What is a Visual Metaphor? And How to Use One in Your Screenplay…
You want a screenplay to be entertaining but reflective and unique but relatable. You want the audience to connect. Using visual metaphors can be the key to unlocking this.
When used intentionally, visual metaphors can transform your entire screenplay. They add more than a little spice – they add depth and dimension.
They craft a richer, stronger story and they completely alter how audience’s relate, react, and feel.
- What does a visual metaphor look like in practice?
- How do you use one and why should you?
- What does a visual metaphor do for your writing and your story?
Read on to discover what visual metaphors are and our three major tips on how to incorporate them into your screenplay.
What is a Visual Metaphor?
It can be tempting to just avoid visual metaphors altogether, confusion often surrounding what they even are to begin with.
Perhaps one of the most simplistic ways to understand it comes from Blain Brown who says :
“[It is] the ability of images to convey a meaning in addition to their straightforward reality. Think of it as ‘reading between the lines’ visually…”
Essentially, a visual metaphor is a concept represented by a visual image. Symbolizing something far bigger than the image itself, it is an incredible way to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell.’
It can communicate large, complex, emotionally charged concepts without dialogue and provide insights into relationships, context, and tone with just seconds of an image.
- For example, a scene with fast-moving calendar pages can represent the passage of time.
- That’s a type of visual metaphor, albeit a rather simple one.
A more complex visual metaphor could involve a scene showing a man alone in the middle of a vast, snow-covered and barren field.
- What does this communicate to us? Well, it could communicate a wide range of things…
- Feelings of loneliness and isolation, loss of hope, themes of life and death.
These are big ideas within just a single image. Even in screenwriting, sometimes words just aren’t enough.
Visual metaphors can pull a significant amount of weight. The visual has an impact even great dialogue can struggle to touch.
Visual Metaphors in Film
So what does a visual metaphor actually look like in practice?
Let’s take a look at a few different films to help us answer that question.
American Graffiti (1973)
George Lucas’ cult classic coming-of-age film can offer some easy insight into what visual metaphors look like in practice.
In American Graffiti, the main character (Curt Henderson) recently graduated high school and is preparing to move to college.
The day before he moves to college, he attends a “Back to High School” sock hop where he finally gets to experience the school as an outsider looking in.
He roams the halls, looking around nostalgically before paying his old locker a visit. He tries the combination to it, but it never opens. It has been changed.
- This scene is a visual metaphor that represents how Curt is also going through his own change.
- He is no longer a student anymore and as such doesn’t have access to what he once did.
- He can’t live out his past, even if he tries. It is simply unavailable to him.
- All he can do now is go forward with his new life. He has little choice.
Following this scene, the camera shows Curt traveling away from this locker and shows him smiling. This is also a visual metaphor.
- It shows he’s accepted the past is the past and he’s instead taking steps towards his future.
A fun, family-friendly film on the surface, Zootopia is rife with several complex themes. Visual metaphors carry these themes.
The first major metaphor in this film comes in the shape of the police badge and uniform worn by ZPD officers. These symbolize different things for the two protagonists and their meaning changes over the course of the film.
For Judy, the police bunny, they serve as a symbol for progress, equality, and opportunity.
- For her, the badge isn’t just a badge.
- It’s sign that she has officially ‘made it’ in the big city and that dreams are truly possible.
- In addition to this, it is a symbol of authority and power – something she has never had much of in her large family nor in society at large (due to being a bunny).
For Nick, the conman fox, the police badge and uniform represent something different.
- To Nick, they represent a type of oppression and as a discriminatory authority.
- Whereas Judy has been given power by the same images, Nick has felt his power has been stripped from him.
- The authority the cop image holds aims to punish him for his hustles.
- This effectively disempowers him because it’s the only way foxes can truly make a good living.
- It proves to Nick that the shiny gold badge is there to keep the status quo and keep him in his ‘place’.
The badge and uniform are dynamic visual metaphors, though. Their meaning changes for Nick by the end of the movie.
- Instead of symbolizing oppression, they represent progress just as they did for Judy.
- Nick receiving a real badge represents acceptance, support, and positive change.
- It represents similar things for society in general, as it shows a drastic change in the perception of foxes and bunnies.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)
All the Harry Potter films are filled with visual metaphors. Three of the biggest are introduced in The Philosopher’s Stone – Harry’s wand, his scar, and the Mirror of Erised.
At the very surface level, wands function as a useful tool for magic. On a metaphorical level, the wands offer something more.
- They are a source of personal power, of status, a reminder of individuality, and an embrace of the impossible.
Harry’s individual wand represents a few things much more personal for him and his story.
- For Harry, receiving his wand was a coming-of-age and a reclaiming of his birthright.
- Separated from his parents (and all things good) for years, what is essentially a magical stick becomes something compelling.
- It’s a renewed connection to his mom and dad, a reminder of their love, and a symbol of Harry’s untapped potential.
Harry’s scar has a similar metaphorical meaning.
- It is a symbol of his parent’s love and their sacrifice.
- It also represents a deep tie to Voldemort and is a reminder of Harry’s inner strength.
The Mirror of Erised is also a major symbol within the film.
- For all who look into it, the mirror symbolizes the danger of intense desire. After all, people are willing to waste away staring into it.
- For Harry, it symbolizes a longing for family, connection, and love. It reflects a deep loneliness and unwillingness to move on from the past.
Putting Visual Metaphors to Use
Now that you’ve seen examples of how visual metaphors can be incorporated, it’s time to consider how to use them in your own screenplay.
While there’s endless ways to do this, here are three major things to keep in mind when implementing visual metaphors.
1. Consider Your Thematic Direction
The whole point of visual metaphors is that they are a window into the screenplay’s subtext.
Think about what that is for you and your screenplay. What are some of your major themes, whether in the full piece or in one particular scene?
- Do you want to explore love or are you more a “guts and glory” type?
- Are you hoping to say something about mental health or the human condition?
- Do you want to make points about greed or are you exploring the benefits of hedonistic tendencies?
You need to have a clear image prior to developing your visual metaphors.
Once you have a theme (or themes) in mind, you just need to find opportunities where you can express these through imagery.
Sometimes those opportunities present themselves in more obvious ways. For example, look back to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
- Harry’s scar is a powerful visual metaphor which represents multiple themes.
- These themes include the power of love, the importance of sacrifice, and Harry’s innate inner strength.
It just logically follows when you consider the events that create the scar.
10 Things You Didn't Know About Harry Potter's Scar
2. Prioritize Emotionality
Visual metaphors are great at communicating important themes without even saying anything. But they shine the brightest when they take on a more emotional significance.
Part of the beauty of these metaphors is that they open things up rather than close them down. Because they show rather than tell, things are more open to interpretation.
- American Graffiti‘s locker scene doesn’t have to just symbolize what we feel it symbolizes.
- It can represent so much more because it doesn’t actively tell the audience what to believe.
This is fantastic for your writing, because it engages audiences. The audience become invested in your work because a piece of them has become part of it.
By using visual metaphors, you allow viewers to step in and create their own individual meaning.
What does that all have to do with emotionality? Well, you can bolster all of this by prioritizing emotion in your visual metaphors.
Even the most immaculately constructed screenplays probably wouldn’t be very memorable if you took the emotion out of them. In other words, just give audiences something to feel.
Give your metaphor a symbolic weight. Whether you’re trying to emphasize fear, love, hope, anguish, or happiness, make sure to actively show it.
3. Take Advantage of Act Structure
Good rule of thumb: mix up your use of visual metaphors.
It’s infinitely more compelling to have some that are static and some that are dynamic, changing meaning throughout your screenplay.
The latter can be more challenging to do properly, but they can be essential for displaying character growth or change.
To make things easier, use your act structure as a guide. In the best case scenario, it would be great to incorporate your dynamic visual metaphor once an act.
- This functions to remind audiences that the metaphor holds some kind of characterization or plot significance.
- It also makes the metaphor’s progression feel more natural.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood embraces a dynamic visual metaphor through the recurring image of Hollywood.
- At the beginning of the film, the glitz and glam represents possibility, luxury, and progress.
- Anyone can be anything, even the anxious, middle-aged western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio).
- It brings a sense of security with it and the feeling that an age of such glamour could never end.
After the events of the movie though, the meaning behind the image changes.
- Neither the audience nor the protagonists see it in a positive light.
- Instead, Hollywood represents stagnation, excess, an unwillingness to compromise or change with the times.
- It also represents an unhealthy fantasy and obsession with violence and fantasy.
- We know Rick Dalton didn’t save Sharon Tate in real life. Hollywood’s propensity for creating saviours creates the idea that a hero will always save the day. We know this isn’t true in the real world, as shown starkly by the reality of Sharon Tate’s murder.
The specifics of your own dynamic metaphor is up to you, although we also highly suggest having their symbolic shift occur at the climax of the screenplay for the most impact.
A visual metaphor isn’t just a powerful image to use on screen. It’s a vehicle for conveying the deeper meaning beneath your story.
Visual metaphors use the best of what screenwriting has to offer. They utilise the visual medium to speak to the audience directly and subconsciously.
When done right, an audience can leave a film/TV show reeling just from a single image. This is the power a visual metaphor can have, one image containing a multitude of meaning and reach.
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