A lot of storytelling is figuring out how to communicate to the audience what the characters are going through. You want them laughing, crying, shivering with fear, and steeping in every intention. The goal is to get people to connect with the character, take these emotions to heart, and keep people on the edge of their seats as they see how things play out. This stuff crosses all genres.

But how can you do that?

As writers and directors, we're told "show, don't tell" over and over again. You need to show what's going on inside people and then communicate it to people on the outside. But what's another way to do it outside of actions?

Well, I think a great visual metaphor can help.

Today, we're going to go over visual metaphors, how to use them, what they are, and how they can help your writing and direction. So get ready to climb that mountain, hit (or miss) that winning shot, and blow up that bridge.

It's time to dig into visual metaphors.

What Is a Visual Metaphor, and How Can You Use Them in Your Films (and Scripts)?

When you're writing and directing, visuals are incredibly important to your storytelling. They not only tell the audience what's happening on screen, but they can also add another layer to what you're doing.

Filmmaking is truly a visual medium. So let's try to get the most out of your efforts.

Visual Metaphor Definition

A visual metaphor is an image that is associated with the specific character arc or theme presented by the movie or TV show.

As a creative force, you need to think about what you can layer into the visuals and how they can support your story. It's not just about looking cool or beautiful but finding meaning in what those images capture as well.

The Function of Visual Metaphors

Visual metaphors create meaning out of different objects and symbols. When these items have meaning, they can help move a story forward, relate to an audience, or solidify the theme.

Think about when Cameron's car crashes at the end of Ferris Bueller, and how that's a metaphor about him stepping out of what his father wants him to be. Or the way Rocky runs up the steps, solidifying his journey to become a respected fighter, or even the Harvest Festival from Parks and Rec, which shows that a well-run government can actually do great things.

Communicating Your Visual Metaphors

It's okay if your visual metaphors don't come to you right away. A lot of times, they occur to me when I'm rewriting a draft or trying to layer a shot into a scene. But whenever they come, you have to clearly communicate them to the audience. That's not always easy.

One way I think works best is to root them in characters. If you are clear with the character, their arc, and what they are going through, the visuals surrounding them will be very clear to the audience.

Another way is to make sure the theme of the story is directly communicated to the audience. Do you know what your movie or TV show is actually about? What's true at the center of the story?

Once those decisions are made, you can directly align the story with them. Think about how Harry Potter wears the scar Volermort put on his head, visually linking the two of them. Or how inAmerican Graffiti, when Curt Henderson sneaks into high school and finds his old locker, it won't open. Meaning he is ready to move on to college.

These metaphors tie directly into the themes of the plot and of the characters themselves.

Let's look at a few more examples of visual metaphors.

Visual Metaphor Examples

One of the most popular visual metaphors in all of film and TV is the use of stairs. They can signify a goal at the top, an obstacle in our character's way, or even a sense of foreboding, like they do in Psycho. Characters might be afraid that once they walk up them, their world may never be the same.

In a movie like Zootopia, our lead bunny wants a badge to signify that she can be a cop, even if she's small and from a different place from the others. That badge and uniform is a visual metaphor for her moving up in society. But to her friend, the fox, the badge scares him and puts him off. He doesn't want anything to do with it.

Spielberg loves using landmarks as visual metaphors. From the building of Devil's Tower to the phoning of home, he always makes sure his characters go through something we can monitor with the visuals.

Tarantino loves a good visual metaphor, too. They cross all over his films, from the recurring Hollywood images in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that shroud us in the glitz, glamour, and underbelly of the town, to the burning of the Nazis in Inglorious Basterds, where Shoshana appears as a ghost, dying in the projection booth as a double agent as they die below.

Tarantino once told Film Comment, "One of the things I really like about the movie is, you know, there is this aspect about the power of cinema in it... One, it works as this really wonderful metaphor, but by actually using the nitrate prints that are so flammable, it’s not even like a metaphor. It’s literal. It is actually cinema itself that’s trying to take down the Third Reich. To me, that’s just the greatest thing ever. Make your metaphorical theme tangible and tactile!”

So make sure your metaphors really stick out and stick with us.

Summing Up the Visual Metaphor in Movies and TV

Now that you know all about visual metaphors, try to think about how you can use them in your work. Take inspiration from the great examples we look at here, and maybe some of the examples people write about in the comments.

Remember, film and TV are visual mediums, so the more you can say with your images, the better.

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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