Metaphors make connections, but stop short of drawing lines of “like” or “as” between them. There shouldn’t be a frame or pointing finger, but just a space where readers might or might not draw their own parallels, hovering between an object and meaning. Metaphor may be most powerful when something tangible is drenched with memories, perhaps suggesting something beyond the moment. Something big may recognize its shape in something smaller.
As a writer, I may stumble into an image that seems to speak softly back, and wonder if it will echo for someone else. Readers should stumble and wonder, too. Symbols aren’t meant to be a treasure hunt, but portals between worlds, which is why students get annoyed in classes where they’re treated with a point and shoot approach. Still, as a teacher I do my share of pointing, though with a moving hand. I recently asked my children’s lit students to get into groups to answer questions about BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, which they’d bring back to the whole class. One group was tasked to see how much the disaster at the end was foreshadowed. I overheard them starting out saying, “Not much,” then get rowdier, laughing, “We’re such bad English majors! It’s everywhere!” They noted the rain and Biblical flood imagery, with the puppy held under a jacket so he didn’t drown, and the talks about death at Easter. They listed words such as “floating” laden with water imagery and noted Jess’s preferred medium is water colors, his fearful reaction to Leslie’s paper about scuba diving, her references to Moby-Dick –“the whale dies!” – and Hamlet – “Ophelia drowns!” The bully is described as a shark. Yes, death is kind of everywhere in Katherine Paterson’s beautiful classic, though also great themes of friendship, class, and gender. The group investigating the theme of imagination noted how the bridge between the land with domestic chores and worries and Terabithia’s freedom was first a rope, always in motion over the brook, requiring a leap of faith to land. Only after this bridge broke, after a mature awareness of death developed, was a more permanent bridge built, yet still made from a tree, which rots as well as grows.
Finding such connections can be exhilarating. As writers, we want to mirror our own sense of surprise upon discovering hidden paths and gates. Sometimes we can do this by developing the setting, showing where we tripped upon two things coming together, then stepping back. We may dust and polish, but leave enough grit so readers can discover as we did. Meaning peeks out the way character does among people we meet, perhaps in a glow around small gestures, often appearing after we say good-bye. Shut the door. Let it echo.