Academic Exchange Quarterly  Summer 2003   ISSN 1096-1453   Volume 7, Issue 2


The Mind as a Novel Metaphor


John K. Davis, Ph.D.

California State University, Dominguez Hills


John Davis is an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education in charge of teaching secondary English credential candidates their final English Methods course work.



When teaching novels in graduate and undergraduate courses can miss many of the complex interrelationships that occur between various elements of a story.  An author’s craft is to bring together divergent features to achieve an overall outcome within the mind of the reader.  The subtle maneuvers employed by novelists throughout their works often defy linear analyses promoted by simply applying traditional literary devices to the study of novels.  A dynamic, holistic approach to the novel is needed where the complex ebbs and flows of motives, literary elements and authorial devices are accounted for in a naturalistic way. 


Phillips and Huntley’s (1995) “Story Mind” is a metaphorical structure that can be applied to novels to uncover the complex interactions of components that develop a complete novel. The present article offers a brief review of the theory’s dimensions.


Keyword: NOVEL















The Mind as a Novel Metaphor





All novels and stories possess some type of story structure.  Even works that are marked by a free-flowing, stream of consciousness like James Joyce’s (1922) Ulysses, William Faulkner’s (1930) As I Lay Dying or, more recently, Umberto Eco’s (2002) Baudolino in which stories emerge from a narrative perspective at some point in the novels, an overall structure can be identified in hindsight.


Morner and Rausch (1991) define literary structure as, “the design or arrangement of the parts of a work of literature to form a unified whole; the planned framework or ‘architecture’ of a literary work.” (p. 213).  The architecture is interpreted and most often presented chronologically or logically in narrative works.  However, this paper suggests an alternative view to story that can give students of literature a more complete lens into the parts of a piece that make it whole.  The approach advocated here is a metaphorical view of literature, and it proposes an exciting schema for analyzing novels to determine, most of all, if they are complete.


Metaphors in Literature



Metaphors serve a distinct purpose in organizing our mental worlds.  At their essence, metaphors impose a familiar architecture upon concepts or ideas that, for various reasons, need clarification or interpretation.  The process of clarifying and/or interpreting stories is a major responsibility for those who teach literature to graduate students, undergraduates and grade-school students.  Oftentimes, students grasp the major theme of a novel without recognizing the contributory parts that work together to build that theme.  This macro-conception of literature is insufficient, on its own, for students of literature if the goal is to teach the author’s craft on an elemental level.


Conversely, students who attend to the literary devices at work within a piece without being able to articulate how they work in concert to achieve an author’s goal are guilty of a myopia that can be characterized as a strict micro-conception of literature.


A unifying system for teaching literature is needed for these two limited perspectives of literature that present themselves as hindrances to students’ grasping the completeness of literature.  Structural approaches to text that follow chronological or logical paths are ripe with the possibility of failing to recognize the big picture or point out the parts that work together to construct the overall meaning of a work.


The unifying quality of metaphors is described in Metaphors and Symbols: Forays into Language (Bartel, 1983).  The author asserts that metaphors are an extension of the natural dichotomies present throughout nature and in man-made disciplines.  To illustrate the point he states: “This ultimate unity of all things is not just a vision of poets but a fact of life.  Fractions are possible because we have whole numbers, analysis has its counterparts in synthesis, questions imply answers, causes have effects and effects have causes.  Unity is implied in all our activities that involve dividing, combining, classifying, and organizing -–taxonomies, typologies, paradigms, flow charts, computer programs, the Linnean categories in biology, school curricula, and on and on.” (p. 82).


Metaphors and metaphorical analyses, on the other hand, have the potential for conveying the big picture and the elements of a novel by likening them to something that is already known to students.  Metaphors can make an unfamiliar text immediately recognizable by creating an imaginative analogy that takes on a form in a student’s mind that, from that point forward, provides a framework within which each subsequent element can be built.  Henry (1995) describes the ability of metaphors to convey the whole of a story thusly: “Metaphors, and similes, like other figures of speech, tend to bring the reader out of total involvement with text and make them concentrate more on surface features of the writing – which is sometimes desirable and sometimes not.” (p. 167).


Indeed, if literature teachers are content to create general analogies between stories and commonly understood concepts, then metaphors are not being used to analyze and interpret the component parts that make up literary works.  On the other hand, if metaphors can be used to systematically scaffold the literary elements within a novel, then teachers possess a powerful schema for guiding students through literature, and most notably, novels.


Lakoff and Johnson (1980) make a convincing case for acknowledging the primacy of metaphors in our mental lives. In Metaphors We Live By the authors explore of the roles that metaphors play in our lives by stating, “the most important claim we have made so far is that metaphor is not just a matter of language, that is, of mere words.  We shall argue that, on the contrary, human thought processes are largely metaphorical.  This is what we mean when we say that the human conceptual system is metaphorically structured and defined.  Metaphors as linguistic expressions are possible precisely because there are metaphors in a person’s conceptual system.” (p.6).


In Metaphors and Symbols: Forays into Language, Bartel (1983) describes a broader use of metaphors in the world around us.  The author asserts that metaphors are an extension of the natural dichotomies present throughout nature and in man-made disciplines.  To illustrate the point he states: “This ultimate unity of all things is not just a vision of poets but a fact of life.  Fractions are possible because we have whole numbers, analysis has its counterparts in synthesis, questions imply answers, causes have effects and effects have causes.  Unity is implied in all our activities that involve dividing, combining, classifying, and organizing -–taxonomies, typologies, paradigms, flow charts, computer programs, the Linnean categories in biology, school curricula, and on and on.” (p. 82).



In essence, both authors contend the world and the human mind are constructed around metaphors.  Therefore, it is upon this basis that metaphor is suggested as an approach to perceiving and teaching literature.  Furthermore, since the human mind is said to operate like a metaphorical machine, there is no better metaphor to apply to literature than a story is a mind.

The Story Mind


Phillips and Huntley (1995) developed a theory of story largely based on human psychology.  The authors began the process of creating a book of writing suggestions and quickly realized that their suggestions had no overall structure to them.  As they reflected on their rules for writing they noticed that all of the examples of stories that they felt were complete resembled a living organism with all the necessary parts to deem it alive.  However, instead of comparing a story to an entire body, the authors felt that a more appropriate metaphor would be, “a story is a mind”.  The revelation gave birth to a system for analyzing stories for completeness that they called, the story mind.


The theory contends that stories don’t necessarily work in a linear or chronological manner.  Instead, the authors conceived stories as working holistically, as the human mind operates, integrating a variety of conflicting considerations until resolution has been achieved in all categories.  The five categories (or throughlines) are what make up the essence of the theory.  They are as follows: the Objective Story Throughlines, the Main Character Throughlines, the Obstacle Character Throughlines, the Subjective Story Throughlines and the Grand Argument Story. 



Throughlines relate to how readers are positioned to receive an argument.  They speak of the author’s craft and how he desires his reader to interpret the story.  In other words, throughlines are sometimes subtle and other times overt “spins” that are given to each of the five categories that make up the story mind.  They are the author’s attempt at showing their readers how to interpret their stories.  Throughlines resemble the push and pull processes of the mind in the fact that they must be resolved in one direction or in its opposite direction for resolution to be achieved.


The Objective Story throughline derives its title from the detached nature of the category.  It is the “bird’s-eye view” of the story that gives an outsider’s commentary on events throughout the story.  For example, in Harper Lee’s (1960) To Kill a Mockingbird the events and dialogue surrounding the town’s infamous rape trial comprise the Objective Story.  They are an entry point to the story’s mind, but they only describe the surface features of the mind’s composition.


On the other hand, the Main Character throughline describes the personal experiences of the central character.  In Mockingbird, Scout’s attempts to maintain her comfortable status quo unfold through the Main Character throughline.  This psychological characteristic gives the story’s mind a facet of personality that can either be supported or opposed by other throughlines representing their own psychological tendencies.


The Obstacle Character throughline in the novel is represented in the events and the character of Boo Radley.  His unknown and off-centered character presents a challenge to Scout’s desire for her town to return to its sleepy town roots.  The Obstacle Character will either help the Main Character fortify its resolve throughout the story or force it to change its approach to the story’s central problem.


Contrary to the Objective Story, the Subjective Story represents the mind’s inner motives and desires.  In Mockingbird, the Subjective Story exists through the relationship between Scout and Boo.  The throughline develops time after time throughout the story as the two characters experience life as next-door neighbors hidden from one another.  The throughline includes Boo’s confinement, Scout’s prejudice and Boo’s veiled protection of Scout.  The tension in this facet of the story mind must be resolved in order to deem it complete. In this particular novel, it resolves with Scout realizing that her judgement of others is not the best way to live.


Finally, the Grand Argument throughline is the big picture that sums up the reason and emotion contained in the four other throughlines to answer the question: What does it feel like to have this kind of problem?  The question can only be answered if the other four throughlines have been fully developed. 


These five throughlines give the reader a means of tracking the broader issues that occur within the story mind.  However, the details of the throughlines are developed through twelve essential questions that are answered throughout a story.


Essential Questions


The first question deals with the main character’s Resolve.  In some stories the main character must remain steadfast in his dealing with the problem at the core of the story.  In other tales, it is necessary for the main character to change his way of dealing with the problem for the throughlines to add up to a complete and satisfying story.


The next question relates to the main character’s Growth.  In story mind theory there are two ways that a character can grow:  by either starting a new personality trait or stopping one that he already possesses.  Either alternative can produce interesting insights into the mind of the main character. Neither pattern is considered better than the other.  However, within the throughlines of the story it should become apparent which approach to Growth makes the overall story mind complete.


The other two aspects of the main character’s development consider his Approach to his physical environment and his Problem-Solving Style.  In his Approach to the environment the character can either mentally adapt to the environment (labeled a be-er in the theory and demonstrated by Scout’s Approach) or a do-er who changes his environment.  Problem-Solving Style is the final dimension of the main character’s personality.  It describes the character as using either logic or intuition to resolve the story’s central problem.


The next three elements deal with the story.  The story’s Driver can either be dictated by actions or decisions.  Its Limit, or ending, will either come as a result of running out of time (as many adventure and suspense novels do) or by running out of options.  Lastly, the Outcome of the story relates to the character’s attempts to solve the primary conflict in the story.  Not all novels end happily.  In these stories the Outcome can be labeled a failure.  On the other hand, when the prince finds his Cinderella, the Outcome can be described as a success.  Either way, each of the throughline need to support the conclusion or it may feel false or contrived.


The story mind theory also considers the main character’s reaction essential to the completeness of a novel.  In George Orwell’s (1949) 1984, the bookish Winston Smith craves the opportunity to love Julia freely and without the specter of Big Brother dictating every aspect of his life.  However, by the time he is released from the restrictive society to do as he pleases, he has internalized the values of Big Brother so thoroughly that he no longer desires a loving relationship.  Winston’s reaction to the story’s Outcome (being released to live as he pleases) illustrates the element labeled Main Character’s Judgment.  He could either feel good about the resolution of the problem or bad.  In this novel, the Judgment is bad, and it is an appropriate Judgment considering the Grand Argument of this tale of sacrificed freedom.


The elements describing the overall story involve its thematic Issue, the central Problem, the story’s Overall Throughline and the collective area of Concern shared by the characters in the story.  Taken together, the resolutions to these twelve essential questions form a complex network of decisions that is analogous to the way a mind operates when confronted with a complex question.  The beauty of the story mind is that the individual elements taken as a whole must add up to a reasonable solution to the central problem in order to feel fulfillment at the story’s end. 




Hundley and Phillips recognize the numerous ways in which these elements can combine to construct a complete story.  In fact, the assembly of elements and throughlines can generate so many unique combinations that the number of story minds begins to approach the number of unique minds one might find in society.


The story mind is a capable theory for guiding students of literature through a multi-faceted analysis of novels.  It is built upon the unifying quality of metaphor, and it exposes students to analyses of character, overall story and propelling elements on a variety of levels.  In a sense, it captures what Bartel (1983) explained as the “daring comparisons”  of metaphors in which the author “has developed a keen sensitivity to language and a strong awareness of the unity of all things.” (p. 83).


Even if literary theorists are never able to create a model that represents all of the amalgamations of the human mind and then match novels to the distinct and defined patterns characterized by separately labeled minds, the story mind theory offers a brilliant metaphor for teaching and analyzing novels.  The fact that it incorporates a metaphorical approach to novels offers a fresh and exciting method of examining the complex relationship in a complete work at thematic and elemental levels.  For these reasons, the story mind theory and the “story is mind” metaphor should be considered in teaching novels.



Bartel, R. (1983). Metaphors and symbols: Forays into language. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Eco, U. (2002). Baudolino. New York: Harcourt, Inc.

Faulkner, W. (1930). As I lay dying. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Henry, L. (1995). The fiction dictionary. Cincinnati, OH: Story Press.

            Joyce, J. (1922). Ulysses. Paris: Shakespeare & Co.

            Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lee, N.H. (1960). To kill a mockingbird. New York: J.B. Lippincott Co.

Morner, K., & Rausch, R. (1991). NTC’s dictionary of literary terms. Chicago: NTC Publishing Group.

            Orwell, G. (1949). Nineteen eighty-four. London: Martin Secker & Warburg.

            Phillips, M.A., & Huntley, C. (1995).  Dramatica: A new theory of story. Studio City, CA: Screenplay Systems, Inc.