Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
Like most art, fiction is built upon metaphorical understandings and communications of human experience. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the underlying metaphors are frequently fairly obvious. The obvious metaphors for evil may lower the literary and dramatic quality of the series, but it also makes the show a good example for teaching others how the process (this = that) works.
The “this” is the metaphor; the “that” is its real-world, or existential, counterpart. For example, invisibility = being ignored is the metaphorical equation that underlies the episode “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” and cavemen’s conduct = boorish, drunken behavior is the metaphorical equation upon which the episode “Beer Bad” is based.
To use this approach in your own stories, identify a thing (or, often, a state of existence) that can represent another state of affairs--the one with which your story is concerned. Although you would not explain to your reader that “this is that,” you, as a writer, should be aware of the basic metaphor and its implications, thematic and otherwise. The use of a metaphorical equation in which this thing or state of affairs equals that existential state of affairs will enhance your story by adding depth and complexity to the plot and, indeed, the characters that are involved in the story’s action.
For example, in another Buffy episode, a male ghost possesses men and the ghost of his previous lover possesses women as these spirits seek to work out the issues (guilt, mostly) that resulted from their teacher-student affair and the eventual shooting of the teacher (and her death) at the hands of the student after the teacher tried to end their relationship. Their existence as ghosts allowed writers to suggest that the spirits were in purgatory and to propose that an illicit affair between an older person in a position of responsibility and authority over (in this case) her protégé is not only wrong but also dangerous. The ghosts who haunt Sunnydale High School are themselves haunted--by their pasts. (A similar theme occurs in the movie The Others, which concerns the ghost of Grace Stewart, who is in purgatory because of her murder of her own children, followed by her suicide. However, thanks to its masterful use of situational irony, the film has much more depth and complexity than the Buffy episode, which is, nevertheless, excellent as a one-hour television episode.)
To enrich your stories, find the metaphor for the real-life matter you’re writing about and let this metaphorical equation of “this = that” communicate to your reader’s (or viewer’s) unconscious mind.