Bugs, limbs, and kindling

Metaphor Map #4

Hey there and welcome to Metaphor Map!

This week, we're looking at metaphors from a founder, a reporter, and a memoirist. If you like this issue, give it some love on Twitter! I’d really appreciate it.

1. Fixing a business is like debugging software

In a mature business, all of the core dynamics already exist. Traffic, trust, conversions, sales, retention, expansion.

Trouble rears its ugly head when entropy gets in there and mucks up one of them. Or a few of them. Or different ones at different times.

In some ways, it's not unlike debugging a dusty old piece of software. Before you can fix it, you have to figure out exactly what's going on. It's also a bit like debugging old software in that debugging is a whole lot easier when you used the fundamentals correctly at the beginning.

- Alex Hillman, the difference between 🚀 STARTING a biz, and 📈 GROWING a biz…

In this newsletter, Alex Hillman (co-founder of Indy Hall and business partner to Amy Hoy) writes about the often neglected topic of actually running a business (rather than the often-saturated topic of starting one).

Throughout the email, Hillman personifies a villain: entropy. 

Entropy, broadly, is disorder. But to a business, it means all the little, unpredictable things that upset a tidy growth plan. Hillman shows how easy it is to focus on one problem rather than seeing the problems (plural) as an inherent part of running a business. That’s why he personifies entropy, giving it a coherence and a character it doesn’t normally have. Now it’s something we can oppose, something we can fight.

Even still, entropy is abstract. In this excerpt, Hillman narrows further by comparing the work of fixing a business to debugging software. All of a sudden, the abstract problems of running a business seem concrete: of course you need to investigate problems, of course you need to consider fundamentals.

Sometimes, all a metaphor needs to do is help your readers ascend and descend abstraction. If running a business is too abstract, find something they can understand.

Metaphors don’t, and often shouldn’t be, grand, picturesque comparisons. Hillman finds something close by to an audience of people who run software businesses. By making the connection direct, he helps his readers realize the similarities. 

2. Stakeholders are like limbs

Several of the country’s biggest transit systems including New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. are controlled not by local authorities but state (or in D.C.’s case, quasi-federal) bodies. This means taxpayers who don’t obviously benefit from the system pay into it, a constant source of political tension. And when proposed projects cross state lines, it opens up a prolonged debate about who pays for what share, a fight that often takes years or decades to resolve.

Put the lack of funds for transit together with our country’s general desire to give local control as close to the individual citizen level as possible, and we’re left with a contradictory system where every limb and appendage fights the others.

- Aaron Gordon, Why the US Sucks at Building Public Transit

Describing a system is always difficult. 

The word itself slinks away from understanding. Even a sophisticated reader will struggle, at a glance, to know what kind of system we’re writing about. Worse than mere vagueness, “system” tends to be just understandable enough that readers leave with impressions less precise than what you intend. Meaning your writing is less impactful and less memorable than it could be.

But it’s up to you to demonstrate the precision you intend. 

A system is generally too big to capture and make understandable within a single article. Even one transit system in one locality probably needs multiple articles and manuals to really explain. 

Here, Motherboard senior writer Aaron Gordon compares stakeholders in a public transit system to limbs and appendages of a body.

When you write about systems, your goal isn’t to capture their complex entirety but to describe one functionality and trace that to a system it belongs to. That tracing explains the described element and something about the system to which it is a part. 

Comparing transit systems to bodies captures the internal coherence they’re supposed to have and comparing stakeholders to warring appendages on that body reveals that coherence breaking down.

This metaphor can apply to a whole range of systems. 

Systems, as a rule, are supposed to have a certain level of internal coordination. That’s the dynamic Gordon’s metaphor captures. A good system might be like the limbs and appendages of a ballet dancer; a bad system, as Gordon describes, is clumsy and conflicted and always collapsing—limbs and appendages twisting and tripping all over each other. 

That pattern—internal coordination, with varying levels of actual coherence—comes up again and again. 

3. Aristocrats are like kindling

The aristocrats would be the kindling for a roaring fire fueled by the fats of social exploitation.

- Gus Lee, China Boy

This vivid metaphor comes from Gus Lee's memoir China Boy

Kindling is a common metaphor, as are most fire-related metaphors. What gives this metaphor its vivid power is the parallel metaphor in the sentence: fats.

Without fats, you may have imagined kindling bundled up nicely, as if done by a boy scout or bought from a grocery store. But when you imagine fats fueling the flame, you can see the sputtering oils, the fire licking the sky, the sense that it's wild, out of control, destructive. 

The takeaway is that what would have been a cliche—X is like fire or X is like kindling—becomes powerful once you twist it with a companion metaphor, a Y. The metaphor is more than an inert comparison between two different things. It encompasses a small system: kindling, fire, and fats. 

If you’re trying to describe something complex, your metaphor needs to reflect that complexity—even though it's simpler, by definition, than what you’re describing.  

If you're not describing something as chaotic as the societal conditions leading to revolution, you can still borrow this metaphor. If you're describing the opposite kind of situation, you can also talk about damp wood refusing to burn or green wood producing more smoke than fire.

Expert writers throughout history and genre use metaphors to explain their ideas. Metaphor Map gathers the best of them and explains how you can adapt them to your own writing. 

There’s a hidden universe of metaphor that connects all the different worlds of writing. Hit the subscribe button and join me. Let’s map this territory.