Thinking in Metaphors

One of the things you learn writing fiction is to think in metaphors.


Yeah, he's Jake. But what does he represent?

The first draft of any novel or screenplay usually spills forth in blissful cluelessness. You tell yourself, I’m writing a detective story, or a Western, or some crazy genre that I don’t even know the name of. Then comes Draft #2 and you have to ask yourself, “What the hell is this thing about?”

That’s when metaphor comes in.

It took me a long time to learn this, and a lot of people had to hammer me and my work pretty hard. Words like “shallow,” “slick” and ‘Yiddish theater” come to mind (the latter criticism I took as a compliment.)

What makes Chinatown more than a detective story? What takes Shane beyond being just a Western?

The answer is metaphor.

In a shallow genre piece, the characters represent nothing beyond themselves. A car chase is a car chase, a courtroom scene is a courtroom scene. Much of what we see on TV is like that.

But all that changes when Robert Towne asks himself, “What does Jake Gittes represent? What is water (the L.A. River, Hollenbeck bridge, the lake where Hollis Mulwray takes his “girlfriend” boating) a metaphor for?

When the writer answers those questions—and revises his post-first-draft story accordingly—his material gains depth and power and universality. It stops being superficial and easy.

Who is Shane, beyond being a gunfighter who wanders into the middle of a range war? What does he stand for?

Alan Ladd as Shane, the Man With A Past, who wants to leave his past behind

The writer thinks in metaphors. Shane, he realizes, represents a Man With A Past who is trying to free himself from that past. In this case, he’s a gunman who has made the decision to hang up his guns. But he could be anybody. We in the audience understand that, even if we can’t articulate it. We have pasts too. We’ve made mistakes. We’re rooting for Shane.

When the climax of Act Three arrives and Alan Ladd straps on his six-shooter to face the villain Jack Palance, we know we are not watching another two-bit horse opera. We are witnessing tragedy.

The writer asks the hard question: What exactly is Shane’s dilemma?

When he finds the metaphor, the theme leaps into high relief and the drama achieves universality. Shane guns down Jack Palance and saves the sodbusters, but by so doing he expresses and acknowledges his own failure (and perhaps the emotional impossibility for all of us) to transcend his past.


A man’s gotta be what he is, Joey. He can’t break the mold. I tried, it didn’t work for me.

When author Jack Schaefer and screenwriter A.B. Guthrie, Jr. made their protagonist Shane confront a profound universal dilemma, they elevated the genre and created a drama that stands only a fraction below the great tragedies of the ancient Athenian stage. It’s still in my book the best Western ever made (with The Wild Bunch and High Noon close behind, for the same reasons.)

Thinking in metaphors applies to our real lives as well.

In psychotherapy we think in metaphors.

We think in metaphors in introspection and in the interpretation of dreams.

We think in metaphors in relationships.

Sometimes when we fall in love with someone, we fall in love with them as a metaphor. In our minds (almost always unconsciously), our lover is not just herself or himself. He or she represents something deeper. We’re falling in love with that as well as with the person alone.

If we were writers story-analyzing our own lives, we would ask ourselves, “What is this lover a metaphor for? What does this relationship represent to each participant?”

Of course we don’t do that. Not till the divorce or the post-mortems.

When we seek our own authenticity as artists or entrepreneurs, we may find metaphors repeating themselves in our lives. Like recurrent dreams, themes come back again and again.

Here’s one of mine. In Killing Rommel, I was drawn to, even compelled by, the romance and drama of a true historical military unit in the British army called the Long Range Desert Group. I loved the idea of a secret, highly mobile, lightly-armed “rat patrol” venturing hundreds of miles behind enemy lines across trackless wastes. Now, in a new book I’m working on, that same type of guerrilla activity is popping up again—and I’m just as fascinated by it as I was the first time.

What’s the metaphor?

I’m not sure. The desert clearly represents something to me. The idea of venturing deep into it has tremendous appeal, as well as evoking fear. My friend Matt is a trans-ocean sailor. What does the sea stand for to him? What is the wind? What is a sail, a mast, a keel? What does the voyage mean, and the harbor?

The cast of "The Godfather." Every character and every element represent something beyond themselves.

The first draft of anything we write (or paint or compose or film) is often like a dream. It’s loaded with unconscious metaphors. Why in the opening scene of The Godfather is Michael Corleone a Marine officer? What does heroin represent, when Sollozzo tries to get Vito Corleone to give it his blessing? What does the family represent? Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola made all these elements work in the final product, but I will bet the ranch that they came to the writers first out of nowhere. Only later, in the rewrites, did the writers decode these components and re-jigger them into a coherent, theme-driven whole.

Our lives unfold in the moment as mysteries to us, as do our dreams and the works of art or would-be art that bubble up from depths we can’t access with our conscious minds. Why this movie and not that? Why that spouse and not this?

Metaphor and symbol are our only tools.

I’m constantly trying to understand my life. I pretend to myself that I control it, but at best I’m always a step behind. I’m trying to teach myself to think in metaphors.


Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"



  1. Nicholas Tozier on February 22, 2012 at 6:12 am

    Mm. Jorge Luis Borges writes (very) short stories based entirely around metaphors. “The Lottery of Babylon” is about a secretive lottery that pays out fortunes and tortures to citizens who don’t know they’re even playing.

    “The Library of Babel” is about an enormous library. It contains every possible book that can fit into 410 pages… 40 lines per page, 80 characters per line. Every possible combination of characters is represented.

    The library’s occupants are tortured by the knowledge that every possible book is out there on some shelf: the autobiography of the archangel Gabriel, a complete explanation of the universe, many many fakes of both—even a complete and true account of your life, death, and legacy.

    So adventurers scour the library for these precious books, but mathematically speaking, every possible combination of characters means that few people will ever see a book that isn’t just filled with fjfiendnfbdhe isms kendoem. Domed gibberish.

    Borges is the master of metaphor. Everything is a cipher for something hidden.

  2. P.Karina on February 22, 2012 at 7:58 am

    Metaphors add another dimension to stories that make them infinitely more interesting. That’s why rereading the same book can reveal new revelations that I hadn’t realized the first time around. These revelations make for a new experience, renewed admiration to the piece and even inspire your work later on.

    But I think over-thinking about having “metaphors” or keeping the early drafts as the final product, could make a story too arbitrary.

  3. Jason Keough on February 22, 2012 at 8:40 am

    Very interesting. I just watched the movie “The Grey” last night. I loved it. It’s riddled with metaphors and had me thinking all night.

  4. Basilis on February 22, 2012 at 9:03 am

    Great article once again.
    Some things seem obvious when we read them
    but only then, (when we see them expressed in words for the first time), we really can say that we realize them.

  5. S. J. Crown on February 22, 2012 at 10:27 am

    In my opinion, use of metaphor is why the book version of The Legend of Bagger Vance resonates so much better than the movie. For more on this, check out the October 9, 2011 entry on my website. I substitute the words universal theme for metaphor, but I hope you still get the idea.

  6. Jason Keough on February 22, 2012 at 10:31 am

    BTW Steven, what was implied by the “Yiddish theater” comment on your work? I’ve never heard it used as an adjective before.

  7. julie on February 22, 2012 at 11:12 am

    When I’m puzzling out a problem or situation, if I can connect it to something else I understand, it really helps.

    I especially enjoyed your parting insight: “I’m constantly trying to understand my life. I pretend to myself that I control it, but at best I’m always a step behind. I’m trying to teach myself to think in metaphors.”


  8. Jim on February 22, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    I find it interesting that your experiences in life often shape the meaning and depth of metaphors.

  9. Laura on February 22, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    Thanks Steven. You just got me thinking about my life as metaphor as opposed to my life as a bad novel…er…wait a minute…

  10. Rebecca Lang on February 22, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    It was funny, but in high school, I was resentful of metaphors. Like all of the literary devices we were told to be on the look for, it seemed like somethhing we had to dig up, analyze, and ascribe meaning to, ruining a perfectly good read in the process. As I got older, I began to see the value of metaphors, as well as other literary devices.
    I never try to write my characters as metaphors. I want them to be living, breathing humans, not symbols of something. As I write, themes do occur and the characters morph into something beyond. The tricky thing is that I’m not always sure what they stand for. I think that’s the power of metaphor. If we could explain it so easily, we wouldn’t need these characters to act as symbols.

  11. Chad Darwin on February 22, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    Thanks for another great post…I haven’t thought about my life in metaphors in quite some time…my favorite part in your post is:

    When we seek our own authenticity as artists or entrepreneurs, we may find metaphors repeating themselves in our lives. Like recurrent dreams, themes come back again and again.

  12. Diane on February 22, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    I was wondering about “Yiddish theater” too.

    Metaphor had our family discussing the Iranian movie “A Separation” as well. Always a treat when books, films, etc. work on several levels (another shout-out here for Borges).

  13. Joel D Canfield on February 22, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    I wonder why I do this automatically with my songs, but apparently didn’t get the memo in re: my fiction?

    Pardon me while I go rewrite every word of fiction I’ve ever composed . . .

  14. skip on February 23, 2012 at 4:15 am

    steve–>questions from the audience! 1) do you begin to write knowing that draft 1 is not a metphor and that in draft 2 you must move in that direction, making it so?… 2) with this pre-knowledge for the experienced writer, do you find yourself thinking metaphorically ahead in draft 1, knowing the metaphor process lies ahead of you?…3) do you stop writing any draft 1 when you begin to think that there might be a problem creating efficacious metaphors in that potential draft 2 ? …….thnx….on a lighter note, just got back from a visit to savannah! first time there…was worth the trip!…………sr

  15. Adam Blinov on February 23, 2012 at 11:16 am

    This is (for me) a well timed post…as I sit back after a week of grappling with a new song and think…waitaminute…what the hell is this thing about anyways. Which has been holding me back all week. Just throwing stuff at the first draft to see if it will stick without much direction…what the hell IS is it about. Thanks.

  16. Heather Marsten on February 23, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    Good post on metaphor, I don’t think it can be forced though? Sometimes it emerges as the story is written. In the first few chapters of my memoir, the words boys’ games came out – and a friend pointed out to me that that term fit the rest of my story. I hadn’t seen it, but she was right.

    Have a blessed day.

  17. Linda Adams on February 24, 2012 at 3:04 am

    I’d heard more than a few times to keep the metaphors rare — advice given I guess because some writers try too hard to come up with them and end up coming up with horrible ones. But When I was read Daniel Pink’s book on right brain, he mentioned doing an exercise: write down all the metaphors we run across. I did it for a week, just on the oped column of the newspaper. I was shocked to see how often they are used. It wasn’t just things like what we would commonly associate with metaphors, but it also went into simple word choice. It was a very eye-opening experience.

  18. Brenna Gee on February 27, 2012 at 9:53 am

    I have been thinking and living metaphorically lately. I’m in a sculpting and carving phase of my life. My path is Michelangelo’s block of marble -where he removed material to free the angel of David. I keep removing distractions in order to set the art that is me, free. Creating space instead of adding material. My way of going pro.

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