This week, Leslie pitched The Wizard of Oz as a great example of extended metaphor and symbolism in a story. This 1939 perennial classic was primarily directed by Victor Fleming from a screenplay by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, which was published in 1900.
Genre: Action-Adventure-Labyrinth with Worldview Maturation
Here’s a clever summary from Rick Polito of the Marin Independent Journal: “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girls kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.”
- Beginning Hook – While yearning for a place where there are no troubles, Dorothy and her dog Toto are swept up in a tornado that deposits her home on top of the Wicked Witch of the East in the technicolor world of Oz, but when Glinda tells Dorothy she should leave (because she’s made a bitter enemy of the Wicked Witch of the West), Dorothy must decide whether to stay with the munchkins or follow the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City where the Wizard of Oz can help her return to Kansas. She and Toto hit the road.
- Middle Build – Dorothy acquires allies (Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion) along the road, but once she overcomes the obstacles on the way to the Emerald City and finally meets the great wizard, he tells her she must prove that she’s worthy of what she desires she must decide whether to stay in Oz or attempt to obtain the broom of the Wicked Witch of the East. She and her companions decide to seek the broom and leave the Emerald City.
- Ending Payoff – In the dark forest outside the Witch’s castle, Dorothy and Toto are taken by flying monkeys, but once they kill the witch and deliver the broom to the wizard and he attempts to take Dorothy to Kansas in his balloon, Toto jumps out and Dorothy must decide to leave without Toto or stay in Oz. She jumps out of the balloon and is promptly informed by Glinda that she has had the power to return home all along.
Anne – This is a bit of an aside, but I often share it with clients and colleagues because it’s such a valuable tool. It’s a formula for a three-sentence elevator pitch, which can also be the basis of an agent pitch or a book cover blurb. This will all be in the show notes.
Sentence 1: Character name, vocation, and opening situation.
Sentence 2: begins with “But when” and lays out the turning point in the story, the central conflict or inciting incident that pushes the protagonist into the conflict of the middle build.
Sentence 3: begins with “Now” and lays out the core value stakes and the global crisis that the character faces.
I always deliver it in Wizard of Oz form because everyone is so familiar with the story. It goes like this:
Dorothy Gale is a farm girl who dreams of getting out of Kansas to a land far, far away, where she and her dog will be safe from the likes of town busybody, Miss Gulch.
But when a twister hits the farm, Dorothy is transported to a land of strange creatures and at least one wicked witch who wants to kill her.
Now, with the help of three unlikely friends, Dorothy must find a way to destroy the wicked witch–and thus convince a great wizard to send her back home.
Leslie – L. Frank Baum wrote in the introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that it was written “solely for the pleasure of children today.”
But perhaps there was more to it than that. At other times, Baum suggested that he wanted to write stories that “bear the stamp of our times and depict progressive fairies of the day.” You can find plenty of evidence, arguments, and scholarship on either side—that Baum intended Oz to be a veiled representation of the United States or simply the setting for a rolicking good action adventure story—but in a way, it doesn’t really matter. More on that below.
Even stories written primarily to entertain can have a strong message for readers. Every story that works contains within it a controlling idea or theme that expresses a statement about the world or life. It has a tight structure and takes the form of a cause and effect statement that looks like this: [Global Story Value] [prevails/fails] when [Type of character(s)] [Cause of the Change the Protagonist(s) experience].
What we’re talking about here when metaphor becomes extended and interlaced throughout the story is allegory. There is a story on the surface, but the real story, intended for a very particular audience, is woven beneath. It’s similar to the literal action (what the characters are doing on the surface) and essential action (what’s happening beneath the surface related to what the character wants) within a scene. But allegory or extended metaphor is employed when characters, settings, and objects stand in for something specific of social, political, or cultural significance in the real world. We seem to be talking about one thing, but we’re really talking about something else.
Animal Farm, Avatar, and the Chronicles of Narnia are fairly explicit examples of allegory. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is also cited as an example, though Tolkien denied that Middle Earth was a stand-in for Europe in World War I. It’s not unusual for writers to claim ignorance when asked about the meaning of elements within their stories—sometimes the deeper meaning in what we write is clear to us; but oftentimes it’s not. Beyond that, writers have no control over the lenses through which their readers will view their stories.
Bear in mind that the filmmakers may have had different intentions. The film’s dedication echoes Baum’s introduction in saying this is a story for the “young in heart.” Still, it’s useful to see how the elements of Baum’s story, most of which made it into the film, could represent something more than appears on the surface. Like George Orwell, Baum was a well-informed journalist, and it may be that he was a proponent of populism.
Populism in a nutshell
The good news is you don’t need to understand late 19th century US economic policy or politics to follow along. Populism was a political movement that favored economic policy beneficial to farmers and industrial workers. A primary tenet of populism was free and unlimited coinage of gold and silver money so farmers and small business owners could borrow money and pay off debts. All you really need to know is this was a deeply contentious issue near the time when Baum was writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Dorothy and Toto
Dorothy represents an ideal American. As Quentin P. Taylor explained, “She is each of us at our best—kind but self-respecting, guileless but levelheaded, wholesome but plucky.” Her last name is Gale, a play on the cyclonic winds of populism moving through her native state, Kansas, where environmental catastrophes created economic disaster for the farmers who depended on the land to live—and feed the nation.
Toto is a play on teetotaler, soberly supporting Dorothy’s quest (although, if that’s the case, I’m not sure what to make of his biting Mrs. Gulch).
Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion
Scarecrow is said to represent farmers, the Tinman industrial working class people, and the lion William Jennings Bryan, who was often depicted as a lion and roared in favor of the populist cause, but was seen as a coward for failing to secure the support of eastern industrial workers in his 1896 presidential campaign bid.
Forces of Antagonism
The Wicked Witch of the East represents the banking and industrial sectors concentrated in the northeast. Keep in mind that it was this witch that enslaved the Munchkins. The Wicked Witch of the West represented the power brokers of the American West. She used the forces of nature (winged monkeys) against the people of Oz.
Oz, the Emerald City, and the Wizard
Oz is a stand-in for the US, while the Emerald City, with its charlatan wizard, was the nation’s capital city. The Wizard represents Gilded Age politicians who rarely took a stand on the important issues facing the country.
Given the complexity of these details, it’s easy to see why people think there are too many connections to account for coincidence, that Baum must have meant to make a statement about the political climate. But the main point is that even if you know nothing about the politics and economics referenced, the story works and is enjoyable as evidenced by the way it endures. Speaking of that …
Jarie – As writers, we want to make an impact on the culture we are in. We want our writing to move people to think, to feel, and to be entertained. The ultimate recognition of our impact as writers is when our writing becomes integrated into the culture as a meme.
A meme is an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture according to Webster. It was first coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. It’s short for mimeme which is Greek for “imitated thing.”
Memes are like genes — the strong ones survive to be passed on from generation to generation. Some memes have short lifespans because, unlike genes, they are not automatically transmitted to the next generation via reproduction. Rather, memes have to fight a little harder for cultural attention.
Depending on how old you are, you might recognize the following memes:
- Where’s the Beef?: Popular saying in a Wendy’s Ad. Culturally means where’s the substance. Probably out of favor nowadays.
- First Rule of Fight Club: From the novel Fight Club (and movie). You don’t talk about certain things, ever.
- Bye Felicia: From the movie Friday and is a way to bid farewell to someone who is deemed unimportant.
As Leslie stated in her argument, the metaphor and symbolism in the Wizard of Oz is powerful and the proof is the cultural memes it has produced such as:
- Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain
- You’re a very bad man
- Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore
- I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too
- There is no place like home
- If I only had a brain
- Follow the yellow brick road
- We’re off to see the wizard
- Don’t make me release the flying monkeys
- I’m melting. I’m melting.
All of these memes have been passed along through the last 118 years since the book has been released. Even in modern times, the impact of visuals of Dorothy, the tinman, scarecrow, and lion have adorned many a Pinterest, Instagram, and Giphy image or gif.
Another big factor in cultural meme reproduction is how many derivative works or adaptations come from the original. This is another proof point of the strong metaphor and symbolism within the original.
For the Wizard of Oz, Wikipedia lists over 100 different types of adaptations which include over 40 canonical Oz books, including 14 by Baum, all of which are considered “official” sequels or prequels to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Some of the most memorable are:
- Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire
- Wicked: A Play based on the book Wicked.
- Elton John’s album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
- The Wiz: is a 1975 musical with music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls, exclusively featuring African American actors.
Clearly something resonates within us about The Wizard of Oz that keeps our culture wanting more and more. It’s even found its way into the Podcast world via the Very Bad Wizards Podcast where the opening music is a rap version of when the gang finds out the wizard is really a man. The meme has now jumped species!
The final thought I will leave you with is this. When your girlfriend goes to an Elizabeth Gilbert & Cheryl Strayed Brave Magic workshop and Cheryl Strayed uses the “all you have to do is click your heels three times” line, there is no debate that the symbolism and metaphor in The Wizard of Oz is undeniable. Can I get a Mic Drop on that?
Testing the Proposition
Anne – Forgive me if I don’t drop mine—speaking of memes!
We’ve got a pretty undeniable case that the symbolism employed in the movie transcends the intentions of L Frank Baum in writing the book, and continues to speak to something deep in the American psyche.
I’ve also read that the name for the land of Oz is a reference to the ounce, as a measurement of silver. Silver currency, as Leslie said, was an important part of the populist platform of the late 19th century. This notion may have been debunked, but it’s a fun idea, and contributes to the subject of symbolism. Maybe Oz was purely an unconscious choice on Baum’s part, but it’s provocative.
So, Valerie and Kim. I don’t know that it’s possible to actually counter the argument that this movie is filled with symbolism and allegory, or that it created a set of extremely durable icons. What’ve you got for us?
Valerie – I have so many writing books on my shelves, it’s crazy. Yet none of them talk about metaphor or symbolism, or any of the various forms of storytelling (allegory, parable, fable and so on). Honestly, I can’t say that I noticed it; I think I’ve been too busy learning the basics about how to write a novel. Yes, I studied it at length when I was doing my undergraduate degree in English Literature, and during my Masters coursework. But studying a novel someone else has written, and learning to write a novel yourself are two very different things.
I’m not sure exactly why it doesn’t come up, but I do have a theory (surprise, surprise). I’ve been involved in writers groups and following industry leaders since around 2012 (all either indie or hybrid authors). The conversations have all focused on creating a backlist as quickly as possible. Writing 3-4 books a year, or in some cases, one a month (which, imho, is insanity and will lead to burnout). When authors put the focus on quantity of books, rather than the quality of the storytelling, they don’t have time to weave in deeper layers of meaning. They’re simply trying to write a book that will appeal to as many people as possible.
I have definite opinions about this, but that’s a topic for another day. All I can say, is that I’m really glad we’re talking about it here.
When Kim and I were chatting about what we’d prepare for today, we toyed with the idea of referencing the debate about whether or not there’s symbolism in the novel (or the movie). We quickly decided that that wasn’t as useful for writers as discussing what metaphor and symbolism are, and why authors should consider adding that dimension to their books.
The bottom line is this, books that operate on multiple levels are more interesting. They pose more of a challenge for readers and will therefore stand the test of time. Because they’re more complex, they invite multiple readings providing people with a chance to experience the story fresh every time. The reader is always bringing something new to the story.
True, these kinds of books are harder to write, and they’ll likely appeal to a smaller audience. But, I believe that cranking out a formulaic novel aimed at the largest number of readers is foolhardy. It leads to a race to the bottom. As Seth Godin says, that’s not a race you want to win and you sure as hell don’t want to come second.
Of course, there’s a huge gap between that kind of book and something like The Wizard of Oz, and it’s entirely possible to write an extraordinary novel that does not use metaphor or symbolism. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. But for those who really want to become master craftsmen, this is the stuff that will get you there.
One of the things we wanted to do, was give other examples of novels that make excellent use of symbolism and metaphor. Interestingly, we came up with many of the same ones that Leslie mentioned already. We’ve got a few additional ones though and Kim’s going to take us through those.
Kim – Use of symbols and metaphor makes a story timeless. It’s the precise demonstration that specificity becomes universal. When looking for great examples of metaphor and symbolism, like the Wizard of Oz, look at the stories that have stood the test of time. Classics. Here’s a few classic examples of stories that continue to enchant us:
The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe (1845) – The Raven is thought to be a symbol of loneliness, grief, longing as it comes to torment the narrative in his loss of Lenore, which may be a symbol of love, truth, beauty.
Moby Dick, Herman Melville (1851) – The White Whale is the object of Ahab’s obsession, the creature that took his leg and that he now seeks to exert his force over and dominate and destroy. It is thought to be a symbol for God or nature…or certainly anything that a human cannot beat and is at the mercy of so best respect it rather than invoke wrath.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (1865) – search for identity and making sense of the world as one grows up, control by adults on children and children needing to find their own way.
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway (1952) – written on the heels of the novel Across the River and into the Trees, that was harshly criticized as Hemingway phoning it in, he follows it up with The Old Man and the Sea. Here, unlike the White Whale, the marlin represents that which is attainable if we maintain our strength and will, a Morality-Testing-Triumph story. The Marlin is not destruction, it’s his gift.
The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho (1988) – this story is search for treasure, but we discover it’s not something that’s out there, it’s something you already have right where you are. But if that truth were told you at the outset you wouldn’t believe it. You need the journey to learn it for yourself and recognize it when you see it. This parallels beautifully with what Dorothy learns in The Wizard of Oz.
Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk (1996) – we’ve talked a lot about this story during the Level Up Your Craft series and how the narrator’s personality is splintered between the various characters, Bob representing the higher self/love/creation and Tyler Durden representing the shadow self / destruction, Marla represents meaningful connection, something the narrator can’t be around affectively until he’s dealt with his shadow in the end.
Patterns: we noticed of great pairings of symbolism and metaphor with certain elements of the Five Leaf Clover of Genre.
Style – Satire
Utopia, Thomas More (1516) – socio-political satire
Animal Farm, George Orwell (1945) – political satire
Reality – Fantasy
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818) – mother-child relationship
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis (1950) – metaphor for redemption and sacrifice, symbols from Christianity – Aslan taking Edmond’s place on the Stone Table.
Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien (1954) – the One Ring as a metaphor for the machine
Content – Horror
The Shining, Stephen King (1977) – The boiler represents dark tendencies that if not checked regular will build and explode.
Misery, Stephen King (1987) – “Misery is a book about cocaine. Annie Wilkes is cocaine. She’s my number-one fan.”
In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder details what he calls the “Monster in the House” genre, where there is a specifically defined house and a specifically defined monster, and there is always a sin that invites the monster in or at least allows it to stay.
Jaws, Peter Benchley (1974) – the house is represented by the Amity beaches, and the monster of course is the Great White Shark. The sin in this case is greed – the mayor could have saved the victims if he just closed the beaches, but he won’t because it’s tourist season. So not only are their people on the beach, but it’s peak season, meaning a higher number of possible victims.
The Ring, film – house is the actual home, television/entertainment, and the monster is the video that onces someone watches they will die 7 days later. The sin here is neglect, a mother who leaves her child to fall victim.
Valerie – I did my Story Grid Edition on Dracula, and while that’s not a particularly well-written novel, it’s full of symbolism; most of it’s about sex. It was written and published in Victorian England when issues couldn’t be discussed outright. Some scholars believe Stoker was exploring his own sexuality during a time when same sex relationships were illegal. It was while he was writing the novel that Oscar Wilde was being arrested, tried and imprisoned. Symbolism and metaphor were essential.
In Dracula, blood is the obvious example, symbolising life and vitality (the life and death of the body and soul), as well as sex and sexuality. But it’s not the only bodily fluid Stoker talked about. He also refers to milk during the most disturbing scene in the whole novel. It’s near the end of the middle build it you want to look for it. It’s during the menage-a-trois scene between Dracula, Mina and Harker and is used to indicate fellatio with a vampire. Not a sparkly-Hollywood-leading-man-who-smells-good kind of vampire. No, Dracula is a rotting corpse. He’s putrid with long claws, furry palms and razor-sharp teeth. He’s a monster. Unless you understand how things like metaphor and symbolism work, you miss all of this deeper meaning.
Of course, all the symbolism and metaphor in the world isn’t likely to save your book if it isn’t structurally sound. The kind of stuff we’re talking about today are the things you add on after you’ve got a manuscript that works. So, if you’re still working on the five commandments or the story spine, then focus on that. Worry about this stuff later, but as you continue to read novels, start looking for possible examples so that when you’re ready, you can start weaving it in.
Kim – When you think about all the stories the Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Kim Hudson used–myths, fairy tales, fables, historical accounts, religious texts, modern stories–to observe the Hero’s Journey and Virgin’s Promise archetypal structures and characters, we see that all stories are carry this symbolism and metaphor. Because that’s what stories are: symbols and metaphors that enable us to see one thing but have it mean something else, something more.
Historical context aside, while watching The Wizard of Oz I couldn’t help but see the artist, the dreamer, the writer, the creator, the activist. A young woman who lives in a stale kind of place, where people don’t necessarily understand her or hear her or care about the things she cares about (Toto symbolizing a natural and raw curiosity and passion for life, an upheaval of status quo–Toto ruffles feathers with the neighbors).
Miss Gulch wants this vibrant force put it in a box so it can’t run free, taken away and destroyed. And the people in Dorothy’s life go along with it. They might not like it but they allow it to happen. But Toto can’t be contained, he is determined to be free and he returns to Dorothy through an open window. And when proverbial winds of change and seeming destruction turn life topsy-turvy, forcing Dorothy on a journey away from everything she knows, to discover who she really is and what she really wants, she is able to face any number of challenges with Toto by her side–a symbol of her authentic self, full of heart and brains and courage, and even when someone tries to steal it away, always fights to escape and come home to her.
As I watched the film, there were so many lines that stuck out to me, like I was watching a blatant battle with resistance. One example is when Dorothy is asking Scarecrow to come with her to see the Wizard. At first he doubts and says the Wizard might not want to help him and give him a brain. Dorothy says, “But if he didn’t you’d you be no worse off than you are now.” And then a line or so later the Scarecrow says, “I’m not scared of anything, except a lighted match…but I’d face a whole box of ‘em for a chance at some brains.” And the whole exchange just warmed me. To be willing to face down a whole box of the thing you fear most for a chance to get the thing you want most. I want to live with guts like Dorothy and Toto and Scarecrow and Tinman and as it turns out the Not-So-Cowardly Lion. To say out loud what I really want and go after it unabashedly.
And even when Dorothy returns home, having changed the way she thinks of it, with a new perspective on what is important to her, she still has Toto. As a writer, wife, mother, self-employed entrepreneur, the metaphor that you can leave and return home and not lose that authentic lively passionate and curious self, that you can change the world around you right where you are…fills me much hope. Courage to not be ashamed of my heart or my brain 🙂
One final thought on the slippers…if in my metaphor Toto is the passionate authentic self, the slippers seem to be the equipping and empowerment, the means to make it happen. It’s what the witch tries to steal, but she tells us in one of the most powerful lines: “Those slippers will never come off, as long as you’re alive.”
As long as we’re alive, with shoes on our feet and Toto at our side, we are fit for any journey. And for that I am so grateful.
Leslie – The primary takeaway is you must tell a great story, independent of your allegorical intentions, and avoid being heavy-handed. Ultimately, the story must work, or the allegory won’t have legs. Here are two things to keep in mind as you write:
(1) Reader experience: Readers don’t like to be hit over the head with opinions, and your target audience matters. Compare the subtlety of the possible allegory in The Wonderful Wizard Oz (which you wouldn’t pick up on unless you’re familiar with the events) vs. Animal Farm. Remember readers bring their own frame of reference and needs to the story they read, and you can’t know or control what they will do with your story.
(2) Enduring cultural significance: Your story has a better chance of outliving the events you’re trying to make a point about, like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, if you write a great story first. Baum’s classic transcends the political issues of the time and, as Jarie explained above, its elements are used as symbols themselves.
So make it meaningful and make choices with intention, but keep your happy accidents.
One final thought: To make an allegory satisfying to the intended audience and others, rather than answer questions of social and political significance, we writers do better to pose questions and let the readers come to their own conclusions. Though most who study this story in the context of turn-of-the-century populism in the US say Baum’s story contained too many references for it to be coincidence, his own equivocation suggests that he wanted people to think about economic policy and make informed choices, as opposed to blindly coming down on one side or another.
To wind up the episode, we usually take a question from our listeners, but this week we’re using a hypothetical listener question, one that we’ve all heard at least implied in relation to symbolism.
So here we go: How important are things like symbolism, allegory and extended metaphor in popular fiction? Aren’t they really largely the territory of literary fiction? Yes, The Wizard of Oz is the very definition of popular fiction, but these days, how much effort should the novelist put into symbolic content when they’re writing stories for popular consumption?
Anne’s Answer – Valerie addressed this in her argument a little bit ago, and I just want to add that as a writer–and on the occasions when I line-edit someone else’s work–I’m deeply interested in symbolism at the micro level. Everything in your novel or screenplay should be relevant to the story spine. Symbolism can tie small details to the core of the story and make them serve more than one purpose.
I’ll just give a simple, rather trite example. Say you’re setting an outdoor scene, and there are trees. Of all the kinds of trees that could be in your setting, why not pick one that has a symbolic affinity for your protagonist or your controlling idea? An oak symbolizes something very different than a willow or an aspen. The choice of an oak will underscore and build up the subconscious feeling of might, or steadfastness, without your ever having to use those kinds of words.
The same goes for choices you make about weather, colors, birds and animals, minor activities of your characters, objects in their environment, type of car, street names–just about any of the hundred small choices you make in every scene. Make them with the conscious intent of relating them to your genre, your controlling idea, and your characters’ objects of desire, and without ever shouting “LOOK AT MY LITERARY SYMBOLISM!!” you’ll add a satisfying depth to your story.
Valerie’s Answer – This is a fantastic question. I think the answer will depend on the reader! For me, as a reader and writer, I think these things are hugely important. Perhaps they have been largely the territory of literary fiction to date, but that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. Modern fiction has been (and it kills me to say this) watered down. I’m speaking in general terms, of course. Thankfully, there are exceptions! But for the most part, we don’t see novels that operate on these deeper levels. Precious few books being written and published right now will stand the test of time. They’ll be read once, the reader will have gleaned everything out of the story in one pass, and then they’ll be forgotten. By contrast we have books like Pride & Prejudice that is gaining in popularity. (Elizabeth and Darcy are symbols of change. They represent the direction England needs to move in. Jane and Bingley represent the status quo.) Or, Gulliver’s Travels which we’re still reading and interpreting nearly 300 years later.
Of course, the first thing a writer needs to learn is how to tell a story that works. That’s base-level skill and I’ve already spoken to that. Once the foundation is in place, I believe that writers need to stretch themselves, and continue growing by exploring these kinds of craft tools.
If you have a question about symbolism and extended metaphor, or any other story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, by going to storygrid.com/resources, clicking on Editor Roundtable Podcast, and leaving us a voice message.
Join us next time to find out whether Jordan Peele’s 2017 Oscar-winning horror hit Get Out is as great an example of the narrative drive of suspense as Valerie thinks it is. Spoiler alert: probably. Why not give it a look during the week and follow along with us?
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