Visual Metaphors in a screenplay

What Is A Visual Metaphor? The Art Of Incorporating Visual Metaphors In Your Screenplay

Cinema has come a long way since its birth. From an entertaining perspective for the audiences to spreading an ideology and masterful storytelling to the moviegoers. And the latter contains visual metaphors – the Hands of Fine Cinema. 

And to be a masterful storyteller, practice is godly. It may not be a sinecure, but you can start learning and improving your profession’s working core – storytelling.

The hands that shape the characters, the story, and the plot are visual metaphors. 

‘But what does this even mean? How can I spot one in a film? What does it contribute to the story as a whole? How can I create and incorporate a visual metaphor in my screenplay?’ 

These kinds of questions may arise in your mind, and we are here to answer and forge a path for all the writers to visualize, write and create visual metaphors in their own work in their own way.

This article contributed to the construction and arrangement of literary innovations to established, professional, and mature writing. 

This may seem quite intimidating for budding screenwriters, but ostensibly visual metaphors aren’t something that you can write and place in the first draft right away. 

For them to have an appropriate pedestal in the story, you need to focus on the story itself first and then without encumbering yourself with hollow ideas, look out for ones that hold your story together tightly in a fist – it could be in a theme, character’s story, its outline or core value.

Without disparaging films that contain less to no metaphors, it can be said that films that actually do contain those small incidents and objects that possess the metaphorical quality and along with pulchritude, offer a strong benefaction to the depth of the story hold a lot of creative dominion over an audience.   


The textbook definition is that the ‘Visual Metaphor’ is a thorough image or a scene corresponding to the related storyline, character, theme, plot, or the incidents shown in the film.

Did you notice that the visual metaphors are related to almost every aspect directed on the screen except dialogues? It is so because they aren’t purely visual and they are mostly direct in conveying the main agenda of the story. 

When scenes or characters take the form of metaphors and pass on the message or an important aspect going on in the story that we should be known for, a visual metaphor is used.

To elucidate further, a difference between conveying an incident through dialogue versus depicting it through visual metaphor is written below.

The Dialogue Unfolding – visual metaphors

Film metaphors

In the above-written conversation excerpt, it is revealed by a character named Jamie that a person named Clara has died and Artie who is somehow related to her has been hit with sadness with the revelation.

Obviously, seeing this play out on the screen is not as shocking because it doesn’t show the character’s being, and the related information is given out from a second-person perspective, so it has less impact on the paper and on the screen.

Now, we will include reduced or almost no dialogue in this below scene. This way, the visual metaphor will come into play.

Film metaphors

In the above-written scene, not the dialogues, but the emotions, the placement of objects, and their universal meanings speak to the audience.

The fact that Clara has passed away is confirmed with the after-funeral service at her home, with her picture as the main focus of the scene. A quiet, ever-burning sob trumps the two-worded exclamation with ease.

The visual metaphor of lilies, the people in black (flowers that are a symbol of death) establish the overall theme of death.  

How is visual metaphor used in a narrative?

Narrative films and television are the most common type of filmmaking and writing. As the titular word describes, ‘narrative’ defines a sequential story arranged with scenes narrated by someone, so it is an active action of storytelling as the plot unfolds.

The narration wholly brings the film together by adding a layer of cohesiveness and understanding that is appreciated by the audience, the screenplay readers, and your story’s skeleton.

Using visual metaphors in a narrative can be as tricky as writing with none. The thing with the metaphors is you don’t even know when you include them until you finish your screenplay.

Correlating to ideas should not be the moment where there are just naked clues and depictions lying in front of the screen that calls back to the theme or the relating factor, but they should cleverly be placed in your screenplay, almost with omnipresence. 

The metaphor of course can’t be explained in the manuscript, but as you keep bringing the object related to it, the picture will begin to get clearer and the philosophical definition comes to us.

Narrative fictional films that are made with intricate details and attention contain subtle, subliminal metaphors that comment on real issues, first-world problems without losing the focus on the main plot.  

Narrative films with a political message, universal issue, can and may spread a valuable influence over society. 

To advocate this probability, you can search for award-winning narrative films and look out for those metaphors that hold the plots, characters, and the subplot like a thread. 

Write those metaphors down and work on their meanings and think about the screenwriter’s need to write them in scenes.

Films using Visual Metaphors

THE FAVOURITE’ directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Examples of visual metaphors The Favourite
Image Source

“The Favourite” is a brutal film that shines a light on relationship dynamics, class portrayal in history, and the stealth of surviving in the ever-changing times in England. We are going to decode one of the most approachable metaphors in this tale of love and royalty.

The Queen has rabbits in her sleeping chamber in cages and treats them like her own children, with meticulous care. 

As seen in one of the later scenes, Queen Anne reveals that she lost her seventeen children and when they pass away, a small piece of her goes with them. 

The rabbits are the visual metaphors of her lost children. They are omnipresent in the scene and they have hardly any screen-time except in the ending and whilst in the background, but they signify the relentless trauma and terror of losing her kids she went through.

RUN’ directed by Aneesh Chaganty

Examples of visual metaphors Run
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A psychological thriller starring Sarah Paulson and Kiera Allen had become well-known at the time of its release due to exceptional acting by the forefront cast, and of course, the main plot. 

In the film, the character of the mother, Diane Sherman, played by Sarah Paulson has a Munchausen proxy and will do anything to keep her handicapped daughter under her vision and care. 

When the daughter comes to know of the hideous acts her mother did to prevent her from going out, the story takes a dark turn.

The creation of Diane Sherman is what grabs the audience. Being a mother and then inflicting pain, violence, and negativity on her loving daughter is an ironic situation, but it is also what makes the creation of a skillfully written negative character acquire sympathy from us.  

Speaking of visual metaphors, it is obvious that the metaphor is the medications – the dangerous pills, the antibiotics, to keep her from walking again.   

As the motherly love turns into a stark obsession for her daughter to be safe and locked down in the house, the daughter constantly tries to escape. 

Even though this film has a lot of shocking twists and turns, the main focus of the plot is medicine, which acts as a ball and chain for her daughter to be trapped with.

THE MUSIC ROOM’ directed by Satyajit Ray

Examples of visual metaphors The Music Room
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Satyajit Ray’s 1958 feature film ‘Jalsaghar’ or ‘The Music Room’ celebrates melancholy and saddens celebrations. Huzoor is a wildly content man who thirsts for music, dance, liquor, and audience. 

Even though he lies before the performers under the intriguing chandelier, it feels as if he is in the center of the stage, being appraised for his selflessness for showcasing the beauty of dance, vivid talent in his celebration hall. 

Every time performance is booked, glasses are filled with the richest of whiskeys, chandeliers are brightened with brand new candles, grounds are laid with silk mats and hookahs are lit with best intentions.

The star of ‘Jalsaghar’ is not the cast at all – it is the royal, enigmatic chandelier which we are introduced to even before the characters in the opening credits. 

It is easy to know that these types of chandeliers symbolize wealth, a sense of achievement.  The main character is based around those symbols themselves, so it would be safe to imply that the glimmering chandelier is the characterization of our Huzoor.

As everyone leaves towards the end of the film, as the glasses go empty with faint nostalgia of the mesmerizing performance, and the candles melt away into a heartless void, the darkness encapsulates the power of joy. 

Ray embraces the loneliness and the stark terror of being left alone and being forgotten. With cinematography and direction ahead of its time, the film was elevated by Roshan Kumari, who captivated the screen with her graceful performance.

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE’ directed by Celine Sciamma

Examples of visual metaphors Portrait of a Lady In Fire
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One of the most emotionally powerful films released in 2019 starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel had gathered a gargantuan set of audiences that empathized with the characters and their heartbreaking dilemmas. 

Marianne, played by Merlant, is an artist and is commissioned to paint a portrait of Haenel’s character Héloïse, a young woman in the upper-strata of the historical societal division, who is to be married away to a nobleman.

For the people who have watched this film, it would be less of a mystery to pick out the visual metaphor that is introduced quite a bit later in the story – ‘page 28’.  

Page 28 signifies the token of goodbye as well as remembrance, which is caught towards the climax of the film. 

For the rest who do not have any idea, here is the build-up to the importance of this visual metaphor – As the portrait is completed and Haenel-Heloise’s sacrosanct tale comes to an end, Haenel draws a sketch of Heloise in a novel’s page, the page’s count being 28.

Even though they part with different intentions, they stay together in their impossible dream through the drawing of hers on page 28 – both as a fleeting moment of past euphoria and present memorial of their eternal relationship.

How visual metaphor makes an impact on the audience’s mind?

Connection, link, relation – whatever you call it; always has a strong grip on a person’s psychology. 

A gargantuan chunk of any existing object or a factor doesn’t exist wholly by itself, but by connecting tinier links that give rise to its own megalopolis. 

But, we aren’t talking about a factory line constituting a single product or a group of houses and amenities birthing an urban pavilion.

Those types of connection build a certain thing, and then the other type of connection is relation and correspondence, on which the idea of visual metaphor thrives.  

When you catch a scene of a certain scene that holds no importance to the story but has been written for its visual aesthetics, it is nothing except an eye-candy to keep the audience engaged for a moment. 

Every scene you think about and write must be connected to the plot and must help the story go on. That is how the audience is kept on the edge of their seat as the film goes on.

But, as the film ends and the credits roll, do any of the people in the audience sit restlessly and ruminate on what they watched? 

Unfortunately, it is difficult because these kinds of films where there are no visual metaphors or cautiously-written scenes, which provide them ephemeral, short-lived adrenaline, and then most of the audience, move on. 

That is why, along with writing a great scene, directing that great scene is as necessary. Filmmaking is a great option for writers who like to see their film play out exactly the way they envisioned it to be.

Incorporating visual metaphor in a screenplay

So, how do we writers make an impact on the audience at visual metaphors’ disposal? Do we need to be professional screenwriters to write metaphors? 

The answer to this is learning screenwriting from its roots to its variations, and fortunately, there are quite a few screenwriting classes you can attend to learn it like a professional.

Talking about writing and including the metaphors, here are five steps on how to grab the moviegoers’ attention through displaying an array of breathtaking scenes with metaphors without losing the light on the core.

STEP ONE – The Metaphor List

This is the first step to birthing visual metaphors. To begin, you need to complete the screenplay from ‘fade in’ to ‘fade to black’. No exceptions. 

Then, as said before, if you come across an idea for a metaphor in a screenplay, you can add it. To keep a track of the number of ideas, jot them down on a fresh document – no matter how smart, dumb, or far-fetched they may seem. 

Tip #3 will help us filter the needless out.

STEP TWO – The Connections

Read through all the freshly incubated and matured ideas and work ahead to the connections of these visual metaphors to the related incidents, plot points, inciting action, character arc, whatever seems necessary. 

Next to the metaphorical object, write what it signifies or constitutes to, without expanding a lot on the written idea. Remember to have a hint beside the idea – scene number, character’s name, deed, foretelling, etc.

STEP THREE – The Throwaway

This is the tip where a fresh set of eyes and ears could be appreciated. 

There is no need for them to read the whole screenplay – you can just narrate the story, including the visual metaphors and what they depict regarding the factors in the manuscript. You can do it yourself, too. 

Just sit down with a calm mind and start picking away the purposeless metaphors. The filtering could help a lot if you have too many ideas in the list.

STEP FOUR – The Placement

This is the trickiest part in decoding the treasure of a screenplay’s secrets. Placing beautifully thought-out visual metaphors in the wrong line on the screenplay can and will result in a literary disaster. 

Films are watched with utmost focus and shall be written with utmost focus, so if you deviate the metaphorical meaning in scenes by the poor structure of arrangement in the scene, the mix-up can cause jarring results of intellectual gibberish. 

To prevent this havoc, keep your selected ideal metaphors by your screenplay and try until you succeed – it is both diligent and the easiest way. 

The visual metaphors are never exposed in the forefront; they are always the reason why cinephiles rack their brains.

STEP FIVE – The Finished Product

This is the fruition of your painstaking pondering and endless rewrite sessions. 

You have your visual metaphors now woven in the screenplay and you have at last created a screenplay of a film that the audience will love (if you have taken good care of the other aspects of the screenplay as well). 

If visual metaphors make your screenplay lengthy, then you need to either cut off the lines without reducing the importance of your metaphor – remember that you only have to include it in the correct place and it should take no extra space in your script.

Is it compulsory for every film to have visual metaphors?

Believe it or not, some films that do not feel the need to include metaphor in their movies end up including one or a couple just because of the impromptu, meaningful connective idea popping in your mind as you keep writing ahead.

Whether it be sheer negligence or needlessness to include visual metaphors, the films that actually are devoid of them do not have much of a difference if you see it from a shallow-surfaced point of view. 

Without being garrulous, it can be said that visual metaphors are not compulsory, but they should be included in films. A strong visual metaphor in a simple story is cherry on top of the cake.

An erudite writer may state that the incorporation of visual metaphors in every film is extremely necessary, however, it is definitely not. 

But they do bring a sense of artistic direction in the fiction screenplay and establish a firm commentary or a call-back to a certain factor in reality.

Not only that, but a visual metaphor does one of the most useful and paramount deeds a film should do – form a link between the story and the audience. 

A lesson, message, or an incident that they should be able to relate to is an example of great writing, but also a skilled mind to weave in the linking hooks, A.K.A. the visual metaphors.

A novel’s story can be completed in a series of editing until it is perfect. But, a screenplay keeps changing its story’s form repeatedly and does not get completed until it is finally showcased on the screen.


After reading through all the benefits and boons of visual metaphors in films, it wouldn’t hurt to try out the process of creating one and using it for your own screenplay or story. 

The first draft should be written from the heart but should be edited and strengthened with a pragmatic and fastidious perspective.

In the myriad of writing processes and brainstorm sessions, visual metaphor’s inclusion may seem fractious as it requires quite head-scratching and hardy diligence, but there is no doubt that your screenplay will only benefit from it.

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