Jan 29, 2013

Water - it's a metaphor.

My house became a riverfront property this weekend.
In 2011, just about this time of year, Brisbane was hit with ferocious floods. After weeks of heavy rain, overflowing dam, clogged drains and rising river, water took it's hold on the suburbs. The house I live in now is two story and the water was above the second floor. Other homes went right under. People trapped had to climb up onto their roof and wait for help. Some locations had no warning, with flash floods rushing through, wiping out buildings, moving vehicles and claiming lives.

This weekend the floods hit Brisbane again. Although our street flooded, it was no where near as bad as 2011. We were not in any danger. The water rose with the high tides and receded again when the tide went out. Our biggest inconvenience was a loss of power for a couple of days. While enjoying a marathon of board and card games, I gave some contemplation to water. It's a huge part of life and often a significant theme in fiction. Water is a metaphor.

Various Water Metaphors:

Life - Man can live without food longer than he can water. Our existence begins and grows within a womb of water (and other fluids, but you get the idea). Scenes of a dying man in the desert often include a mirage and that mirage always includes water. In apocalyptic stories such as Cormac McCarthy's The Road, survivors migrate towards large bodies of water or the ocean.

Judgement - If you want a biblical theme, water cleanses sin. It washes it away. Water is also used to divide the sinful and the pure. Rain is used as a judgement from God (although sometimes that rain comes as frogs instead of water). God used a flood to wash away his mistakes. The bible instructs followers to be baptised in water to symbolise their resurrection as a Christian. But it's not just biblical. Water is used to conceal a sin, bodies are submerged in water (like in Dexter) and rise to expose sins. On pirate ships, traitors are made to walk the plank.

Sex - Water can be lust. Sailors, pirates, and adventurous characters are drawn to the ocean, their desire strong enough to risk death. Sirens and mermaids lure men into the water. In horror movies, victims are often involved in sexual acts near or in water when they are attacked. In seduction films, women are often shown trailing their long painted nails through water to entice a lover. Water is fluid, it's wet, the connection with sex is pretty obvious.

Conquering Nature - In many adventure stories, water is used to show man's ability to conquer nature, such as surfing, sailing, swimming, or whaling. Herman Melville's Moby Dick focuses on one man's obsession with besting a rival sea creature. Survival stories (there's a new film out now based on a true life Tsunami story) show the flip side of man's battle against the elements.  Disaster stories often show man's inability to conquer nature, but his determination to survive it.

Time - Water can rush quickly through rapids, flow along a river or be still on a pond. Water moves at its own pace and can affect the pace of a story. It can represent the way time moves depending on our own state. In the 1985 film Cocoon, special alien water reversed time for those who swam in it. Ice can freeze time, as it does for a character in the film, Encino Man.

Secrets - Water hides things. Sometimes we use it to hide our secrets (bodies, precious jewels tossed off the Titanic, or evidence of an affair). Other times the water hides things from us (lurking crocodiles, oversized sharks on a revenge fury, treasure... the Titanic). Rain makes the view from a window unclear. Water is not always translucent, it can be murky. 

Emotion -  Tears, rain, running water, these can all reflect sadness and are often used to show visually the misery of someone heartbroken or grieving. Water can be isolating as well, physically by creating an island or a barrier, but this could also reflect the emotional isolation of the character.

Can you think of any other metaphors for water? Do you have a continuing theme in your fiction, a natural element, a colour, a song? In Warracknabeal Kids I have fire as a reoccurring theme, but I'm keen to challenge myself to write a short story with water as a metaphor.


  1. Awesome metaphors Charmaine. I hope the waters in your area continue to be uneventful.


  2. Love your writer's heart that pulled some metaphors out of the surrounding flooding!

  3. I like Bruce Lee's comments about water, how it adapts and changes shape to fit any container.


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  5. Water was used as a punishment with The Flood. It's also used in torture.
    Living by the ocean, I have a great respect for the power of water.

  6. Wow I can't imagine all that water floating around my house(which is weird because I technically live below sealevel). Nice metaphors, I never thought there would be so many!

  7. I use water in a current WIP to show how things have changed on the MC's life.

    Good post!

    Hugs and chocolate,

    Hope your family stays safe.

  8. Just as I finished reading your post, a newstory about the flooding in Australia aired on the TV. Glad it was mild this year. Based on your story I can see water as a metaphor for destruction - a part of life I guess. Thanks for all the different metaphors. Nice stopping by here.

  9. Awesome post Charmaine. You got me thinking--water is the great cleanser that's for sure--or it can bring all sorts of disease when it's contaminated. I didn't think of water boarding (which turned up in one of my stories) but yes, water can be used for so many things. And I think we can only survive for about 3 days without water if we've broken down in the desert or whatever.

    No Aussie will ever forget this Australia Day weekend, that's for sure. The raging, crashing waves up here at the beach were deafening, a great reminder of the power of water. (If only our scientists could harness the power of the surf!)

    Enjoy writing group sans moi today. Can't wait to see you all next Wednesday!


  10. Terrific metaphors! never thought water could mean an awful lot of things. I guess different situations give us those kinds of insight. Glad you're alright.

  11. Great post.

    All my WIP's feature water in some way. Sometimes I've used it as a metaphor, other times not.


  12. Then there's Jung, with his metaphor: Water as the subconscious. Our dreams, ambitions, fears and hidden self which floats beneath the surface, etc.
    Nice post!
    ~Just Jill

  13. Oh, the power of water. Glad your house wasn't hit quite as hard this year.

  14. Your problems with water sound awful, Charmaine, but how fantastic you were able to get so much writing metaphors from your own situation. Water is my favourite element and I don't think I use it widely enough.

  15. Meant to say - my recent short story published in one of our UK women's mags used the metaphor of washing up dishes to highlight the problems in the marriage of the teen girl's parents!

  16. How about water as a prison? For instance, trapped on a deserted isle, as in Robinson Crusoe? You've had much experience in this lately, imprisoned in your own house while the waters licked your foundation.

    I forget that I now have Australian friends...hope you've seen the worst of the floods.

  17. I love bodies of water, so I've thought about some of these metaphors before. I've also been through some flash floods. Not fun. I'm sorry you went through this.

  18. Sorry you are dealing with another flood, but glad it's not as bad this time. I loved reading these metaphors, some I've thought about before and others that are new to me.

    Take care!

  19. Hi, Charmaine. I'm sorry it took so long for me to visit. I saw this post earlier in the week, but my allergies kicked in and knocked me off my game. I'm so glad the floods weren't as bad as that time before. I hope things have calmed down now and never repeat.


  20. One of the things I like about water is its versatility. It's a liquid, a solid, a gas. It takes the shape of its container, BUT, as in the case of a flood, can also wash away all the feeble structures we human think are so permanent. (Hoping YOUR place remains permanent through this flood and that there are no more to come in your lifetime.)

    It's also an artist, carving out lakes (in the case of glaciers) and canyons (just see the pictures of Bryce Canyon & the Grand Canyon).

  21. Wow, that's a lot of water. Sorry to hear you got hit again, but it's good it's less water this year. Love your water metaphors and tie-ins! Great list. :)