How can we use metaphors to elevate our stories?
Let us first remind ourselves that traditionally metaphors draw comparisons between two unrelated things, suggesting that they are alike in some way. Metaphors are efficient ways of communicating complex ideas and emotions through powerful imagery. ‘He’s a damp squib,’ is one such metaphor. Here the connotation of being a disappointment, failing to live up to expectations, rather than being an actual damp firecracker, is the meaning we’re after. Metaphors like symbols make objects, actions and events luminous—they make them glow, as it were, with significance that reaches beyond the denotative boundaries of the original. But unlike a symbol which stands alone, as it were, a metaphor is paired with the item it is juxtaposed against.
Here’s how metaphors function in the film Inception. Perhaps the most striking is the concept of inception itself—such as planting an idea in someone’s mind, but in the film, it is elevated to a literal and bizarre level. This idea of planting a seed that grows and takes root mirrors how metaphors can be subtly introduced and then bloom in your story. Just as Cobb and his team design intricate dream worlds, writers craft metaphors that transport readers to alternative realities where themes and emotions come alive.
“Metaphors are a figures of speech in which the thing described makes a direct comparison to something else.”
Mal, Cobb’s haunting psychological projection, is not only an indication of his state of mind, she is also a metaphor for his guilt and unresolved past. Mal, is a specter from his suppressed memories, much like how our inner demons and unresolved issues can manifest to haunt us in real life.
Layered dreams are in themselves metaphors highlighting the complexity of the human mind. They expose how thoughts and emotions can interweave—much like metaphors provide layered meaning in a story, enriching the narrative.
The dizzying rooftop chase, for example, is not just action, it is metaphorical drama. The heights are visual metaphors for the challenges and obstacles we face in our lives, and the chase represents the pursuit to solve our inner conflicts.
Let’s end with the iconic spinning top. Yes, the top is a tool used in the story to indicate to Cob whether he is still dreaming: If the top continues to spin, he is still dreaming, but if the top obeyed the laws of physics and tips over, he is awake. But the top is also a metaphor for reality’s uncertainty, an idea that lingers in our minds long after the film ends, much like a well-crafted metaphor lingers in our readers and audiences’ thoughts.
Inception, then, serves as a brilliant example of how metaphors can be seamlessly woven into a story’s fabric; how they allow the writer to challenge perceptions, generate insights between seemingly unrelated things, and create fresh, ineffable and lasting impressions behind the literal meaning of the plot.
A metaphor makes a comparison between two unrelated things, suggesting that they are alike in some way.