Think of the rose petals in
, the bird imagery in Shawshank
or Leon's beloved houseplant in The
These metaphors stay with us long after
the movie. Like the sled in Citizen Kane
, they work as visual
synopses, remembered for their story content and emotional power.
Often featured on movie posters, metaphors arrest us, instantly
messaging a story idea in a single image.
metaphors, those that run alongside a character or plotline, can
carry a great deal of the story load. They can enter a scene with
stealth or a loud bang. They have an elasticity that allows the
writer to add a layer of signifying pictures that is closest in
analogy to laying a track of visual music.
Two Kinds of Metaphors
Most screenplays use
two kinds of metaphors. I'll call the first kind static
second kind dynamic
A static metaphor
metaphor whose meaning is obvious and constant like using red to
signify sexuality. It usually reflects one characteristic and one
character. It doesn't get tangled in other elements of the story.
When static, its dramatic value is limited.
is one that is mapped out much like a plotline. It has
a beginning, middle and end. Its meaning is clearly established in
its first use and provides new information as the movie continues.
It is often entangled with other characters and/or found in new
situations or locations. In fact, its messaging potential is
precisely because multiple characters interact with it, it's
juxtaposed against different ideas, and appears throughout the
A dynamic metaphor may be represented by any number
of objects. It might be portable, stationary, a wardrobe item or a
prop. Regardless, each time another character interacts with it, we
learn something about that character with respect to the metaphor,
but also as compared to other characters in the film.
is especially useful is how well a dynamic metaphor can externalize
the interior world of a character. This is because in interacting
with the metaphor, the character is unaware of what is being
revealed. This provides a kind of psychological truth that is
arresting for the "pureness" of the character reveal it produces.
Metaphors have plotlines. They don't happen accidentally,
but are planted, consciously constructed just like the action and
dialogue that they run alongside.
Here are two examples of
the dynamic metaphor in use. These are taken from two classic
American films: Out of Africa
important in both examples is how deftly they convey abstract ideas
and indicate transformation wordlessly. In each case they create a
character continuum that externalizes the changing internal world of
The first example is from Sidney Pollack's
Oscar winning film, Out of Africa
based on the novel of Isak
Dinesen and written by Kurt Luedtke.
Movie: Out of Africa
Metaphor: White Servant Gloves
In Act 1, Protagonist Karen Blixen arrives in Kenya in
1913. She settles on a farm in the middle of nowhere. One of her
first acts is to place white servant gloves on the Kikuyu
"houseboy," a young native Kenyan, she has just hired. Writer Kurt
Luedtke has this happen on page 27.
The gloves externalize
Karen's central conflict with herself, environment and her American
born lover, Denys. Karen has just married for an aristocratic title
and now attempts to bring European aristocratic trappings to her
farm in Africa.
The gap between Karen and her environment,
is demonstrated by the houseboy who holds his hands mid-air staring
at the gloves like alien objects.
2, Karen's lover Denys is at dinner. Denys laughs, responding
negatively to seeing the houseboy awkwardly serve dinner wearing the
white gloves. This scene underscores the difference between Denys
and Karen in how they view the Kikuyu and the value of European
social norms. Despite the challenge to her values, Karen persists
with the white gloves, indicating she is still an outsider to
In the final scenes of the movie,
we learn two important things about Karen. The first is that she
must leave because her farm has brought financial ruin. The second
is that through her working alongside the Kikuyu, she has changed.
To indicate this change writer Luedtke returns to the
metaphor of the gloves. This time the job of the gloves is to show
Karen's character transformation. Karen removes the houseboy's
gloves saying, "I should have done this a long time ago." Even
though Karen has failed financially, her removing the gloves
indicate she has succeeded internally. She has rejected her
aristocratic ideals, and adopted the egalitarian values represented
The power of the gloves in
this movie would have been very limited if used only once. What made
them work is that we saw them throughout the movie. The first time
they represent the values Karen arrives with. The second time they
signify the gap between her values and Denys'. The final time they
indicate Karen's change, as she removes them.
for the writer is not to throw away the opportunity of continuing
the use of what could be a useable metaphor, in this case
represented by a wardrobe item. Often it is easier to create an
entirely new scene with new objects and new locations. However,
repurposing a signifying object and extending a one-time use to a
dynamic metaphor can add a layer of storytelling to deepen
The most important requirement for the effective
use of a dynamic metaphor is to clearly establish its meaning when
it first appears. This is usually in Act 1. In the same way a
character's "normalcy" is established in Act 1, a metaphor needs to
be set up cleanly, with a precise meaning or "baseline." If the
writer consciously constructs the metaphor plotline, he or she has a
In the next example of a dynamic metaphor at
use, the writer uses a single prop. Props, like wardrobe, live
alongside the characters in a movie. Writers can leave them silent,
or use them to illuminate character.
In the Wachowskis'
brilliant mob-noir, we see a pair of garden clippers used to
indicate where we are in the movie and who is on top. Here is an
example of a dynamic metaphor at work in Bound
Metaphor: Garden Clippers
The first time the garden clippers are
used in Act 1, it is when a mid-level mobster, Caesar, watches his
boss apply them to a crooked accountant. Each time the accountant
fails to give the right answer, the boss snaps off a finger. The
garden clippers indicate the hierarchy of power. They also link
power with brutality. When Caesar later tells his wife about the
dismemberment, Caesar is in awe of his boss's brutality.
In Act 2 much has changed. Caesar now
suspects his wife is crooked like the accountant. Caesar believes
she and her girlfriend have betrayed him. Caesar now adopts his
boss's methods and threatens the betrayers with the same pair of
Here the use of the clippers indicates that
Caesar has achieved the same level as his boss whom he admires. He
can completely shutdown all human feeling, even for his wife. This
scene establishes just how "bad the bad guy is" which heightens our
fear and sympathy for his wife, the film's protagonist.
In Act 3 Caesar is now in a full-out
battle to the death. He has his wife's girlfriend tied up in a
closet. And despite the fact that he has killed a mob boss and his
son, it looks like Caesar is going to win. Just when it looks like
all is lost, his wife's girlfriend, Corky, spots the garden clippers
in the closet, and frees herself.
As soon as Corky picks up
the garden clippers they ably indicate a shift of power. In the
hands of the antagonists the clippers represented brutality, but in
the hands of protagonist they mean freedom and justice.
In both Out of Africa
, the metaphor appeared three times. In each film it
appeared once in each act, and played a significant role in a
pivotal scene. Each time we immediately understood the final meaning
because the metaphor had been so well set up in Act 1.
very easy to populate scenes with entirely new elements. It is much
more difficult to repurpose the elements from an earlier scene. This
takes ingenuity, but the payoff is that audience can begin to
compare and more actively engage in decoding the story's meaning.
Caesar's victim could have just easily found a cell phone in the
closet as garden clippers, but the clippers are more powerful. Their
repetition has dramatic value.
The repetition trains the
audience to believe that whoever holds the clippers holds the power.
Consequently, as soon as Caesar's victim, Corky, spots the clippers,
we know there is a reasonable hope that she is going to escape. We
let ourselves believe this because we know they have a symbolic
meaning in addition to their functional one.
usually emerge naturally from the story. It is an organic process
that writers often don't finalize until they have stabilized the
plot and gone a couple of drafts. Once a good metaphor is found, it
is useful to map it out much like an action plotline. Too many can
clutter a good story, but a few powerful metaphors can deepen the
movie going experience and give shadings to a character that are
difficult to achieve in other ways.