S2_E25 – Using Objects & Metaphors to Show the Internal Emotional Arc of Your Character
For the last few weeks, we’ve been discussing how to “show, don’t tell” in story by employing a few of my favorite techniques that help writers accomplish this without having to write pages and pages of dialogue. Namely, how to create significant actions for your characters, how to establish a pattern and then break it in order to convey deeper meaning, and how to utilize Rituals and Traditions as a way to reveal character – who the character is at their core.
Today, we’re going to continue this dialogue by exploring two more tools at your disposal: How to create visual metaphors that reveal the internal emotional arc of your character, and how to use props and objects to help show how a character has changed over the course of the story. Both of these require the same primary tool of establishing a pattern and then breaking it. And yet, this should give writers even more insight into what’s possible for their own stories.
This list is by no means exhaustive. If you’re interested in taking an online course dedicated to this topic, sign up for The Storyteller’s Digest on the website, where you’ll be notified just as soon as that class is available online.
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THE STORYTELLER’S MISSION WITH ZENA DELL LOWE
S2 E25. Using Objects and Metaphors to Show the Internal Emotional Arc of Your Character
Published February 17, 2022
INTRO: Hello, and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
TOPIC INTRODUCTION: For the last several weeks, we've been talking about one of the best techniques I know of that can help you master the craft of showing rather than telling. Namely, you start by establishing some sort of pattern, and then you break it. And I've given a few examples and included things like rituals and traditions. And this week, I'm going to continue unpacking that idea where we use rituals and traditions as a way to show character growth and the evolution of character relationships.
MAIN IDEA: But this time, I want to look at specific types of rituals, and see how we might be able to employ one of those in our own story.
Alright, so let's dive right in by looking at the tradition or the ritual that's utilized in the animated film Despicable Me, and I'm talking about the ritual of the bedtime story. Now, that's something that's established fairly early on in the story, and it ends up becoming a very important part of the emotional arc, not just for Gru, but also for the girls as well. And in truth, we've actually seen this type of ritual used in a number of stories, such as The Princess Bride, and that sort of thing. There's a lot of stories that have relied upon the bedtime story ritual to help forward the story itself.
Okay, so going back to Despicable Me, the very first thing we have to do is establish the pattern. And in this case, we're establishing the pattern that goes beyond just the bedtime story ritual itself. We have to establish the patterns of who this guy really is, so that we can maximize this tool most effectively.
So here's Gru, who has aspirations of being the greatest villain in the world. But who continues to be shown up by some punk with a shrink ray gun, which Gru tries to steal but is unable to do so because the guy's evil layer is impenetrable. But then Gru sees a rare possible way that he might be able to accomplish this goal, which is when he sees these three sisters out selling girl scout cookies, and he suddenly realizes, that might be his way in. So he adopts these three little girls solely for the purpose of using them to accomplish his goal. Unfortunately, the girls have needs of their own. For example, they require being mollified at bedtime. And one of the ways that Gru is able to do this is to give in to their request to read them a bedtime story. So now, early on, we establish Gru reading the bedtime story, doing this ritual simply because it's sort of like he has to. He takes no personal pleasure in it. He's doing it begrudgingly, just to shut the kids up and get them to fall asleep so that he can get back to his real work, the important stuff that is going on in his life. And thus is the ritual established, and he reads the story.
But somewhere along the line, as he's reading the story, he comments, "Who writes this It's garbage. This is garbage." It's terrible, which ultimately is a setup, because later, we see that a new story has been written, which is a payoff to this wonderful moment. And it also shows that he's actually listening to what he's reading. And in some ways, it's a minor deviation from the pattern -- just the fact that he notices this is a minor deviation. And ultimately, this is a love story between Gru and those three little girls that he adopts. So again, we established the ritual by showing that he's doing this ritual without heart; just going through the motions to sort of calm the girls down and get them out of his hair. But by the end, he's doing it with his whole heart, and they reciprocate.
Storytime becomes the major ritual upon which the entire character arc centers. It becomes the ritual that shows the complete evolution of the family unit.
By the end, when they are doing storytime, they are a family. And so, it's the tradition or ritual that's established in that unit that helps us to see the progression of the character relationships and the evolution of the main characters growth, especially.
Which means that it saves you from having to write a bunch of dialogue scenes where Gru tells us how he feels, or he talks about these things out loud, or whatever the case may be. We get to see it. We get to show it. We show how he feels about those girls by showing the progression of the particular ritual. And guess what? We're not the only ones that see how he feels about those girls. During this ritual, the old man does, too. During one night of the bedtime story ritual, the old man can clearly see that this is giving Gru life. He loves these girls. And that's dangerous, because it means it's going to interfere with Gru's mission in life. And so what does he do? He has to send the girls away. That is how you show and don't tell -- rituals and traditions combined with either a radical deviation or small incremental ones along the way. And you can either use established types of rituals, or you can make up your own.
Okay, but now I want to show a different kind of pattern that can be established and then broken to convey meaning. And this one isn't based on ritual, or tradition, or habits, but relies instead on visual imagery, the visual imagery that's being conveyed in the story. For lack of a better name, let's call it a visual metaphor. It's like loaded images, right? The image that you're showing carries weight and conveys meaning on a deeper level. So these are visual metaphors that rely on the same technique. You establish the image, which becomes the pattern, and then you deviate from it over the course of the story. And by creating a standard visual metaphor, you help convey meaning on a deeper level to your audience. And then you use that image to show the internal emotional development of the character.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Okay, so I recently had a student submit an assignment that used this very technique. And it was actually quite brilliant that she came up with this all her own, right out of the gate, even though her images didn't maybe flow directly from the story in a way that we might want more organically. Nevertheless, what she did was actually pretty darn brilliant, especially since she'd never even heard of this concept. And what she did was, she started by creating a visual metaphor, which she used as the baseline for a pattern. And then each time that we went back to that particular location and met that particular image, she would change it ever so slightly, and then it would take on new meaning.
So let me go into more specifically what she did. Her story dealt with the very heavy topic of abusive relationships, and without ever saying so, it was asking the question as to how abusive relationships evolve, right? How does it come to be like that? How do these types of relationships unfold? And so, in this case, we started out with the main character, a female, whom we found in a field of flowers, and it's bright and sunny and cheerful, and the flowers are beautiful and vivid with colors. And the character is plucking individual flowers and she's weaving them together into a lovely crown, which she then places on her own head.
So, this is the visual metaphor that we start with. Well, what what does it convey? Well, certainly, we can ascertain that the young woman is hopeful, perhaps a bit childish or naive, but certainly someone who's happy and believes the world is a beautiful place, from which she herself can create beauty and enjoy beauty, as we see from the fact that she creates a crown of flowers. Okay, cut to a restaurant where she's eating dinner with her boyfriend, and the two are laughing and giggling as young lovers do. It seems to be a reflection of the joy that the character was experiencing in the field. However, something happens during the meal. All of a sudden, the boyfriend turns cold, because he thinks that she's flirting with the waiter. And suddenly their relationship is in turmoil and confusion. The intimacy is disrupted by anger.
Outside the restaurant, the girl pleads with the boy, and the argument escalates to the point that he gets violent with her. He slaps her across the face, but then he immediately regrets it. And now he pleads for her forgiveness. And of course, the girl loves him and she chalks it up to an accident. I mean, she did make him angry, after all. So she relents, happy again, confident in her belief that it was a one time deal and that they can go back to being happy on a permanent basis. Nevertheless, there is an element of uncertainty that has been introduced to their relationship. They're happy, but it's an unstable peace.
So now we go back to the field of flowers. A storm is raging, or maybe the storm had just ended, I can't remember. But the flowers droop and sag, weighed down by the heavy rain that had hit them. And the colors in that field are dulled and muted and gray, the flowers no longer vibrant because of the storm. And there's the girl, trying to save the flowers by shaking off the rain, trying to give the plump back to the blossoms, trying to prop them up in some way, shaking off the flowers so they won't droop so badly. She's trying to save them. And it's a metaphor for the way she's trying to save her own relationship.
So then we cut back to their relationship. And this time we're in their home and it seems to be working. They're snuggled up on the couch watching TV together, they seem to be at peace. The girl is looking at him lovingly, and snuggling up even closer. The implication being that it's worked. They made it through the storm. Her efforts were not in vain. And yet, then we cut to the next scene. And this time, they're in a screaming match, and he's raging at her over something. And she's pleading with him and trying to reason with him, but he is so enraged that he ends up picking up some scissors and hurling them at her head. They miss her but they do strike her cheek, leaving a gruesome slash on her face. And the girl runs out of the house in tears, he chases after her, yelling and pleading as he goes. And she pulls out of the driveway in the car, hightailing it away.
And now we cut back to the field of flowers one more time, and this time, the flowers are dry, they have very little life. And the girl is standing on the edge of the field. And as she looks out over the flowers, she lights a match. And we hold on her, that match burning, inching slowly towards her fingers, until finally, she lets it fall. Now, we never actually see the field catch fire, but we know. We know that she's burning it all down. Her hope has died.
So again, perhaps it's not a perfect execution, perhaps it might even be a little on the nose. And yet, it's a very visual representation of the internal emotional arc of that character, what she's feeling emotionally throughout the story, without her ever having to try to explain it or share it. And without you ever having to tell us. What my student did was create a visual metaphor. And she created a visual representation of an inward emotional state, which she then modified as the story progressed, in order to reveal the character's internal emotional arc. It was a really brilliant thing to do.
Okay, so notice how, in this example, you're actually accomplishing a bunch of things at once. You're establishing a pattern and then breaking it. And then you're revealing things because of the deviation, even as you're showing me and not telling me because of the visual images you're creating. Can you see what a great tool this is to employ? It's just so effective on so many levels.
Which brings us, then, to the very last type of iteration of this that I'm going to talk about on this podcast, though there are other types of this that I'm developing for my online course. But for our purposes, I just want to discuss one more thing, which is the use of props or objects to do the same thing in the story.
In other words, using props or objects to advance the internal emotional arc of the character and character relationships in your story.
Now, in order to do this, the first thing you have to do is somehow make sure that you effectively convey to the audience that that prop or object has meaning to the character. You have to bestow meaning to the object. I know I've given this example in a previous podcast, but it bears repeating here, the story that a gal was working on at a writers conference I taught at, where we brainstormed together possible props or objects that she could use in the story for this very purpose -- to help show the evolution of the character's arc. And what she landed on was the ivory hair combs that she already had as part of the story. And so these ivory hair combs were left to the character by her grandmother. And it was the main character's greatest possession. The one thing she owned that she truly loved.
And the character at the center of the story was flawed. In fact, she was on the run because she had somehow killed her child, and fled after the event and now lived on the lam her entire life, carrying that terrible shame. I believe she was mentally ill. And at this point, she's living in poverty, certainly in unclean conditions. But wherever this character ended up, she would take that hair comb with her, though she would never ever use it. Why? Because she's too dirty to use it. In fact, her hair becomes the other visual metaphor that is used to show this very thing. Her own hair is greasy and dirty, and this hair comb is too precious to put in hair such as hers. She rarely washed herself or her hair. And therefore her hair became yet another object of her uncleanness, which then becomes an established pattern. You see how that works? But because it's an established pattern, then it also becomes the way in which the author demonstrates the profound internal emotional growth of that character.
So far, then, we've established a pattern in two ways. One, the importance of the hair comb, and two, the dirtiness of the character. The woman's most valuable possession on the planet is her grandmother's ivory hair comb, which the woman herself refuses to wear, because she's too dirty and unworthy of such an object. So fast forward to later in the story where the woman somehow find salvation, and the first thing that the writer did was demonstrate the woman's newfound understanding of her value by showing the character getting into a bathtub, and washing herself, including her hair. It becomes a ceremonial cleansing, and a metaphorical cleansing of her sins. So the pattern, then, that was established as violated, but just on one side of the coin. It's her hair. She washes her dirty hair. But that communicates a deep level of meaning to us, the readers.
But then the author continues that trajectory. A while later, we see that the woman is having difficulty, I believe, ministering to others. Her hair keeps falling into her face. It's clean, and yet it's still impeding her ability to minister to others. So what does the woman do? She finds the courage to take up the ivory comb, and to put her hair up.
Now, this is huge, because again, it's multiple things happening at once. Not only does it allow her to now not be separated from the people that she's ministering to, because she's not separated from them by the hair that's blocking some sort of intimacy. But also, it's a visual cue to the audience of significant internal emotional growth on the part of that character. She now feels she is worthy enough to wear that precious comb in her own hair. That's huge.
So now we fast forward to the end of the story, when the woman realizes that, in order to complete her journey, it's time for her to turn herself in and face justice for her crimes. So, she arranges with the authorities to surrender herself on the front steps of the courthouse at a certain time and on a certain day. And when she arrives, there's all sorts of protesters and there's press there, and word has gotten out that she's going to be there, and so people have gathered and lined up along the courthouse steps and they're yelling at her and calling her a baby killer as she's escorted up the steps of the courthouse. However, she's holding her head high with dignity, her hair pulled back by that comb. She's Joan of Arc going to her execution willingly. Her dignity is not assaulted in spite of the events.
But then suddenly, somebody steps out of the crowd, a woman, who's so furious with the character that she yanks the character's hair so hard that it pulls out a big chunk of it, and then causes that precious hair comb to go skittering away across the ground. So notice that both of the objects or props that have been established have been involved in this climactic moment: Her hair as well as the comb. So now her hair is blowing wildly. But more importantly, the hair comb is scattering away. The most important object that woman possesses. And the woman frantically scrambles after it, and manages to retrieve it before it's lost. And when she comes back to her feet, it becomes the penultimate moment of the entire story, that moment that reveals the profound arc of her particular character's journey. And it's revealed to us, the audience, not through dialogue, or the character's internal thoughts. It's something that is revealed to us through the character's actions in this moment, that have to do with deviating from the pattern. Instead of giving some speech or instead of the author writing about her internal thoughts at that moment, we simply see the woman scanning the crowd, until she finds the woman who ripped the hair comb from the woman's head. And then she turns to that woman, and presents the hair comb to her, handing over this most precious object, the thing that is most important to her in the world. She gives it to the woman that assaulted her, and then once that's done, she turns and continues up the steps of the courthouse.
Now think about what that says to us when we read this. It is profound. We know that that woman has arrived. Her transformation is complete. She has finally become the woman of God that she was always meant to become. She is a beloved daughter of the Most High God. She is a most precious possession. And she knows she is loved by her Creator and she's going to be okay.
CONCLUSIONS: It's a beautiful, beautiful visual metaphor that was able to be conveyed through the use of a prop or an object. It required establishing the importance of that object to the character, as well as establishing a pattern in terms of the way that object was used. And then deviating from both of those patterns over the course of the story. How that Prop becomes used ends up becoming a visible cue to the audience that indicates internal emotional growth.
ANNOUNCEMENT: Okay, so there are many, many more ways that this technique could be employed. I am literally just scratching the surface. And again, I am developing a course that will dive into a lot of other options, too, because I think it is so profound and important to use this. It's a master storytelling technique.
SUMMARY OF THE IDEA: But in general, the idea is to try to think in terms of visible cues, by way of establishing some kind of pattern. What pattern can you establish? And then, what visible cues can you create to show a deviation of that pattern that indicates to the audience character growth or change? You've got to be thinking visually about these things. And you've got to think about successfully establishing a pattern first, before you break it, so that you can convey meaning by breaking it.
Ask yourself, What can I show? What pattern can I establish? And then how do I break it visually? What does that communicate to my audience about the internal emotional development of my characters? Anyway, this is an incredibly effective technique for accomplishing Show, don't tell.
CALL TO ACTION: And if you would like to brainstorm how you might be able to use this technique in your own story, just like I did with the woman at the conference, I am an excellent brain stormer, and I would love to be of service to you. So don't hesitate. Schedule an individual consultation with me where we can hash out your story, go through a bunch of ideas that might work for the current project you're working on. I guarantee you probably already have something that you can use in your story, just like that woman already had those hair combs in play. We just found a way to magnify that, to make it bigger, and it became the crux of her entire story. We might be able to do that with yours. Check out the website www.thestorytellersmission.com, go to the coaching page and click on the one time coaching consultation option, and I would love to be of service.
OUTRO: In the meantime, I want to thank you for listening to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.