PSA: this isn’t a prescriptive, “This is how you must do it” piece. I’ve just learned some things about myself as a reader and writer over the years that led to some guiding principles for honing my own craft. Certain stories and audiences may call for something totally different, but these principles are mostly style-agnostic, so I hope they still give food for thought no matter what flavor of fantasy someone prefers.
With that caveat out of the way, here we go.
“Be careful with your metaphors! Anything is possible, so don’t give readers the wrong idea!”
Every fantasy writer has heard this warning. And it’s true. I’ve also learned this proverb is less trite and obvious than it seems. It’s more than just carefully wording one-off turns of phrase to avoid, say, accidentally making the reader picture an army of Ents when it’s just plain old trees ripping at the fleeing character’s hair and clothes.
A controlled use of metaphor throughout a novel, but especially during the final sequences, is a subtle but effective way to give a polished gleam to a reader’s memory of that story. But in clumsier hands, it can also tarnish that memory.
Worst Case Scenario: Misused Metaphors Rob Endings of Impact
Picture this: the climactic scene is finally here. The stakes are the highest they’ve ever been. The magic has never held more potential than it has in this moment, and it’s all because the main character has had that essential epiphany, found the last piece they needed for things to click into place. They finally comprehend the means of their escape (or the magnitude of their doom). The protagonist and I are eager (or terrified) to see what the fantastical elements in this story can really do.
The end is where the author’s prose is likely to use the strongest, most superlative words available to illustrate that everything is turned up to 11. And yet, amid all of the fireworks and the high emotions, I hate to admit this, but I’m confused.
See, something in the way the author describes the magic, or how the giant monster is crashing around the set piece, or how the hero resists or succumbs to the villain’s final stratagem has me a little lost. In an effort to show how intensely ultimate all of this is, the similes, metaphors, and other rhetorical tools are flying as fast and loose as the fireballs. And no matter how invested I am in the outcome, at some point some gizmo or another smacks me in the eye and I can’t help pulling myself out of the story to go:
“Am I picturing this right? Did that actually happen or did it only feel like that happened?”
In the final act of an amazing fantasy novel, we rarely want to have to choose between the two!
Fantasy is, in many ways, the literalization of a metaphor. Even in stories that center unreliable narrators and conflicting realities, readers only want to be unsure of what’s happening on a macro, plot level – never on a micro, sentence level. It also helps bring everything home emotionally for the reader when figurative language clarifies rather than obscures the reality and meaning behind these climactic moments.
Maybe the writer, in all their excitement, got carried away with the language at the end, or minor inconsistent portrayals of the fantastical elements here and there have snowballed The Big Metaphor into something beyond the writer’s ability to describe with precision. Now a chunk of the emotional resonance is lost. Instead of being 100% present in the moment, I’m hung up on an aesthetic or logical dissonance.
I’m not going to share any negative examples since that’s not my style, but I suspect we’ve all had that moment in a book where we realize there is a wrong way to be lost in the magic.
Reach for those intense emotions and dazzling imagery your magic surely invites, but try not to describe what’s happening in such a way that baffles the reader into wondering if things suddenly work differently than they were led to believe all this time. Even the most esoteric forms of mysticism have a logical progression of cause and effect.
The Big Metaphor
So what is the Big Metaphor? Essentially, it’s what the fantasy elements are coming together to say about the story and its themes. Big Metaphors can be taken to various lengths and depths depending on your aims, and you don’t have to commit to a full-on allegory if you don’t want to. But even the butteriest popcorn fantasies have a Big Metaphor. Power is corruption, love is healing, friendship is magic, rage is fuel – these basic metaphors are the lifeblood pumping through any fantasy story. But many stories drill down to something more particular and abstract: using other people for power is potent but toxic, digging into your past may reveal things you wish had stayed buried. In the first published book my coauthor and I wrote, we spent a lot of time on the idea that grief is an ocean you can drown in. (Okay, so my tastes run dark…)
Does this sound more like I’m talking about themes than metaphors? That’s because a metaphor naturally encourages the reader to stop for the microsecond it takes for the lightbulb to kick on and “get it”. Good, intentional writing often takes advantage of that minor pause to also support the theme of the story – subtly. Great writing also knows how to create that illusion of “discovering” the themes rather than shoving it into a reader’s face, because stiff didacticism annoys everyone.
But a really focused Big Metaphor does more than give literature analysis nerds something to chew on. It can actually help determine the function, flavor, even the color palette of your fantasy elements too. It helps you figure what kind of character personalities to bring in, and it shapes plot points and their outcomes. Each member of your cast is a chance to explore variations on that metaphor, or a different one entirely. It provides guideposts that point to the words you should use to describe these things, and also show you how those descriptions can be intensified as the plot escalates.
For a very simple example, magic visualized as a force that behaves similarly to water might begin on page one as a weak trickle inside the protagonist, something they must spend the entire book digging deep within themselves to broaden their potential. Or perhaps it appeared on page one as a flash flood that swept away everything they know, and they have to spend the rest of the book rebuilding their interior and exterior life to stop it from ever happening again.
To be clear, this doesn’t have to be literal water magic we’re talking about, but the comparisons you draw when describing it train the reader to expect how it’s going to behave. Magic that has been gradually escalated from streaming to flowing to rushing suddenly taking on a different set of characteristics – let’s say fiery-type words like burning and searing to use an obvious extreme – is going to be jarring. And if sometimes it crushes and sometimes it burns and sometimes it stabs, then you’re going to have to do a lot more work to keep a reader’s mind’s eye from getting clouded.
Returning to that concept of escalating verbiage, most classes and books on the craft will encourage you to avoid “weak” nouns and verbs whenever you can, and that’s certainly true. But when you reserve your absolute, most superlative “strong” words for the end, that signals to the reader that things are as serious as they’re going to get (in this volume, if it’s a series). Thinking this way can also help head off potential power creep problems at the pass, since pacing your language also means pacing your challenges so that they’re progressively more…well, challenging. If magic runs through like a hurricane at the halfway point then as a reader I’m going to hope you’ve got big plans for the end. Compare it to a hurricane again later and it’s not going to feel like much of a progression. Unless of course, your protagonist met the first hurricane like a grass hut and is ready to test the seawall inside them now.
Extended metaphors can certainly overstay their welcome, but when you need a unifying theme for what you’re trying to convey, they’re a good friend to have around. They help you create a cohesive story with logically escalating stakes and a rewarding emotional throughline.
A Deeper Understanding
Metaphors are an easy and fun thing to point to as proof of a writer’s wit and creativity, but the metaphors I highlight on my Kindle the most are the ones that deepen my understanding of what’s happening. Oftentimes, describing a thing literally, exactly as it appears, reveals less than a metaphorical description would.
I talked about the Big Metaphor before, but on a smaller level, having a few guiding metaphors for each of your characters makes it easier for readers to create associations and get a strong impression of them every time they appear on the page. The way they present themselves, the kind of “aura” they have, how they make other people feel when they’re looking at them, and so on. It helps the characters compare and contrast with one another.
Consider this quote from The Lady of the House of Love, my absolute favorite short story by Angela Carter, which is an account of the fateful meeting between a vampire and a soldier:
“She herself is a haunted house. She does not possess herself; her ancestors sometimes come and peer out of the windows of her eyes and that is very frightening.”
A bit more revelatory than a police sketch description, I think! With these two sentences, you’re able to see that the vampire is a young woman with a terrifying heritage, one that has overwhelmed whatever other aspirations she may have had for her unlife. Her self-possession is a facade that begins crumbling away as soon as she sees the soldier for the first time, and the big question is what will be left once it’s gone. Will it be the fascination and love she never thought she could feel until that night, or the bloodthirsty ancestry that has compelled her every action thus far?
Now, this can be annoying if you go too far in one direction with it or are too repetitive. To play with fire for a moment, Fantasyland is full of short-tempered redheads slinging fire magic around, and readers will roll their eyes when the hero’s eyes are described as “smoldering embers” for the tenth time.
One way to avoid this is to not travel well-trod paths of comparison at all, but you can also come at them from a different angle and help people see established truths with new eyes. Fire can be characterized as an out-of-control, destructive force; however, depending on your goals with the story, fire can also be a symbol of intense focus, or a comforting feeling of home. Maybe the fire wizard’s blonde hair reminds the viewer of the pale glow of a votive candle, indicating a softly bright personality, but with a solemn and introspective bend as well. As for how this perception informs the viewer’s reaction when this wizard starts talking? Well, that may depend on how they feel when they walk into a place of worship or ritual, somewhere that tends to be lousy with votive candles.
Whether it’s describing people or places or magical phenomena, metaphors are an opportunity to reveal something about the observed and the observer.
Image from https://davidbaptistechirot.blogspot.com/2018/03/broken-vending-machine-meme.html
Those memes that make people go, “Wow, big mood”? That’s a goal for prose metaphors too.
In addition to deepening the reader’s understanding of what’s happening, metaphors can help forge a sympathetic bond between the fantasy elements and the reader’s own life experiences. On the surface, it’s the opposite approach from the one in the previous section, but I love reading a turn of phrase that, from the perspective of the story, is matter-of-factly describing what is happening, but it strikes a chord with me because I’ve been there. In a story where the magic is designed to have a strong metaphorical element, this is a real treat.
In Lord of Secrets by Breanna Teintze, for example, magic is literally toxic for the caster, but this society has figured out how to shunt that toxicity off onto certain kinds of people so they can make use of more power than they would be able to otherwise. Now you’ve got the main character, who can be…well, difficult to be around, and thinks that means he doesn’t get to have meaningful connections with people, especially not the secondary character. Throw those ideas together, a magical mechanic and a character flaw, and this exchange towards the end becomes a real one-two punch:
“‘Let go of me,’ I said. ‘I didn’t ask you to take on any of my toxicity. I’m not Keir Esras, experimenting with magic I don’t want to feel.’
‘You’ve got to let me tell you that I’m sorry,’ she said, fiercely.”
It made me think of those times when my own toxic traits were rearing up, and someone I really cared about was trying to team up with me in a fight to become better – a fight I wasn’t sure I had the means or the will to win at the time.
Metaphors with this kind of dual meaning in the beginning of a book can help me connect with a character no matter how different our lives are, when I read a metaphor that makes me feel that way at the end of the book? When that character is forced to come to terms with themselves at last? That’s a book that feels like recovering a piece of my soul, or having a long-felt anxiety finally be acknowledged by something outside my own head. That’s a book I’ll beg people to read.
That’s a lot of theory I just threw at you with only a smattering of concrete examples to illustrate. It’s not that expertise in this field is so rare, but rather, the authors that came to mind did so because from the first page all the way to the end, they used a series of interconnected metaphors to build momentum to a memorable, emotionally resonant ending. Pulling the examples I did felt like showing you one curve in an intricate pattern. It’s pretty, sure, but the magic is in how it all contributes toward one goal.
In the spirit of Self-Published Fantasy Month, some self-published and small press authors that I think are really winning at this game are Beverly Lee, Sarah Chorn, S. T. Gibson, and S. H. Cooper. Most of those names walk on the dark fantasy and horror side of fiction, but I bet if you think about just about any ending in any genre that really resonated with you, you can flip through and see how the author’s use of figurative language adds depth to their characters, foreshadows the events to come, and makes the magic mean something beyond the spectacle.
And if you’re exclusively a reader but still stuck it out through this whole essay on writing craft – bless you! – I hope this gave you a new way to articulate why that one book you can’t get out of your head after all this time is sticking around in there. I’d love to hear about it.
Thank you to Justine for giving me the chance to talk about a topic I’m passionate about, and for all that you do to support the self-publishing community. And thank you to Matt (The “M” portion of A. K. M. Beach) for playing lots of Rimworld and Pathfinder: Kingmaker so I could scowl and sigh and hit backspace for way too many hours while I put this together.
A.K.M. Beach is a husband and wife duo living in upstate New York. In 2006, two undead priests came together to guard a tattered flag in Warsong Gulch, beginning a partnership that soon transcended universes. It was only a matter of time before they set out to create a universe of their own.
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About Lady Vago’s Malediction (The Banshee’s Curse Duology #1)
In the blackened heart of a cursed forest, a banshee haunts her crumbling castle with lethal screams.
Lady Vago is trapped in this place. She cannot fulfill her purpose as a banshee: to warn her loved ones of their deaths and watch over them while they pass. To solve the mystery of her imprisonment, she must sift through the rubble and ruin that surrounds her. By communing with old paintings, broken furniture, and even the stones themselves, she rediscovers who she was in life.
Before she was Lady Vago, she was Rovena Stoddard, a sharp-witted horse merchant’s daughter that caught the eye of a charming baron. Lord Kalsten Vago’s life as a wandering knight was over, but it inspired visions of a better life for his most vulnerable subjects. Rovena was far less afraid of bold change than his staunch and loyal steward, who saw her presence as a threat to Lord Kalsten’s success. Love and shared dreams alone wouldn’t overcome the controversy of the couple’s hasty and unequal union, as well as the trials of governing a fledgling barony—Rovena knew that. What she failed to recognize was the deeper darkness taking root in Vago lands and hearts…
Every memory of what Rovena loved is a reminder of what she lost, but she cannot let grief halt her search. Devoted spectres of ash are begging their lady for an end to their torment, and she will not let their agony–or her own–go unanswered anymore.
An intensely atmospheric and emotional story of corrupt magic and lost love, Lady Vago’s Malediction is a dark fantasy with gothic flair.
“Poignant, shocking and horrifying…Part love story and part gothic horror, the novel explores what happens when traditions are challenged, and the bloody consequences of a woman’s fight to build a fairer society. Despite its relatively short length, this is a rich story full of atmosphere and solid characterisation. Reminiscent of the works of such writers as Angela Carter, Frances Hardinge and Shirley Jackson, this is a rewarding novel.” – Jonathan Oliver, British Fantasy Award-winning editor and author of The Language of Beasts