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Shooting Stars: The Use of Metaphors in Writing

January 8, 2012

A few nights back, my father and I ventured outside at 3 in the morning to gaze up at the stars in the hopes of observing a meteor shower. During the course of twenty minutes spent standing in the frigid air, we managed to catch a glimpse of two shooting stars that streaked across the sky so quickly we were almost unsure if we had actually seen them or if they were a mirage of sorts formed in our tired minds. Those two were definitely real, but about a dozen others seen at the edge of my vision likely were not. (The following photo was actually taken tonight. I suspect it would be incredibly difficult to capture a photo of a shooting star, so you’ll have to settle for a spattering of stars and the glow of the moon just off camera. If you look closely, you can make out the constellation Orion.)

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This got me thinking about how the situation might appear in a book. Likely it would be used as a metaphor, as celestial occurrences often are. It might symbolize the birth or death of a kingdom, a change in the winds, or perhaps renewed hope in a cause. Observing a shooting star is not especially uncommon. I find that I often will see one if I stare at the night sky for long enough. However, for some reason this does not stop writers from using the sighting of a shooting star to represent some important plot element in their works or to reveal an emotion that a character might secretly be feeling. Why is that? Why cannot the sighting of a particular caterpillar be used instead as a symbol? In real life, some people look at color bands on woolly bear caterpillars to predict the severity of the coming winter. Why then are there so few works of literature that use caterpillars as metaphors? The answer likely lies in the association many people have formed connecting celestial events with mystery and intrigue. Astronomers have long ago established that shooting stars are nothing more than space debris burning up in our atmosphere and have shown that the Earth is pelted with these space rocks almost continuously; however, in the human mind the sighting of a shooting star seems to automatically evoke feelings of wonder and awe and instantaneously creates the impression that we are small and insignificant in comparison to the vast expanse of the heavens. Writers seize on to these feelings when they create their metaphors in order to draw the readers into the story. They tap into pre-existing emotional responses in an attempt to bring the story to life and fully immerse readers by stimulating all of their senses. In this way, writers, readers, and the characters of the story are all capable of sharing an experience. This creates a bond between all parties that helps everyone feel connected.

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