that “central unifying image” or metaphor that ties everything together and without which the plot would unravel.

    This central unifying image might lead us to one simple question, which is:

    HEY! WHERE DID I MISPLACE MY HEART?
    (or, the thing that is most important to me)

    Such as:

    • Lost lover
    • Lost childhood
    • Lost wedding ring
    • Lost sense of self-worth
    • Lost bicycle
    • Lost battle
    • Lost dream
    • Lost hope

    And on and on and on.

    It seems that in most poignant plots, someone loses something and has to find it.

    Characters have different relationships, too, with that central image.

    In Indiana Jones, the Holy Grail is the one image that cannot be removed, without destroying the story—and every character has a different relationship with this object, as a symbol.

    In Dreamlander, that object is the “Orimere” which allows one to bring people or objects back and forth between worlds. Take it out, and you have no story.

    Spiraling off into the ether, I (as a single reader) saw this Orimere object as symbolic for the “pain bodies” that reside in our subconscious and persist as traumas until we face them in the real world. Other readers will have different thoughts—that’s what powerful symbols do. They allow us to bring our own journey into the story.

    What I have learned in the past six months of drafting something new over here is that it is cool to have many subplots, plot points, images, symbols, etc. but you have to find and stick close to that ONE CENTRAL IMAGE (broomstick, holy grail, giant white whale, whatever) or you are going to get sloppy.

    It is the central image/symbol that anchors the story–as all characters revolve around it, and search for their meaning in it.

    All of which is to say that a huge mythical whale on the run probably means something different to all of us.

    Same with an Orimere.

    🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Love the idea of looking for a visual image to centralize the theme. This could be helpful in a myriad different ways, not least in that it offers the opportunity for the author to more symbolically “show” the theme, rather than needing to spell it out for readers.

  7. Hi Katie! I love this weeks post. Finding a central idea, theme, image is such a great way of staying focused while writing. This really helped me visualize my current WIP, so I’ll save this post to reread later. Thanks!

  8. ingmarhek says

    Allegories, metaphors,.. They are tools to elevate your story from good to memorable.
    A theme that resonates with the audience will make your story stand out from the crowd.
    The more universal, the better.
    Great post, K. M.

    ~Ingmar Albizu

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Interestingly enough, though, true universality of theme is often found in extremely specific story situations.

  9. Casandra Merritt says

    Visual images can play a big part in how long the story will stick with you. The One Ring, Treasure Island, and Jekyll and Hyde are images you can’t forget, and especially when the story goal and the title share the image. (The Lord of the Rings: The goal is to destroy the One Ring, and in Treasure Island, the goal is to get to Treasure Island and find the treasure, what do you know). I don’t know why it’s like this, and I know that there are many successful books that don’t use this approach, but it sure seemed to work for these authors. I have a feeling that it has something to do with stronger unity in plot, character, and theme, or other elements such as the story goal, (or even all the elements, I’m not sure). But maybe you have an idea on why this works. By the way, your posts on theme are great.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Jane Smiley once pointed out that “The moments [that] come to mind when I think about the books I like best … stick in my mind as pictures.”

      If an author can evoke a vision in readers’ minds, the effect is dramatically more powerful than simply sharing an idea.

  10. Dennis Michael Montgomery says

    I confess I’m a bit of a door knob. I understood about half of what you said. I think I got lost on the termology and/or phrasology. It looks like I need to study some more as well as re-read and listen to you essay again.

    That being said I do have some questions. Does every story have a metaphor? Or do only good stories have a metaphor? Can bad stories have metaphors? Can a story have more than one metaphor?

    The one thing I do understand is that ‘Nardia’ is a Christian metaphor and ‘Animal Farm’ is a metaphor for communism and Big Brother is a term for an over reaching and invasive form of government.

    Thanks for writing essays about subjects that we as writers may not think about or even understand.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The metaphors get harder and harder to notice and articulate the more realistic the story becomes, since these stories *seem* to be nothing more than faithful reporting of real life. But I would argue that the metaphor is always there (or should be). If readers are to resonate and relate to a story’s theme, they have to subconsciously see the story as a metaphor in some ways for their own lives. For example, most of us can’t take a story like The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird as a direct representation of our own lives, but we still relate to their themes and find them deeply pertinent because the stories metaphorically translate very specific situations into very universal principles.

  11. Katie, I don’t understand how you have time to compose weekly heavy posts like this while also reading, and writing your own fiction, and, you know, eating etc.. Few other writing authorities even tackle theme, most likely because they don’t want to put in the difficult thinking required to elucidate it (or they don’t fully understand it either). Theme has become my favorite in the plot/character/theme triumvirate for myriad reasons, but among them is the knowledge that if you nail theme, you’ve given your book a chance to really stand out. The same cannot be said for plot/character which so many writers already do well. I know you espouse “plotting” all three in your outlining–which I do myself–but even for those who don’t, it’s a great exercise to force yourself to do it, even for a few scenes. In fact, I struggle to comprehend how you could truly grasp their interdependence WITHOUT outlining them simultaneously. The intersection of plot/character becomes obvious first for me, as the requirements of your character arcs will often influence what *must* happen in the plot. So it goes with theme as well though, and doing it this way compels you to make sure each scene is at least consistent with your thematic principle. I really like the idea of viewing plot as a thematic metaphor because it so neatly and similarly connects those two elements. I’m loving your 2019 focus on theme. I wish I had this resource four years ago, because there’s so little in the blogosphere about it. Thanks for another great post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Love everything you’ve said here, but especially this: “if you nail theme, you’ve given your book a chance to really stand out. The same cannot be said for plot/character which so many writers already do well.”

  12. Claudia Campbell says

    I have faithfully followed every article you have written on theme, after buying an entire book devoted to theme nearly 30 years ago. That book was clear as mud. As the years went by, I did begin to understand the theme in some stories, “Gone in 60 Seconds” I think was the first one where I got it. Your articles have brought a difficult concept out of the dark and into the bright light, at least for me. Thank you, for making a difficult and elusive concept not only understandable, but making it an integral part of story planning as well. Thank you again for the best writing site on craft that I subscribe too.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So glad you’re enjoying the posts and finding them useful! I’m intending to put together a book on theme sometime in the next year. I hope it’s clearer than mud. 😉

  13. Tom Youngjohn says

    Theme is my least favorite topic.

  14. The Japanese title of Wolf Children is Ōkami Kodomo. The Kami part translates as deity or spirit and the Okami is the Japanese name for their native wolf species. So the wolf father is not werewolf but a Wolf deity/spirit. There are even Shinto shrines to dedicated to wolves.

  15. David Snyder says

    Hey Katie,

    One more quick observation that might help people and one quick question.

    I see the Bill Moyers series with Joseph Campbell “The Power of Myth” is on Netflix. It is super interesting, and very valuable for ideas that tie into this discussion. Campbell is one fascinating guy—the creator of the Hero’s Journey concept so widely used. You get to hear it all from him. ( I like his books, too.)

    Here is the question:

    Have you heard of Dramatica or used it? I am curious as to what you might think about its “methodology” if you are familiar with it.

    Maybe having your own program you would rather not say.

    🙂

    I believe in keeping things kinda simple myself, but maybe that is just me.

    I have heard pros and I have heard cons.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I haven’t used the Dramatica software, but I’ve read the book. It’s presented in a pretty heavy-going fashion, but its theory is great and offers a lot of insight. I highly recommend it.

  16. If you write a story about a character with a set of beliefs, a situation that causes the character to question or abandon those beliefs, and then show the consequences of the decision to either hold to or abandon those beliefs, don’t you have yourself a theme?

    If other characters have similar or dissimilar beliefs and interact with the situation in the same or a different way, haven’t you built on that theme?

    If the beliefs or actions are similar to some more familiar existing fictional or nonfictional situation, don’t you have yourself a metaphor?

    So, if we focus on well-designed characters reacting to a situation that challenges there beliefs, do we have the trees that will inevitably create the forest?

    Since the writer is in a way the god of the world he creates, he can set the rules as a theme before he begins and create the characters to fit the theme he would like, but if he creates his characters well, and their motivations and beliefs are clear, isn’t theme unavoidable?

    I have written with theme and metaphor in mind; a story based on the St. Paul conversion where a great critic of the church has a supernatural experience causing him to question his beliefs, and a story based on the St. Maria Gorretti story, where a young girl advises her would-be rapist that he will go to hell if he does what he has a mind to. I have more recently begun writing a series which organically became a metaphor on the creation story based on the characters and situation. I’m not sure that if you have well-designed, well-motivated characters and a challenging situation you can avoid a theme. Is a forest anything more than a bunch of trees? And if the trees grow in a reasonable way, won’t they follow a pattern that we call a theme?

    I’m really not pretending to be Socrates. I really don’t know…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nope, you’re not wrong. 🙂

      The cool thing about story is that’s hard to do any of the Big Three truly well without doing the other two well too. If your Characters work, chances are your Theme and Plot do as well.

      Still, a conscious approach the integration of all three is something that allows authors to troubleshoot much more effectively.

  17. Nadia Syeda says

    I have a question. How do you KNOW when you’ve hit that sweet spot between plot, character, and theme? The problem with making sure the inner conflict mirrors the external conflict is well, the inner conflict is…inner. plot is obvious, but theme is hidden. How do you check if they’re properly aligned?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s no easy formula for this since every story is different. However, insofar as the internal conflict really is internal (i.e., not brought out to readers through explicit internal narrative), then it is subtext, which can be surmised from the character’s actions and dialogue. For more on subtext, see this post: The Only 5 Ingredients You Need for Story Subtext.

  18. Ms. Albina says

    I am writing the ending or kind of an ending. It stars with my characters great great great granddaughter getting married to dancing, a speech or toast then the evil sea deity comes. Then there is a fight and then something bad happens. I have a question for you if the great great great granddaughter goes back in time how would i show that. Great articles. One more question do like stories that have timelines in them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      How you show time travel will depend on how it works in your story. You’ll have to describe the mechanics of it.

      If by “timelines” you mean stories that include a graph of the timeline, they can be useful if they clarify things.

Trackbacks

  1. […] plots, Brian Schmidt discusses character narrative as a plot device, and K. M. Weiland spells out how to make our plot a powerful thematic metaphor. Also, Janice Hardy sums up the perils of not knowing what happens next in your story and insists […]

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