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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Using Metaphors and Symbols to Tell Stories

Movies themselves are metaphors for how humans experience life on a deeper level. Creating a unique language of metaphors and symbols for your film is a big part of being a visual storyteller. Symbolic images help us to understand abstract concepts that cannot always be translated into words. I use the word metaphor to encompass metaphor, symbol, motifs, and leit motifs for the remainder of this book to simplify things.

    Metaphor = Action/Sound. Visual or auditory representation of a separate action, experience, or idea. A character blows out (action) a candle in a bedroom to show death of a loved one.

    Symbol = Object/Sound. Visual or auditory representation of another object. The candle (object) is in the shape of a ballerina to show grace and beauty.

    Motifs = Collections. Collections of related metaphors or symbols used to represent a related concept. Lights or flames going on and off to show life or death states throughout a film.

    Leit Motifs = Repetition. The repetition of identical metaphors or symbols to represent a greater concept. The color of the candle is gold (valuable color), along with other gold symbolic objects and activities in each scene to show the overall concept of what is valuable in a character's life.

Figure 2.20Figure 2.20 When my main character accomplishes her plot goal of completing her vision quest, she tattoos herself with a symbolic brand she saw in her shamanic journey. This symbol helps us see that she has undergone a great transformation. What types of symbols or metaphors can you include in your story to show whether your characters achieve their plot and theme goals?


Setting Up Metaphors and Symbols - You can set up metaphors and symbols in your films in two basic ways:

  • Universal metaphors and symbols have all been used before and everyone understands them right away.

  • Personal metaphors and symbols are those you create by first presenting them and then defining them for the audience.

Figure 2.21Figure 2.21 I developed a leit motif using snakes and spiders to represent unknown fears in my vision quest cave story. Ezzie's biggest fear is poisionous snakes and spiders, and the cave is full of them playing various archetypal roles. At the end of the story, during her shamanic journey, she meets the King Rattle Snake and Queen Black Widow who help her to understand her fears and give her lots of valuable information. Snakes are symbolic of sacred knowledge, death, fear, and rebirth, which fit nicely with the story. Spiders are known for their ability to travel between the real world and the mystical world, which is what the character needs to do to accomplish her plot goals.

Where to Place Metaphors and Symbols in Your Story

Metaphors and symbols can be used to develop plot, theme, and character in deeper ways visually. As a filmmaker, you need to create a unique metaphorical language in your story. You may want to practice taking different storytelling techniques in this book and seeing how you could apply them in metaphorical ways. If you want to show character history, you could have the character doing a metaphorical scene activity from the past, such as a martial arts meditation. You may want to place certain symbolic objects in key scenes, like pictures from exotic travels. The following list will help you think of ideas on where to place metaphorical activities or symbolic objects in your story to help develop plot, theme, and character:

  1. Objects/props. Household items, flags, T-shirts, games, art in room, statues, furniture style, shape of windows, magazines, pictures, weapons, wall hangings, books, instruments, pets, cars, people, houses.

  2. Music/sounds. Background sounds, songs, atmospheric music bed, music in scenes, street noises, weather sounds, sirens, people crying/laughing/ screaming in the next room, weird unexplainable sounds, heaters, equipment, natural sounds, animals, event sounds. Conceptual narrative sound design and auditory metaphors are covered in Chapter 7, "Narrative Sound Design."

  3. Color. The color of everything in the frame may mean something. Refer to the color section in this book to explore some meanings associated with each basic color. Carefully choose colors for everything in each scene, including for costumes, sets, lights, cars, hair color, makeup, props, sky, fur, and weather. If your theme had a color, what would it be? Chapter 6, "Mise En Scène for the Twenty-First Century," covers the use of symbolic color in more detail.

  4. Words. Heard in dialogue or appearing on sets or otherwise onscreen (pop-up bubbles to indicate thought, subtitles, and so on). Posters in the background, titles, onscreen text with background info, poems, fables, stories inside stories, signs, subtitles for slang, graffiti, product names on packages, license plates, bumper stickers, billboards, song lyrics, street names, character names, location, event lingo, speeches, slang, vocabulary, dialect, cultural misinterpretations, multiple meaning for some words, word puzzles, T-shirt sayings.

  5. Sets. Location as character. What does the setting say about the mood of each scene? A conversation in a junkyard has a different context than one at the top of the Eiffel Tower. National monuments, natural settings (swamps, waterfalls, caves, rivers, ocean, desert), cities with different personalities, small-town local flavor, visual themes, types of businesses, geographical themes, amusements parks, clubs, bars, graveyards, temples, stores, abstract interpretations of the Internet, art galleries, circus tents, fantasy places.

  6. Character types. People who represent the theme or plot to the extreme (positive or negative, even an extreme mix of the two). Costumes, stereotypes, fashion preferences, cultural backgrounds, accents, jewelry, uniforms, piercings, tattoos, hats, clothes, masks, T-shirt sayings.

  7. Lighting. Colored lights, light sources, brightness, lighting subjects specific to metaphor. Good characters may be in bright light, whereas evil characters may be darkly lit. Quality of light (time of day as a metaphor). Glowing around certain characters, face-lighting strategies to evoke emotion, source of light (sun, spaceship, flaming building) as metaphor, spinning ambulance lighting in room to represent emergency situation.

  8. Staging. Placement of characters and metaphoric objects inside the frame to represent relationships. Where are your characters in relationship to each other metaphorically? You could have three characters who form a love triangle standing around a fire to represent a secret affair about to be uncovered. What metaphoric items surround the characters? Are they talking while walking through a field of sunflowers or in between cactuses? What metaphoric objects could you place between characters to show relationships or emotional states during a scene? Two characters on opposite sides of the frame with knives hanging on the wall between them may represent conflicting emotions. How could you use a series of staging metaphor shots to show relationships? In Citizen Kane, one of Kane's marriages dissolves in front of our eyes as, in a few quick match cuts, Kane and his wife sit farther and farther away from each other at bigger and bigger dinner tables.

  9. Fables. How could you interject little stories into scenes to show plot, theme, or character? You might want to have just pictures of parable characters or allude to them visually through stuffed animals, statues, paintings, cartoons, or drawings on the set. Try to think of new ways to incorporate parables visually into your films. Perhaps you could make your own little cartoon fable to play on a TV in the background during a scene. You might make up your own original Aesop-type fable, which the characters could discuss, see in a play or on TV, read in a book, hear about in dialogue, or be relayed by a magical object. In the Crying Game, the theme of how you can't change your basic nature is developed by the characters talking about the frog and scorpion fable in each of the three acts. The frog agrees to give the scorpion a ride across the lake, but then gets stung.

  10. Symbol dictionaries. You may want to start collecting resources for metaphors, such as symbol or dream dictionaries, to help you tap into universal subconscious visual metaphors. Listed here are some examples of symbols and possible meanings. Record your own favorite symbols and what they mean to you for use in your films.

Project 2.20

Pick a Color for Your Theme. Choose one color to represent the theme of your film. List five ways to use this theme color, both on physical objects and as a metaphor.

Figure 2.22Figure 2.22 I/O Error. In this short film by Michael Dougan, he uses the metaphor of twin boys to show the theme of how two opposing sides of a person cannot coexist peacefully. One boy is good, and one is evil. Triplet actors were used for the little boys, and compositing techniques in post were used to duplicate the adult actor who plays the grown men.

Figure 2.23Figure 2.23 During the opening shots of Citizen Kane, we are drawn up to a point of light as we get closer and closer to the window of the room in which Kane is dying. When he dies, the light goes out. This is a good use of metaphoric lighting to represent story events. How could you use a similar technique in your story?


Figure 2.24Figure 2.24 This symbol, worn around the neck of a character, was created by taking an ahnk and turning it upside down to show strange religious beliefs. The shape of a flying saucer was laid over the cross to symbolize alien creators. How can you take two symbols and combine their meanings and shapes to make a unique one for your film?

Project 2.21

List Possible Metaphors and Symbols for Your Film. As you go through the following example metaphor and symbol charts, list one idea for each type of chart to use in your film. For example, pick a symbolic animal that may appear somewhere in your story as a pet, in a painting, discussed in dialogue, or as a character in a fable. Practice combining metaphors and symbols and using repeating patterns to create a unique visual language.


Symbolic Meaning


Society, industry, work, dangers of courtship, immortality, rebirth, order


Freedom, flying, between higher and lower worlds


Money, fame, danger, myth, fire


Chivalry, spiritual carrier, supremacy, generosity, courage


Death, war, supernatural, transformer, trickster, messenger, prophet


Unconditional love


Perseverance, spirits of the living, souls of the dead, passionate love


Gentleness, wise rule, famous children

Wild animal

Dangerous passions and people


Noisy, guardian, aggressive


Loyalty, guardian, friend


Danger that lurks out of sight, fear


Playful, spiritual mediator between worlds, helper


Metamorphosis, rebirth, false lover, transformation, soul, summer, joy, witches


Peace, messenger, holy, renewal of life, vulnerability, sensitivity, spirit


All-seeing, pride, vanity, solar glory, royalty, immortality, love, beauty, paradise


Wisdom, scholar, occult powers, all-seeing, death, supernatural protector


Weaving, letters, ability to travel between worlds, architecture, pain


Sacred knowledge, death, afterlife, rebirth, phallic, fertility, eternity, magic, fear


Memory, intelligence, wise nature


Creation, guardians, spirit guide, strength, transformation, healing, courage


Creative abilities, predator, hidden danger

Horned animal

Expanded perception

Nursing animal

Unconditional motherly love


Earth, male, physical, danger, powerful


Symbolic Meaning


True devotion, sweetness


Protection, antiseptic, healing


Restores lost vision


Calming, sweet, soothing for burns and wounds


Troublesome, tough and persistent


Queen of flowers, love, devotion, beauty, sweetness, creative powers


Courage, bravery


Sacred, gold, sun, wild, tall, attractive


Love, remembrance, fidelity (The wife rules the house when rosemary is planted outside.)


Metaphoric Meaning


Unexpected changes


Violent destructive behavior


Chaos, destruction, welled-up emotions overflowing, retribution


Forces beyond our control, passion


Sadness, romantic, cold, fetility, precious, life-giving


Wholeness, beauty, perfection, bridge between heaven and earth, unity

Hot and Sunny

Hot tempers, sensual, summer, lazy, fun

Cold and Icy

Frozen emotions, cold feelings, static, winter, sharp, harsh, survival, death


Symbolic Meaning


Authority, sacrifice, punishment


Beautiful but fragile object, nonpermanent, childlike happiness


Cosmic totality


Psychic ability, fertility


Danger, anger, speed


Pleasure, sweetness, fertility

Ice cream

Pleasurable, sensual tastes


Becoming more powerfully expressive




Grounding, in touch with life (Weird shoes mean new change.)


Ups and downs of life


Stability, grounded, sanctuary


Warning, disaster, death, alarm, religious


Passion, desire, anger, destruction


Rebirth, learning, evolution, path


Creative energy, male, transformation, higher consciousness, light


Unconscious, intuition, female, cycles, changing


Unfortunate event


Overcome by emotions


Birth, consciousness


Acceptance, approval, respect




Earthly passion/sensuality


Overcoming conflict between two parts of ourselves


Spiritual awareness, death




Fertility, wine, pleasure, harvest

Falling leaves

Harvest, dropping, letting go, surrender


Clarity of perception


Source, life-giving spring, medicinal, spiritual refreshment


Change in state, secular power, ownership, new beginnings


Supernatural portal, birth, blessings, mercy, unusual events


Identity, nationhood, allegiance


Ascent/descent, spiritual transformation, stages of work, death


Metaphoric Meaning


Death, rejuvenation, bloody, violent


Rebellious, anarchy, lawbreaker


Female authority figure, ruler, political


Inner creative force made physical


Authority, manager of resources, wealth


Healer, authority, respect, caregiver


Wisdom, father figure, unconscious, knowledge


Intuitive, female, moon, independence, responsibility, clarity, balance, clairvoyance

Rock Star

Superman, decadent, talent


Sculpting earth, connected to plants, making natural things beautiful


Server of justice, shark-like instincts


Brave, team player, trained for combat


Risk taker, big money, fast decisions


Server, cheerful


Detail-oriented, office worker, assistant


Trained to pretend different feelings or personalities, hard to read

Scene Activities

Metaphoric Meaning


Respect, humility, sacred, spiritual, asking for guidance

Getting a tattoo

Transformation, symbolic of character change, rebel, outsider


Ecstasy, trance, celebration, ritual, playfulness, worship, performance


Cleansing, rebirth, purification, regaining youthfulness


Spiritual quest, search, pilgrimage, test, new beginnings, change


Skill, prowess, risk, death, persecution, domination


Combining Metaphors. How could you combine some of the previous examples of metaphors to create new ones? Create three different combinations with explanations for what they represent. How could you add specific colors and numbers to deepen the meaning? You could compose a shot of a queen figure eating a fig, with two woodpeckers on her shoulder, next to a pyramid, with lightning bolts in the background, to symbolize female authority, guardians, psychic ability, concentrating power within, and unexpected change.

  1. Numbers. Sacred geometry is universal and will help you plan story elements using numbers as metaphors. You could have a character say he has seven (often associated with being lucky) dreams about an upcoming event. Or use the corresponding geometry and shapes when constructing your scenes, such as having seven colored stones on an altar that a character uses to pray for things.

  2. Juxtaposition. Show the audience one metaphor or symbol, then another, and have them draw a third separate conclusion from the two. Chapter 8, "Preproduction Story-Editing Choices," covers in depth ways to use juxtaposition.

  3. Number

    Symbolic Meaning


    Number "1," top of group, circle, wholeness, center, unity, oneself, independence, single purpose, universe, equality, seed, stable, father, intolerance, stubbornness


    Partnership, duality, indecision, balance, 2 sides, opposites, relationships, root, mother, indecision, indifference, making choices


    Third time a charm, things always come in 3s, 2 failures to 1 success, triangle, harmony, freedom, completion, relationship/balance, holy divinity, power, God's halo


    Square, strength, stability, Mother Earth, heart, 4 directions, 4 elements, grounded, clumsiness, dull


    Human body, 5 senses, stars, leaves, communication, nature, footprints, regeneration, vortex, authority (five-star general/sheriff star) spiral/transformation (the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz begins as a golden spiral (based on 5) to symbolize transformation).


    Structure, balance, order, function, time, weights, intuition, practical


    Magical, God, spiritual, cycles, excellence, myth, luck, musical harmony, crystals, rainbow, chakras, religion, virgin, dreams, voices, sounds, higher self, levels


    Renewal, death/resurrection, nourishing, resonance, cosmic breath, chessboard, moon phases, limitless growth, goddess, traveling between higher and lower worlds (spider), atom groups, natural vibration


    Completion, spiritual awareness, pregnancy, gift, highest attainment, ocean, horizon, ultimate extension, worship, essential elements, cosmic ruler


    New beginning, high honor, whole family, perfect, top score


    Master number, mystical, gateway, higher dimensions, higher consciousness

Figure 2.25Figure 2.25 According to Norse mythology, horses could understand the will of the gods. Odin rode an eight-legged stallion called Sleipnir. The eight from our number chart symbolizes the ability to go between worlds (like spiders with eight legs). This combination of number and symbol works well for this myth. How could you combine established metaphors to create original ones? How could you use your digital tools to create new visual metaphors? It would be interesting to see an eight-legged 2D or 3D animated horse.

Figure 2.26Figure 2.26 This Bigfoot biting the head off of a raven (death) could be a metaphor to foreshadow a close brush with death or a metaphor for overcoming the fear of death.

Using Visual Metaphors to Show Character History

Metaphors and symbols are a great way to develop your character history. Go through your character history questions and see how you could show the important points using metaphors.

Figure 2.27Figure 2.27 Clocks are sometimes shown going haywire when something in the film world is out of synch. What other types of ordinary symbolic objects or metaphors could you play with visually to show the state of your film world changing?

Project 2.22

Use Metaphors and Symbols. Think of three ideas to show character history using metaphors and symbols somewhere in your film.

Using Visual Metaphors to Show Backstory

Metaphors are great to develop the backstory for your film without having to explain everything.

Using Visual Metaphors to Show Character Traits

Metaphors are great tools to use when developing character traits.

Character History

Metaphoric/Symbolic Image Description in Script

Strange rituals in family for immortality.

Blue shrine full of glass bees in character's bedroom.

Weird hobbies for character in position of authority.

Royal sporting axes hung on walls.

Character feels trapped in old symbolize loss of freedom.

Character eats partner's pet bird to relationship.

Dangerous person.

Pet alligators and venomous snakes crawl around backyard.

Well-educated and cultured upbringing.

Has a grand piano delivered to house.

Misses lost love.

Carries a picture, gift from beloved, or ribbon from hair.

Artistic side.

Artwork displayed.

Most prized possession is an old love letter.

Letter is kept in a secret draw in a gold case.

Character is very happy and playful emotionally.

Wears rainbow suspenders, has a pinball machine in his bedroom, and has funny toys

Character needs tension to create.

Character turns on music really loud late at night to build sculpture, disturbing other people.

Character is terrified of getting sick.

Wears gloves, disinfects chairs before he sits down, wipes off phones, wears a surgical mask outside.

Character thinks the good old days were better.

Character drives a 1957 Chevy and wears vintage clothes.

Backstory Information

Metaphoric/Symbolic Image Description in Script

Leader of film world as an outlaw

Picture of king surrounded by gun collection framed on the wall.

Social order of people in town

Rich people wear bright colors, walking poodles; poor people wear gray and are sweeping the street.

Lay of the land with edge of the known world said to be forbidden

Mural featuring a map with the edge of world full of monsters; characters call it "the edge."

Important heroes who character admires

Temple devoted to dead hero in middle of town.

Past catastrophic event

Pitch-black historical memorial site with a big flame still burning.

Character Trait

Metaphoric/Symbolic Image Description in Script


Uniform, medals on chest, ribbons, special gold scepter.

Professional wrestler

Superhero outfit, mullet, gold chains with wrestling medals around neck, apartment full of wrestling posters and trophies.


Silver flask in pocket, mini liquor bars in secret spots in each location, drinking at each location.


Tattoo of girl's name on heart, carrying fresh picked flowers, digital effects slight golden glow aura.


Character hiding from recognition events, awards.


Carries books everywhere, uses a magnifying glass to look at things, wears glasses, hangs out at museums.


Hair perfect, tight starched clothing, gets upset about litter on the street or slow people at stores.


Scars on body, wears hidden weapons, jumps when people touch him from behind, flips into martial arts pose when startled.

Figure 2.28Figure 2.28 This sacred Bigfoot cave has symbolic paintings on the walls that tell the history of the clan (to develop backstory information).

Project 2.23

Backstory Objects. Choose 10 items to place symbolically on your sets to represent the backstory of your film using the metaphoric approaches previously described.

Project 2.24

Character Trait Metaphors and Symbols. Think of three ideas to show character traits using metaphors and symbols somewhere in your film.

Using Visual Metaphors to Show Character States

Mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, and intellectual states of characters should be expressed through metaphoric and symbolic cues. An object may be present in the scene to symbolize a character's state or the character may say something that gives us a clue.

In Transit, the Venice hotel room has clothes all over the floor, symbolizing how messed up Emmy's life has become with Oscar. She has a black eye, too. These visual clues let us know her character state in the scene. In the Baden-Baden scene with her husband, the hotel room is perfectly neat—with separate twin beds symbolizing the state of their marriage. How can you use symbols like this to show us character states in each scene?

Figure 2.29Figure 2.29 This Bigfoot finally snaps one day during a date and punches a hole through a tree. How could you show your characters having uncontrollable outbursts or overwhelming emotional moments that cause them to change suddenly in your film?

Project 2.25

Create Character States. Think of three ideas to show character states using metaphors and symbols somewhere in your film.

Character State

Metaphoric/Symbolic Image Description in Script

Someone not what he or she seems

Reflection in funhouse mirrors

Wise shaman head of tribe

Says he only "drinks out of ancient skull"

Person going crazy

Gory disturbing art project the character is making throughout film

Loss of life force

Crops in field dying

Relationship status negative

Couple fighting over the color of drapes

Lost-love memory

Pendant with old picture around neck

Revenge for death of loved one

Handmade knife from loved one's family

Midlife crisis

Character buys Harley-Davidson motorcycle

Obsessed with food

Character digging around for hidden candy bars

Scientific mindset

Has vision looking into liquid inside heated glass beaker

Losing important object

Dog floating down the river

Spiritual epiphany

Shaves head or cuts off hair to symbolize new beginning or mindset

Needs to control every little thing because of fear of chaos in world

Arranging objects in straight lines

Needs to feel clean in a dirty business

Taking very long and meticulous grooming shower with lots of special lotions and shampoos

Character hitting bottom

Character starving in a dark messy house

Using Visual Metaphors/ Symbols with Nature Shots

In the animated short Transit, we see subtitles of what happens to the characters at the end. When the information comes up about Emmy being missing and her body never found, an ominous shark fin glides by the floating suitcase in the water and then the suitcase sinks. This symbolizes foul play is involved in her disappearance; after all, sharks can eat people and leave no clues. A puddle of blood then forms on the surface of the water, letting us know that Oscar killed her, cut her up, and threw her body overboard in the suitcase. All of this information is conveyed with simple text on the screen and a shark fin moving around a symbolic suitcase covered with travel stickers from the places they had visited together.

Figure 2.30Figure 2.30 Mutant bugs and snails in a toxic waste dump cave could be used to show the dangerous effects of chemicals on living organisms.

Event Occurring in Scene or Another Area

Metaphoric/Symbolic Image Description in Script


Black crows on a snow-covered black winter tree


Springtime shots of flowers blooming, little birds in nests chirping, sunny skies, green grass

Losing important relationship

Dog watching a ball roll into storm drain and looking upset

Someone about to steal

Fox in henhouse stealing chickens

Catastrophic event coming

Comets (lens-flare effects) in sky

Rough emotions

Big waves crashing on rocks

Spiritual epiphany

White animal being born in a barn


Blood running into water

Lots of work to be done

An anthill or bees in background

Angry emotions boiling over

Heat waves melting up from a prickly cactus-covered desert road

Project 2.26

Create Nature Shots. Think of three ideas to use nature shots with metaphors and symbols to visually develop information in your story.

Writing Exercise 2.12

Write a few pages concentrating on just using different types of metaphors, symbols, and themes.

Using Metaphors and Symbols to Show Theme

As discussed earlier, metaphors and symbols are great ways to show theme in subtle ways. You could turn your characters into animated animals or use some of your digital tools to invent new types of metaphoric characters. What other ways can you use metaphors and symbols to show themes in your film?

David Lynch is a master of cinematic metaphor. All of his films, and the TV show Twin Peaks, are worth studying for how they handle metaphor in bold, simple, and original ways. He is particularly good at creating personal metaphors and symbols. An opening scene in the film Fire Walk with Me takes place at an airport (new beginnings); this sets up the whole film. A dancing girl in a red dress comes out and does a quick pantomime, but says nothing, as the three detectives carefully watch. Later on in the car, one detective asks the more experienced one what the dancing girl meant. Below is a chart breaking down the metaphors and symbols of the "dancing girl" scene. The audience would never understand the meaning of this symbolic language unless the characters explain them, which makes the metaphors a personal creation of the filmmaker.

The theme of the movie is that in the search for meaning, you cannot know everything and nothing is what it seems, which is wonderfully illustrated with the use of visual metaphors and symbols. Detectives as characters are metaphors for solving a mystery, such as solving life's mysteries, which is part of the theme of the film. Theme and metaphor are often tied together very closely in visual stories.

This scene is interesting because of the original use of metaphors and symbols. If the film would have started in an office with the detectives talking about the case, it would have been flat, uninteresting, cliché, and boring. The startling use of personal metaphors in this film pull us into the story, much like a puzzle we need to solve to understand what is happening.

Figure 2.31Figure 2.31 This bluescreened character is floating over a motion graphics timeline animation of his life as a dream. How could you create an original dream sequence in a film using digital tools? Maybe you could build a surreal dreamscape in a 3D or 2D photo collage, and use bluescreened characters flying or drifting over areas.


Write Down Your Dreams. If you have problems remembering your dreams, just tell yourself before you go to bed that you will remember them and keep a notebook with a pen nearby so that you can write them down as soon as you wake up. You may even want to tell yourself to dream that night of certain themes or questions to see what comes up. Write all dreams down even if they do not make sense, because they might reveal their meanings later. Sketch any cinematic elements of dreams next to the description if you have time.

Using Your Dreams to Help Create a Personal Visual Language

Many of us have developed a personal system of metaphors and symbols from life experiences hidden deep inside our subconscious, and these often show up in our nightly dreams. Maybe whenever you dream about playing chess, you are having to think strategically about changing some situation in your daily life. You may want to keep a dream journal and get a sense of how your mind thinks about metaphor and symbol, which you can then work into your films. The more you write down your dreams, the more you understand how you personally think in visual symbols and metaphors. Dreams can often help us find new ways to communicate visually on a deeper subconscious level, to show emotions or situations that may be hard to explain with straightforward dialogue or action.

Shot in Fire Walk with Me

Metaphoric/Symbolic Meaning

Someone smashes a TV set during one the TV show Twin Peaks.

This film is going to be different from of the opening shots.

FBI detective has a safe strapped around his body.

"He cracked the Whitman case," meaning this man is good at solving mysteries.

David Lynch makes a cameo as an FBI boss.

This is important information, so pay attention.

Dancing girl in a red dress comes out with a sour-looking face and does a quick pantomime.

Sour face means problems with the local authorities.

Dancing girl's eyes are both blinking.

Trouble higher up with sheriff and deputies.

Dancing girl has one hand in pocket, and one in a fist.

The local authorities are hiding something, and they are going to be belligerent.

Dancing girl starts walking in place.

This case will involve a lot of legwork.

Different colored thread has been used to alter the girl's dress to size.

Tailored dresses are code for drugs.

Blue rose pinned to dress.

No such thing as a blue rose. More experienced detective tells the other one, "Can't tell you about that." Hermeneutic search symbol.

Creating Film Puzzles with Metaphors

Films are like puzzles and people like to try and figure things out in their heads. What was "Rosebud" a metaphor for in Citizen Kane? This is the dying Kane's last word at the start of the film, and the rest of the movie is a search to discover who or what Rosebud was about. Film geeks continue to argue about the true meaning of "Rosebud" whenever the subject comes up.

How can you put a puzzling aspect in your film to make it more engaging? Can you ask some type of visual question or create a visual puzzle? In Memento, the main character is trying to figure out who killed his wife, which gets pretty messy and confusing because he cannot remember anything for more than 10 minutes. Polaroid pictures serve as the metaphoric puzzle pieces this character uses to try and put his past back together. The answer to both these film puzzles are still not very clear even by the end of the films. Sometimes it is more interesting not to solve everything for the audience and let them figure it out for themselves (or continue to question).

NOTE - Definition

Hermeneutic The search for meaning. This popular philosophy comments on how humans search for meaning in films. Watch for this idea and see how each director handles it differently.

Figure 2.32Figure 2.32 Metaphoric Puzzles. Orson Wells gives us an extreme close-up of Kane's last word, "Rosebud," which serves as the mystery puzzle to be solved in the film.


Create a Puzzle in Your Film. Think of some way to twist your plot around a mystery or puzzle for the audience to solve. Review your favorite films that have puzzles and add the techniques used to this list. A good approach is to begin near the middle or end of the story and figure out some reason to go over what happened. You might use a detective interviewing someone about a crime, an old person thinking about her life, a reporter interviewing someone, a character reflecting back on his experiences through old photographs, a character telling his story in a voice-over, or present a mystery to be solved.

Film Puzzle Ideas to Get You Started

A character cannot remember something, but she is trying to find out what it is by using visually metaphoric clues.

A mystery event, crime, or situation needs to be solved.

Key character says something puzzling and then disappears.

One character is trying to find out the truth about someone/something that is not what it appears to be.

The character is displaying puzzling behavior, which is discovered to be connected to a past and forgotten trauma.

The character is trying to understand a strange situation. The character is in such a setup, alternate reality, or dream.

The character finds a strange object or information he has been tracking down.

Use multiple story lines, different character POV's, or characters intersecting at key points.

Working with Positive and Negative Theme Charges

Another way to work with metaphor and theme is to play back and forth between negative and positive manifestations throughout the film.

Different characters often represent different perspectives on the same theme. If you are doing a theme on loyalty among gangsters, you could have one super-loyal gangster, one who is playing two different crime families against each other, and some people who go back and forth between loyalty and disloyalty. What happens to these characters shows us your theme. If the super-loyal character gets rich and the two-timing one dies horribly, loyalty is a good thing. If the super-loyal gangster gets killed and the disloyal one wins the big prize, loyalty is not important or is even a bad thing in your film world.

NOTE - Definition

Theme Charge Negative or positive manifestations of theme.

Characters themselves can be great metaphors for themes.

Project 2.27

List Positive and Negative Theme Charges. How could you have different characters or situations represent positive and negative sides of your theme?

The main character in Kafka's Metamorphosis wakes up one day as a cockroach. How can you play with transforming your character types to showcase your theme better? Digital tools and animation techniques make it easier to turn characters into bugs or other metaphoric creatures. Harvey is a 10-minute short film from Australia with a character that is literally sawed in half (3D effect) looking for his better half or ideal relationship (a great use of visual metaphor with digitally enhanced original character design). How could you use DV effects or 2D/3D animation to metaphorically show your characters in a new way?

What type of metaphor can each of your characters represent in your film world? What do the characters do for a living, how do they dress, what kind of cars do they drive, where do they live?

Themes sometimes represent best dreams or worst flaws. Who is destroyed? Who grows? What special quality in the protagonist helps him achieve his goals? In Lily and Jim, both main characters want a relationship, but both of them have pretty ineffective communication skills (worst flaw and theme).

Using Visual Metaphors to Develop Theme

The theme, or unspoken moral message of the story, needs to be carefully handled. You must make sure the audience gets the theme on some level, but not be too preachy (a delicate balance). Metaphors provide a great way to communicate theme while telling your story visually.

You can use existing metaphors or create your own original visual metaphoric language for your film. Suppose that you are doing a film on the theme of greed. You might have all the really greedy characters wearing green, talking about money, clinging cash registers in the background, characters using greed-type slang such as "time is money," people in the background chasing blowing dollar bills, or a lead character counting his money as he delivers his lines. The best approach for developing visual metaphors and symbols is to create a list of possible ideas and then see which ones you can play with without being too obvious or preachy.

Figure 2.33Figure 2.33 A character falling into a bottomless pit could be metaphoric for diving into the unconscious. The theme of my film is that every living being has a specific purpose. The theme goal of my protagonist is to find her purpose by learning to trust her intuition. Showing her falling into a pit is a good way to symbolize going deep inside to find her purpose and trust the hidden parts of her intuition.


Metaphoric/Symbolic Image Description in Script

Treasure the little things in life.

Character eating fresh pie, savoring every bite.

Alienation of youth.

Young character looking out of place at grownup party.

Desire leads to suffering.

Character getting beat up trying to get what he wants.

Exploration of character.

Searching for meaning of last word uttered on deathbed.

The blurry line between sanity and insanity.

Show all the characters acting crazy but functional.

Violence as cost of individuality.

Hip, artsy, unique criminal characters.

Cost of deception.

Pet cat found hanging on clothesline by antagonist.

Power of love can change fate.

Character screaming so loud that he wins game of chance to save lover.

Writing Exercise 2.13

Write a few pages about how to show your theme using a unique set of metaphors and symbols.

Project 2.28

Showing Theme. Think of five symbols or metaphors to show theme in your film.

The opening shot of the film Memento shows a fresh Polaroid picture as it develops. It takes a moment for viewers to realize that the film is rolling backward—the picture is becoming less clear the longer we watch it. This is a great visual symbol for the theme of the way we reconstruct memory and how what we remember fades and changes over time. This whole film is told backward in short memory bursts because the main character can remember things for only 10 minutes at a time. Polaroids are the way this character keeps track of who people are and what he thinks is happening. The opening shot tells us a great deal about the character, plot, and theme in a stunningly original visual metaphor that is both simple and deeply complex at the same time.

When you really understand your main characters, metaphors, and theme, it is much easier to develop the events in your story and write your script. Building up original characters is like creating new beings in the world who start to take on a life of their own inside your imagination. Creating strong metaphors and themes will make your story deeper and help you choose visual designs that fit the ideas you are presenting.

Figure 2.34Figure 2.34 Ezzie stole a video cell phone from a camper and likes to crank call the speed dial people and scare them with her big furry face and ferocious roar. Sometimes during the film, she calls different people on the phone and asks for help or advice, or does something silly. This helps show a connection between the Bigfoot film world and the human world. A Bigfoot using a video phone could be interpreted as a metaphor for the way technology is trickling down into the masses and changing our lives in unexpected ways. This idea could be used as a subplot device in an animated series where the character steals a different phone each week and talks to a new cast of speed dial people. How could you incorporate a unique digital storytelling approach in your film as a symbol or metaphor for theme? Maybe your character could consult his PDA–playing DV video clips you create to show a higher power guiding him through the story. What other digitally enhanced gizmos could you use to tell us a story in a new way?

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