Metaphors in Stories

Visual Metaphors in The  Piano

Visual Metaphors in The Piano


IN his book, On Writing, Sol Stein, suggests that writers can enrich their stories through resonance — the sense that something has significance beyond its physical boundary.

‘My name is Ishmael and I hail from Bethlehem’, for example, evokes a religious tone, through biblical resonance.

Visual metaphors involving objects, places and actions connote something over and above their denotative aspect – they carry ideas that resonate with readers and audiences. They typically form part of an image system that supports the story’s hidden meaning while simultaneously being part of the mise-en-scène.

Visual metaphors take many forms: the breaking of a chain may represent the onset of freedom; a broken mirror might represent the theme of illusion and deception, or a shattered persona.

Examples of visual metaphors

Shakespeare often uses visual metaphors to suggest the story’s deeper meaning – a tormented soul surrounded by rain, thunder, and lightning as in King Lear; the murder of a king causing imbalance in nature – as in Macbeth, where horses are reported to have eaten each other.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the category five cyclone that threatens the protagonist’s life is not only a physical phenomenon. It is also a metaphor for the inner storm that forces him to choose between life and death.

One of the most famous visual metaphors in film is the eating scene in Tom Jones. Seemingly about eating, the scene is really about sex – the spontaneity, rebelliousness, naughtiness of the carnal act inherent in the excitement of going after the wrong woman. It is a metaphor for sexually devouring a lover’s body.

When Baines (Harvey Keitel) painstakingly dusts the instrument, in The Piano, he is not just cleaning an object. His actions represent the caresses he wishes to bestow on his lover.

To work well visual metaphors need to be carefully constructed. Consuming a salad would not work as well as chewing on flesh and bone. Dusting the piano with a rag would not be as effective as a naked Baines cleaning the instrument with his shirt. The setting and detail of metaphors are crucial to their nuance and meaning.


A visual metaphor creates resonance by pointing to layers of meaning beneath the surface of a story.

2 thoughts on “Metaphors in Stories

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    A very relevant post indeed. It really is a simple case of showing and not telling . That’s how you know if the metaphor in your scene carries any weight As described in the opening and closing images of the Land below ( Conceald dirt tunnels vs open fresh water spring). Academy Award winning Director Tom Hooper is a master of using metaphor as seen in his films : The King’s Speech and Les Misérables.

    King’s speech : When we first see the main protagonist he is framed with a number 2 symbol in the background ( It is a symbol of how the character has always been a second choice. It for shadows the struggle of the character’s inner conflict . – He does not believe he can be a king because he thinks of himself as a alternative to his brother Edward Vlll)

    Les Misérables: After being forced into prostitution Fantine lies in a bed during the aftermath of her new found profession. Hooper uses the lighting as a metaphor to illustrate that this young woman is trapped in a world of darkness and sorrow.

    Another adaption of a Victor Hugo classic that shows great visual metaphor is Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Antagonist Judge Claude Frollo introduces himself to his new captain of the guard by giving a chilling demonstration on what he plans to do to the gypsy population. By crushing a ant nest with a stone ( coincidentally produced by the architecture of the palace of justice) we understand his ruthless mindset.

    In short : Great visual metaphors summaries characters mind sets and believes.


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