TIP #3 Don’t avoid tough literal situations by referring to them only as metaphors.
Taking literal language metaphorically is equally problematic.
Kids can be masters of metaphor. Ask “Didn’t I tell you not to play in the mud?” and they answer, “We weren’t playing, we were making a snack for the frogs.” One child, sent to the principal for throwing food in the cafeteria, protested, “I didn’t throw food. I catapulted it!” Somehow, it sounds much better to use a word with visual and historical connections to ancient weaponry.
A lesson from children’s literature
Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine, a Caldecott winner by Evaline Ness, shows the danger of misrepresenting literal and metaphorical language. Sam, the opening line tells us, is a girl who is prone to lying. Instead of acknowledging her mother’s death, she says her mother is a “mermaid.” She tells everyone her cat, Bangs, can talk. But the cruelest, and most dangerous lie is the one she tells repeatedly to Tom, the little friend who believes everything she says. He longs to see the baby kangaroo she tells him she has, and each day she sends him on a wild goose chase to find it in a park or other location in their seaside town.
Tom’s problem is that he takes every word Sam says literally. Sam’s problem is that she prefers living in the metaphorical world she creates instead of in the literal world. Her father calls this “moonshine” (yes, a metaphor) and warns her that she needs to distinguish “real from moonshine.” Not until Sam’s lie nearly causes Tom’s death does she realize the importance of literal truth. This story is a great tool to help children recognize problems caused by lying.
Examples from Scripture
The Bible cautions that “the letter kills but the Spirit gives life “(2 Co. 3:6}. Yet God also confronted people who rationalized a way out of literally obeying His Word. The tithe (10% of earnings are God’s) is a practice people easily find reasons to question. (God can’t really expect 10% of my income, can He? I need to pay my bills . . . ).
Jesus called out the Pharisees’ method for circumventing the commandment to “Honor your father and mother.” If they “dedicated” a resource (even herbs like mint and rue) to God, they subtracted it from their income for tithing AND funds available to care for aging parents. They called this LITERALLY complying with the commandments for giving and caring but their METAPHORICAL interpretation produced the opposite of honoring and tithing.
The Parable of the Talents illustrates another metaphorical spin on literal words and acts. The man entrusted with only one talent does not invest it, as those given ten or five did, and return it to the master with interest. Instead, he buries it and says he’s giving back exactly what he had received. Why is the employer displeased? This employee claims literal compliance, but he has actually evaded the real command. Denying his responsibility to manage the money responsibly, he metaphorically shifts the literal assignment to “take care” of the owner’s property and replaces it with hoarding, as though both are equivalent. The master recognizes this employee’s dishonesty and calls him a “wicked servant.”
The right mix of literal and metaphorical
Like Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, anyone can fall into this sin of metaphorical word-twisting. Hoarding resources (time, money, possessions, labor) isn’t the same as being frugal and careful.
Imagination is one of God’s wonderful gifts, exercised in all kinds of art: visual, musical, theatrical, and literary. But changing literal truth into rhetorical equivocation or metaphor is different from using metaphorical language to convey truth. Some deny biblical miracles by explaining them away as metaphors. God often uses natural phenomena to bring about His will. However, accepting God’s acts only when they fit literal “rules” observed in nature, substitutes human reason for God’s, and rejects His divine attributes.
Do adults or children ever misuse language in your stories? Do they encounter others who use words carelessly or deceptively? What consequences follow, and how do readers and characters discover the need to distinguish appropriate literal and metaphorical words? Comment below, on Write2Ignite social media, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
One thought on “5 Tips for Using and Understanding Literal and Metaphorical Language, Part III by Deborah DeCiantis”
This is fantastic, Debbie. I hadn’t thought about my characters misusing metaphors on purpose. Thanks for this series.