One of the things you learn writing fiction is to think in metaphors.
Yeah, he's Jake. But what does he represent?
The first draft of any novel or screenplay usually spills forth in blissful cluelessness. You tell yourself, I’m writing a detective story, or a Western, or some crazy genre that I don’t even know the name of. Then comes Draft #2 and you have to ask yourself, “What the hell is this thing about?”
That’s when metaphor comes in.
It took me a long time to learn this, and a lot of people had to hammer me and my work pretty hard. Words like “shallow,” “slick” and ‘Yiddish theater” come to mind (the latter criticism I took as a compliment.)
What makes Chinatown more than a detective story? What takes Shane beyond being just a Western?
The answer is metaphor.
In a shallow genre piece, the characters represent nothing beyond themselves. A car chase is a car chase, a courtroom scene is a courtroom scene. Much of what we see on TV is like that.
But all that changes when Robert Towne asks himself, “What does Jake Gittes represent? What is water (the L.A. River, Hollenbeck bridge, the lake where Hollis Mulwray takes his “girlfriend” boating) a metaphor for?
When the writer answers those questions—and revises his post-first-draft story accordingly—his material gains depth and power and universality. It stops being superficial and easy.
Who is Shane, beyond being a gunfighter who wanders into the middle of a range war? What does he stand for?
Alan Ladd as Shane, the Man With A Past, who wants to leave his past behind
The writer thinks in metaphors.
Via Heiko Idensen, Louise Robinson-Lay