The Secret Language of Great Stories
By James Bonnet
Visual metaphors are the secret language of great stories. In this article, I will discuss what they are and the source of their power.
Great stories and dreams are among the more important visual metaphors. They are symbolic languages. And their expression in great stories is intimately linked to the source of our creativity.
When we work with creative processes, the creative decisions we make are governed by positive and negative intuitive feelings. That's how we know what works - by how we feel about our ideas. Well, what's behind those feelings? Where do those feelings come from? I call the source of those feelings the Creative Unconscious. I also call it the hidden truth or the self. You can call it anything you like. Some people call it the muse, others call it the soul or the psyche. Or God.
Whatever it is, or whatever you call it, doesn't matter; it is the source of all of the higher intelligence and hidden wisdom we possess. Great stories bring this creative unconscious wisdom to consciousness. The information contained in great stories is all about this hidden wisdom and how we can use it to achieve higher states of being and awareness. And that's where they get their power - from this inner creative resource.
The key to that is an understanding of metaphor, the secret language that expresses this unconscious hidden wisdom.
In the movie Star Man, forgotten by most, but worth viewing for just one reason, you can see an excellent metaphor for this process. At the beginning of the film a bright ball of alien energy reaches the Earth from outer space, enters a house and, using a photograph from a family album, transforms itself into the dead husband of the lonely widow who lives in the house. This is a perfect metaphor for what I'm describing. The widow, like our conscious selves, could not relate to the alien in its energy form so the alien, like the unconscious energy, translates itself into a form the widow can relate to and deal with - i.e. an image of her dead husband. The creative unconscious does exactly this when it uses the imagination to translate its energy into a fictional visual form made up of everyday things we can consciously relate to and interpret.
Metaphor literally means to "carry over," to substitute one thing for another. To describe one thing by means of another. To describe something that is unknown by the use of things that are known. In this case, to use every day, visible, real things that have been taken apart and artistically rearranged to describe (or express or represent) these invisible, unconscious energies. Visual metaphors are real things that have been taken apart and artistically rearranged to represent these hidden truths.
For example: a certain Chinese dragon which represents some of these unconscious creative energies is made up of bits and pieces from a variety of other real animals. It has the head of a camel, the horns of a deer, the eyes of a rabbit, the teeth of a lion, the ears of a cow, the neck of a snake, the belly of a frog, the scales of a carp, the claws of a hawk, and the padded palms of a tiger.
The same is true of Superman, the time machine in Back to the Future, and the Hindu god, Shiva. They are all made up of bits and pieces of a variety of other real things that have been taken apart and artistically treated.
Superman wears a blue leotard and tights, a red cape, swim trunks and boots - all common everyday things put together in an unusual, rarely seen color combination.
And that gives them their other worldly character. He has X-ray vision. X-rays and vision are two real things that are combined here artistically to create a super human power. He can fly faster than a speeding bullet, leap over tall buildings in a single bound, and he has superhuman strength. Flying, leaping, and strength are all common everyday things which in this case have been greatly exaggerated - exaggeration being one of the important artistic treatments that help to reveal the hidden truth.
The Hindu god, Shiva, wears a crown of skulls and is associated with the linga (phallus) and fire. All everyday things. The real things that create these metaphors already have meanings attached to them which are the result of long association. And when they are artistically treated, they bring these qualities along. Fire means everything fire is and does. Fire is a source of light and heat that can be either creative or destructive. When fire is used metaphorically, as a symbol, it can mean any and all of these things. If you understand the nature of fire, you understand its symbolic meaning. Fire is one of the attributes of Shiva and this signifies that Shiva can be both creative and destructive. He also wears a crown of skulls. The long association with skulls is death. Many skulls mean many deaths, many deaths mean many rebirths. The phallus is a sign of masculine sexuality and creativity, and so on. When you understand all of Shiva's qualities, and you see them in the context of a story, you can make meaningful connections and discover these dimensions in yourself.
Water means what water is and does. It is the source and matrix of life. Vampire bats suck blood. Lambs are meek. Fangs are venomous. Spiders are patient. Rabbits are prolific. Doors separate chambers. Keys open doors. These are the things we have to work with. It's all that is available. And since nothing in the real world can by itself adequately express or represent these powerful unconscious energies, we have to utilize what is available and take a little bit of this real thing, a little bit of that real thing and artistically treat them using those curious tendencies of the mind we spoke of - which are really the artistic tools of the imagination, i.e. we idealize this, exaggerate that, minimize or vilify something else, recombine this and discard that, and slowly fashion it into a new form which reflects as near as possible the hidden secrets. The unique combination of these real things when brought together creates the characters, gods, Shangri-las, haunted houses, and real people which express different attributes and dimensions of the hidden energies. The natural world is taken apart and rearranged to reveal the supernatural, unconscious, hidden world.
In Milton's Paradise Lost, when Satan is on his way to Paradise to corrupt Adam and Eve, he passes through the gates of Hell, which are so huge that their hinges create thunder and lightning storms when they move. By exaggerating the size of the gates and hinges, minimizing the size of the thunderstorm, and reversing their relative sizes, a whole new world is created -a door between Heaven and Hell, a door between our higher and lower selves.
In David and Goliath and "Jack and the Beanstalk," the sizes of the adversaries are greatly exaggerated and fearsome giants are created. In the movie Jaws, the size of the man-eating great white shark is exaggerated. These alterations create a certain effect. The new relative sizes and equations have special significance. They correspond to certain psychological states and provoke emotional responses from which meaningful connections can be made.
The human mind, for example, has the unique ability to go back into the past or to look into the future. And if you wanted to express those abilities using the visual metaphors of story, how would you do that? The stories evolved by the Greeks used Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus. Prometheus in Greek means forethought; Epimetheus, afterthought.
Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. And for this he was severely punished. The god, Zeus, had him chained between two great rocks and every morning a large eagle came and gnawed on his liver. During the night, the liver would heal. But then the following day, the bird would return and gnaw on his liver again.
It doesn't take a great stretch of the imagination to realize that forethought, the ability to look ahead into the future, had a major role to play in Man's discovery of fire. It would simply not have been possible without it. Forethought was an important evolutionary step. But certain unpleasant side effects evolved along with it, among them, worry. The ability to look ahead means that you can anticipate certain unpleasant possibilities in the future and worry about them. A bird gnawing on the liver (the seat of anxiety) is an excellent way of expressing how worry operates. But even serious worries will heal or be resolved during the night.
But then when you wake up the next morning, you look toward the future again and there are new things to worry about. The bird returns. The truth hidden in the Prometheus stories reveals not only the nature and importance of forethought
but also the relation of forethought to worry and the nature of worry itself.
What about his brother, Epimetheus? Afterthought. We can use this ability to go back into the past and correct mistakes, do psychological repairs. This is what psychoanalysis is all about.
And how might you express these abilities in a contemporary story using modern metaphors? Try Back To The Future, Part I, where the time machine is used to express these same psychoanalytic abilities. And because the time machine can go either into the future or into the past, it is a perfect modern replacement for the metaphors of old that expressed these mental abilities - forethought and afterthought.
In any case, using this extraordinary device (a souped up De Lorean sports car), Michael J. Fox goes back into the past, identifies and corrects a serious weakness in his father which brings about a profound change in the present. That's psychoanalysis. The story is a little road map of these unique mental abilities.
And because the story makes that psychological connection, whether done intentionally or not, is why, in my opinion, the film was so successful.
To make metaphors modern and relevant, just utilize modern, contemporary elements of today's idiom. If you analyze Alien, you will find Beowulf. Grendel taking possession of a castle and devouring its knights one by one and an alien monster taking over a space ship and devouring its crew one by one are similar metaphors with similar meanings being made relevant by differences of time and place. If you analyze The Lion King, you will find Hamlet. An evil uncle murders his brother, steals his kingdom and queen, and tries to prevent his nephew, the rightful heir, from assuming the throne. The change of time and place and a change from human to animal do not affect the meaning of the metaphor.
Great stories, then, are reflections of powerful and mysterious inner processes. They are designed to guide us to our full potential and are as necessary to our well-being as fresh air. Understanding great stories means understanding these inner processes. And understanding these inner processes can lead to a profound understanding of our selves and the world, and the creation of stories of extraordinary power.
Meet the Author: James Bonnet
James Bonnet is an internationally known writer and story consultant. Elected twice to the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild of America, he has written or acted in more than forty television shows and features. He created the role of James Roosevelt in the Tony Award winning hit Broadway show, Sunrise at Campobello, and received his first professional writing job at 23. Recently he was honored with a Writer’s Guild of America award for his writing contribution to the hit television series, Barney Miller. His book has been taught in university courses around the world and is having a major impact on writers in all media.