No matter what you write, it’s agreed that metaphors are an important literary device. But, what is a metaphor? What does metaphor mean? In this article, we’ll explore this question and answer how they can enhance your screenwriting. We’ll prove a list of metaphors and catalog the ways in which you can use them to enhance your script.
Watch: What is a Metaphor — 8 Types Explained
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Tools For Screenwriters
Breaking down metaphors
In essence, a metaphor is a comparison between two things which suggests a likeness. There are many types of metaphors and even more ways in which they can be used to spark the reader’s interest and imagination. Before we jump into the examples, let's define metaphor.
What is a metaphor?
A metaphor is a figure of speech in which something is described with a direct comparison to something else. The original Greek word metaphora means to "transfer" or "carry over." And that's exactly what a this device does — it transfers the characteristics of one thing to another. For example, if you said, "I'm flooded at work," the overwhelming qualities of a flood are being ascribed to the amount of work you have to do. Another key aspect to remember is that these comparisons are never meant to be take literally (i.e., there is no literal flood at work).
- He’s drowning in money.
- Laughter is the best medicine.
- You ain’t nothing but a hound dog.
A metaphor comprises of a tenor and a vehicle. The tenor is the subject, and the vehicle is the object which the tenor is being compared to. The similarity between the two is called the ground, while the difference between them (what makes it a figure of speech) is called the tension.
Take, for example, “His cackle was nails on a chalkboard.” The tenor is the cackle, and “nails on a chalkboard” is the vehicle. The ground between the two is that they’re both difficult to listen to. The tension is that a man’s laugh is never going to sound literally like someone scraping a chalkboard.
Still confused? Here's a breezy and fun rundown from Prof. Tim Jensen from the University of Oregon.
Metaphor vs simile vs analogy
What is the difference between a simile and a metaphor? They both liken two wholly unlike items. Where a simile uses the “like” or “as” to compare, a metaphor frankly states something as “being.”
For a quick example: when Forrest Gump says, "Life is like a box of chocolates," he's using a simile. When his mom says later in the film, "Life is a box of chocolates," that’s a metaphor.
To further understand these differences, check out this infographic.
Now that you know the difference between simile and metaphor, let’s look at the difference between analogy vs. metaphor. An analogy is a comparison of two things used for the purpose of explanation.
Let’s go back to our Forrest example. In the full quote, Forrest says, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” This explanation makes the quote an analogy.
Now, let’s explore different types of metaphors and how you can use them to zhuzh up your script!
Using Extended Metaphors
An extended metaphor is a nifty tool for writers of any genre. They excel at instilling meaning without coming across as too on-the-nose or preachy about your thematic material. Even more, they can keep your audience engaged, looking deeper into your story for its themes.
EXTENDED METAPHOR DEFINITION
What is an extended metaphor?
An extended metaphor is a comparison between two things that continues through a series of sentences or lines.
These can serve as an excellent way to elaborate on a comparison. Instead of a direct metaphor like, “The singer was a cat on the stage,” these can get even more descriptive: “The singer was a cat on the stage. He clawed at the air. He hissed his lyrics. And at the conclusion of each song, he purred a ‘thank you.’”An extended metaphor can also strengthen the themes of a writer’s work. For example, let’s take Sam’s monologue in this scene from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers:
Did you catch the extended metaphor? Let’s look at the speech written out:
“It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.”
Sam is using an extended metaphor of darkness and brightness as a comparison for the hardships he and Frodo are facing. Note all the different ways he invokes this comparison throughout his speech.
By using an extended metaphor, Sam’s monologue also draws on the story's themes of perseverance through hard times, and the power of keeping hope.
You might have also noticed that this speech is embedded in an allegory – Sam is comparing their situation to the “great stories,” and thereby outlining his and Frodo’s journey as one that will follow a similar arc.
As a screenwriter, the number one criticism you’ll hear is show, don’t tell. Making use of an extended metaphor can strengthen your theme without explicitly stating it.
Using Controlling Metaphors
What if you really extend your comparison, beyond just a few sentences? Well then you just might have a controlling metaphor on your hands. If you thought extended metaphors were helpful in adding to your themes, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
CONTROLLING METAPHOR DEFINITION
What is a controlling metaphor?
A controlling metaphor is a comparison which stretches over the course of an entire work. Often, this means the metaphor is heavily influencing the story's arc and themes.
Controlling metaphors can be seen all over literature. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, for example, uses the controlling metaphor of invisibility to describe racism in the United States.
Many films, too, have used this type of comparison. Take Pixar’s Turning Red, which uses Mei’s transformation into a red panda as a controlling metaphor for the trials and tribulations of puberty.
Of course, this is directly related to the themes of the film as well – growing up is scary, just like how turning into a giant animal is also scary.
Controlling metaphors are closely related to allegories. But while an allegory’s entire story is supposed to represent something else, a controlling metaphor is still operating as a figurative comparison within the story.
In Turning Red, Mei is actually going through puberty. If she was just turning into a red panda, then the film would be closer to an allegory.
Of course, it’s a fine line, and one which is often blurred (The Matrix, for example, works as both). But whether your story becomes an allegory or not, using a controlling metaphor is great for speaking to the bigger ideas without, you know, actually speaking them.
Using Implied Metaphors
If you’re going to use a metaphor without realizing it, it’s probably an implied metaphor. This subtype can be difficult to spot because it’s deceivingly omnipresent — we use them all the time in our everyday conversations.
IMPLIED METAPHOR DEFINITION
What is an Implied metaphor?
An implied metaphor suggests a comparison without explicitly naming one of the elements being compared. This type can be found in figurative verb usage, like, “Bob slithered out of doing chores.” Bob is implicitly being compared to a snake, even though it’s never stated.
Implied metaphors can be used similarly to their more conventional cousins, creating a vivid image in a reader’s head without having to use an exhaustive description. The implied comparison is sometimes even more efficient, creating an image without even mentioning it.
One way to build an implied comparison like this is to try removing one of the elements (the tenor or the vehicle).
Take this sentence: “His running was elegant; he was a horse galloping across the finish line.”
Let’s remove the vehicle: “His running was elegant; he galloped across the finish line.” The verb “gallop” tells us that he is running like a horse without needing to explicitly state it.
Alternatively, we can remove the tenor: “His running was elegant, a horse galloping across the finish line.” We’ve removed “he,” but we understand that the horse is non-literal.
Comparisons to Avoid
Using Dead Metaphors
A dead metaphor can generally be thought of as something cliché. Of course, our job as screenwriters is to be as original as possible. It follows that we’d want to avoid a dead metaphor like the...well, like death.
But dead metaphors have their time and place. Go ahead and find a unique way to use a dead metaphor that reveals your character. If your character is flawed, have her speak like it.
DEAD METAPHOR DEFINITION
What is a dead metaphor?
A dead metaphor is a word or phrase that has lost its impact. This can occur when a semantic shift occurs over time and the original imagery is lost due to excessive use. Using a dead metaphor is like "beating a dead horse," which itself is also a dead metaphor. Dead metaphors are still useful when deployed on purpose (e.g., when you have a character who tends to speak in clichés).
Examples of dead metaphors:
- That test was a breeze.
- Time is running out.
- He’s champing at the bit.
As a screenwriter, it’s important not to be clichéd. Clichés and dead metaphors have a tendency to come off as bad writing, or even worse, boring. Don’t give an executive a reason to put your script down! If you want to double-check to make sure your script is "cliché-free," here are the top cliches to avoid.
Using Mixed Metaphors
A mixed metaphor may seem like something worth avoiding. But this unique type actually holds a lot of value, for screenwriters in particular. A mixed metaphor has the potential to reveal more about a character than the most regal metaphor you can construct.
MIXED METAPHOR DEFINITION
What is a mixed metaphor?
A mixed metaphor is a comparison of two or more elements which doesn’t logically make sense, producing a ridiculous effect. A mixed metaphor can also refer to mixed idioms or malaphors. Two ways for characters to use mixed metaphors in dialogue would be intentional or unintentional. In other words, if a character understands that they are combining two phrases, they can appear witty. If they simply don't know better, they can appear ignorant.
A mixed metaphor can leave the reader confused as to the point of the metaphoric comparison in the first place. However, that’s not to say a mixed metaphor can’t be used to successful effect. For example it may be able to convey tone.
A mixed metaphor can also do wonders in showing character. For example, take this scene from The Big Lebowski script where Jackie Treehorn interrogates The Dude.
“Does the Pope shit in the woods?” This is a mix of "Is the Pope Catholic?" and "Does a bear shit in the woods?" Here, the Coen Brothers convey The Dude’s stoner state-of-mind by giving him a mixed metaphor.
This is an expert way to convey character traits and speech patterns through even the smallest bit of dialogue.
Using visual metaphors
Legendary screenwriting guru Syd Field says, "A screenplay is a story told with pictures." When it comes to a feature film screenplay, you want to be as visual as possible. Enter visual metaphors. They, of course, serve the golden creed of ‘show, don’t tell.’ More so, they have the power to condense the essence of your story’s theme into a single image. What’s more powerful than that?
VISUAL METAPHOR DEFINITION
What is a visual metaphor?
A visual metaphor is a representation of a noun through a visual image that suggests a particular association or similarity. Visual metaphors are closely related to symbols but not exactly the same (the former is meant to compare two ideas in an image, the latter represents an idea).
Ask anyone, film is a visual medium. Especially as screenwriters, it’s vitally important to translate our story into visuals. Many times, this is accomplished through visual comparison.
One of the founding fathers of cinematic language, Sergei Eisenstein, heavily relied on visual metaphors. One of Eisenstein’s most influential theories was that of the intellectual montage – a technique which would imply comparisons of disparate visuals through the power of editing.
Take a look at this iconic scene from Eisenstein’s Strike (graphic content):
Eisenstein uses the slaughtering of cattle as a visual metaphor for workers getting killed by police. This comparison heightens the violence of the scene, and emphasizes just how routine and heartless these killings were to government officials.
Intellectual montages can still be found today. Watch this example from Lucy:
If we were to write out this visual metaphor as a direct metaphor, it might look like this: “The men were cheetahs hunting their prey; Lucy was an antelope.”
Visual metaphors don’t only exist in intellectual montages. They can also appear in single shots. You can see an example of this in Despicable Me 2:
The fireworks exploding behind the Minion’s kiss is being compared to the explosive love he feels. This specific visual metaphor alone can be found in countless films.
Sometimes, when visual metaphors are used consistently, they can become motifs. A really great and recent example of this idea would be the visual motifs in Jojo Rabbit. Pay particular attention to how butterflies are used.
For more on tying themes into visuals, you might want to understand how motifs work.
Importance to Screenwriters
Applying Metaphors in Screenwriting
Now that you’ve seen metaphor examples, how would you benefit from applying them to your script?
A metaphor conveys more information with less words. On the page, word choice, economy, and white space are important factors in making your script read well. If I need to describe a greedy character, I could do so in a lengthy description listing all the ways in which he’s greedy, or I can use a visual metaphor.
Instead of “Todd is greedy” try “Todd is a cheese-hoarding ship rat.” Now that’s imaginative, visual, and most important, attention-grabbing!
So, what is a metaphor? They are an extremely helpful literary tool that can vastly improve your screenwriting.
Understanding Dramatic Irony
Since you’re brushing up on literary terms, why not take a look at one of the most essential tools in a storyteller’s box: irony. Irony not only subverts the audience’s expectations, but does so in a way that suggests order and intentionality in your story. Dramatic irony in particular is incredibly useful in surprising us and your characters.