Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Beneath the Surface

Something magical happens each time we open a book and begin to read, doesn't it?

Words on the page melt away, and we find ourselves pulled beneath the surface, swimming into a rich new world of colors and emotions--the vibrant, imaginative world of a story.

This illusion occurs each time we open a book because of the magical nature of language itself.

Language is something that we hear and speak every day. Yet the same words that we use in our daily lives, once transferred to the page, help us to see in a way that we might never have seen before.

How do writers take us beneath the surface of the page into the spellbinding world of the imagination?

Most often, they draw words and images together in a way that creates a new and sparkling vision in the reader's mind. In other words, they rely on metaphors and similes.

What are metaphors and similes, and how do they work?

Here are definitions that you'll find in Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language (College Edition):
Metaphor - a figure of speech in which one thing is likened to another, different thing by being spoken of as if it were that other; implied comparison, in which a word of phrase ordinarily and primarily used of one thing is applied to another (e.g., screaming headlines, "all the world's a stage); distinguised from simile.
Simile - a figure of speech in which one thing is likened to another, dissimilar thing by the use of like, as, etc. (e.g., a heart as big as a whale, her tears flowed like wine); distinguised from metaphor in that the comparison is made explicit.
These definitions may help us understand how metaphors and similes work. But to better understand why they work, it may help to look at some examples from an author who has a gift for crafting the perfect simile and finding just the right metaphor.

If you haven't found Carolyn Marsden's books yet, you have a treat waiting for you. Each of her books, written with the careful precision of a fine jeweler carving a precious stone, is a small gem.

Whether you read The Gold Threaded Dress, Silk Umbrellas, or Moon Runner, or her newest book, The Quail Club, you'll find an abundance of well-crafted metaphors and similes meant to surprise and lure readers beneath the surface, into the hearts of her characters.

Here are a few examples from The Quail Club, a novel about Oy, a young girl from Thailand, who is trying her best to be true to herself and her family's traditions while hoping her girlfriends--especially Liliandra, their leader--will accept her into their club.

Early on Marsden introduces us to the main conflict, showing Oy's response to Liliandra's expectation that Oy join her in performing an American dance for the school's talent show:
Lilandra made up the dance as she went along, singing the tune to "You Got Me Down and It Ain't No Use" very loudly and with no melody. Imitating her, Oy twirled her wrists, turned around, and dropped quickly into deep lunges. At the very end, they both lifted their arms high and swiveled their hips in unison.
Oy wasn't used to so much bouncing and turning. Liliandra's dance made her feel like a bottle of bubbly soda when the top is unscrewed.
How does Marsden take the reader beneath the surface here and into the heart of her character? Look at the last sentence of the passage. "Liliandra's dance made her feel like a bottle of bubbly soda when the top is unscrewed."

What happens in your mind's eye as you read that sentence? Suddenly you're lifted outside the world of dance and given a contrary image--one far removed from the dancing itself--to convey a feeling, and that feeling is made all the stronger because of the unexpected image that Marsden uses to move you deeper into Oy's emotional state.

Here's another example: Oy has invited Liliandra to her house in order to practice the American dance that Oy is still unsure about performing:
As Oy danced, she saw Kun Mere's face at the window. She didn't look happy. Would Kun Mere come out and take her by the hand, too? Then Liliandra wouldn't be happy. Oy's stomach quivered again.
Still debating within herself whether to tell Liliandra that she'd prefer not to dance with her, but afraid saying no will cost her membership in the club, Oy dances with Liliandra anyway. But she is faced with a dilemma. How can she make everyone happy, yet remain true to what she wants?

Look at the last sentence of the passage above: "Oy's stomach quivered again." By using the word "quiver," Marsden has shot an arrow into the reader's heart, enabling us to feel the same way Oy feels. Like jello. Unsteady, uncertain, wobbly.

Another example. This passage occurs shortly after Oy has stood up to Liliandra and told her that she would prefer to dance her Thai dance instead of Liliandra's American dance:
Below her, under the ramada, she saw Liliandra sitting on the ground with her knees pulled up, her forehead pressed against them. She didn't move, even though Frankie and his soccer team ran close to her. She looked different from the girl who'd danced so crazy, snapping her fingers. All Liliandra's energy--spicy hot like Kun Mere's chilies--had disappeared.
Look again at the last sentence in the passage: "All Liliandra's energy--spicy hot like Kun Mere's chilies--had disappeared."

What if Marsden had omitted the phrase--"spicy hot like Kun Mere's chilies"--and simply let the sentence read: "All Liliandra's energy had disappeared." How does the simile help you better understand Liliandra... and, more importantly, Oy's perspective of her?

Sometimes a metaphor or simile works because it succeeds in drawing the reader deeper into a character's emotional state. And sometimes it succeeds because it lets the reader see (and feel) more deeply into the way the character perceives the world, such as in this example:
She pretended she was about to dance at Songkran, the white petal of the spotlight following her.
A spotlight like a white petal following her. By bringing together two unique images--flowers and a spot light--Marsden has given us a fresh, new way to see the spotlight. More importantly, she lets us feel the way that Oy perceives that spotlight.

As for deepening our understanding of a character's emotional world, here's how Marsden lets us know of Oy's happiness after Liliandra agrees to dance the Thai dance with her:
"Oh, good," Oy said happily. She'd done it. Liliandra had said yes. Oy could taste the sweetness of each fruit she'd named. The sunlight on her desk was as yellow as the gold of Thai jewelry.
Marsden uses the word "happily" to describe Oy's feeling. But then she deepens our understanding of the emotion by adding, first, the sensation of tasting sweet fruit, then this: "The sunlight on her desk was as yellow as the gold of Thai jewelery."

By the end of the passage, Marsden has polished the language so it gleams. It's as if we can see the glow of happiness emanating from Oy, as if she herself had become the bright gold of Thai jewelery, her Thai identity as valuable as a precious jewel.

Here's how Marsden brings her story to a close:
The music for the Quail Dance started, filling the auditorium with a cascade of xylophone notes.
Oy stepped out, moving gracefully into the overlapping pools of pink light. When the clui flute joined the xylophone, she lifted her arms and let them float down, a bird flying in slow motion.
It's the perfect metaphor, given Oy's longing through the book to become a member of the Quail Club. At last, Oy can dance her own Thai dance, renaming it after the quail that have become such an important part of her life.

By the end of the story, Oy has managed to resolve the questions about her identity. And so it's appropriate, as well as enormously gratifying, for the culmination of her efforts to end in the image of flight... and for her to actually feel like a bird as she dances.

As with any successful metaphor, language helps us feel that sensation of flight... as if we ourselves have joined Oy in lifting her arms and becoming birds, too.

You can find many more examples of such metaphors and similes in Marsden's work. But these are sufficient, I think, to help us better understand how a writer might use language to probe beneath the surface, deepening a reader's understanding of a character or a situation.

For more information about Carolyn Marsden and her work, visit her website:

And for more on metaphors and similes, check out these resources:

An interview with Annie Proulx in the Missouri Review, which includes some thoughts on using metaphor in her fiction:

Robert Fulford, a Canadian author, on metaphors:

"Using Metaphors" from

Cinematic Storytelling: Dynamic Metaphors by Jennifer van Sijll:

For a more academic treatment of metaphors, there's this link to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's "Metaphors We Live By":

PS - Comments posted to "Beneath the Surface" won't appear until September 26th. Look for Wordswimmer's next column on October 1st.

1 comment:

jo'r said...

I was glad to read the discussion on metaphors and similes. Often enough I launch into one or the other without fully analyzing which it is, and which might be more effective. It was helpful to see that dictionary comparison, and you chose some beautiful examples with Oy to illustrate uses.

Maybe the most powerful use of a metaphor I can recall was Kafka’s Gregor Samsa waking up to find he’s a cockroach. It wasn’t obvious that it was just a metaphor, as he lives the metaphor for the entire story. Mostly I’ve used metaphors by chance, as they occurred during writing. A more directed way might be as suggested by John Gardiner in his “Art of Fiction.” During revision reread your story repeatedly for subtle meanings, connections, accidental repetitions, and psychological significance. Then, punch up those implications by slipping the image into a metaphor that helps to fix or clarify the meaning you’ve found in it. Just don’t do it so ferociously that you distract the reader from the larger, fictional dream. But not so timidly that “no one—not even the angels aflutter in the rafters, can hear the resonance.”