Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Use Visual Metaphors, Not Verbal Similes

Symbolism is tricky. If you’re too vague, then it’s meaningless, but if you hit the nail too firmly on the head, then you might incur eye-rolling, which knocks the audience out of the movie. As with many other aspects of filmmaking, it works best when the meaning is so implicit in the visual that it doesn’t need to get called out verbally.

The 40 Year Old Virgin has several great examples of implicit visual metaphors:
  • When Andy goes home with his first one-night-stand, she weaves all over the road at high speed, symbolizing his own feeling that he’s losing control and going too fast. This ends in a wreck, literally and figuratively.
  • After the trans-prostitute incident, Andy finally rejects the advice of the guys and storms out to cross the street and ask Trish out. As he does so, he walks through traffic as cars zip by him on all sides, symbolizing both the riskiness of his action and his newfound implacability.
  • Early on, Andy tries to avoid looking at a bus with a sexy cologne ad on it, but in the end he flies off his bike and right into a moving-billboard version of the same ad, crashing through to the other side, where he lands in front of Trish and finally admits the truth.
But it also has one example that gets a little too pointed: When David advises Andy to masturbate, he reaches for one of Andy’s still-in-the-box action figures...
  • You’re like one of these action figures...all hermetically sealed in your box. I’m just saying, let it out. Give it some air, man. Play with it.
That’s not terrible, but it’s a little grating to the ear. It’s would have been much better if they just cut out the first sentence. As a general rule, explicit verbal similes should always be avoided in movie dialogue, in favor of implicit visual metaphors. Let us make the connection.

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