What is an Analogy? Definition and Examples.

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Definition: An analogy compares two things, typically for explanation or clarification. It shows how two different things are similar in certain respects, often used to help explain something unfamiliar or complex by comparing it to something more familiar. For example, saying that the structure of an atom is like a solar system with electrons orbiting the nucleus as planets orbit the sun.

Analogies help us understand new or complex information by relating it to something familiar. This makes them great instruments in teaching, learning, and communication.

In this article, I’ll examine analogy from two perspectives:

  1. As a literary device that any scriptwriter should know, especially when writing dialogue
  2. As an analytical tool for understanding movies.

Common Analogy Examples

Analogies are common in everyday language, helping us to explain concepts by comparing them to familiar experiences or objects.

Here are a few common analogies you might recognize:

  • Time is money
  • Knowledge is power
  • A company is a ship
  • The mind is a computer
  • Books are windows
  • The heart is a pump
  • Memory is an attic
  • Words are bullets

The Different Types of Analogies

There’s not just one type of analogy. Instead, analogies are better viewed as literary devices with various functions.

On a general level, you can divide analogies into two types: literal and figurative analogies.

Literal Analogies

Literal analogies focus on direct, concrete similarities between two things. They are straightforward and compare factual aspects that are scientifically, empirically, or historically verifiable.

Example of a Literal Analogy:
Consider the analogy, ‘A heart is to a human as an engine is to a car.’ This analogy compares the heart and the engine based on their similar functions.

Figurative Analogies

Figurative analogies, on the other hand, are more abstract. They compare the relationships or conceptual similarities between things rather than direct, tangible similarities.

Example of a Figurative Analogy:
An example is ‘Time is a thief.’ This analogy doesn’t imply that time literally steals in the way a thief might. Instead, it suggests that, like a thief, time can take away life moments, opportunities, or experiences without our consent.

Specific Analogies

You can explain the analogy by its function when you want to get more specific. In Table 1, I’ve made a list of specific analogies you might encounter:

Type of AnalogyDescriptionExample
SynonymShow similarities between pairs with nearly identical meanings.sad is to unhappy as joyful is to glad
AntonymHighlight a relationship of opposition.hot is to cold as high is to low
Part to WholeExplains a relationship where one item is a part of the other.finger is to hand as toe is to foot
Cause and EffectDemonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship.exercise is to health as reading is to knowledge
Object and FunctionPoint out what function an object serves.pen is to write as knife is to cut
Degree of IntensityCompare levels of intensity.warm is to hot as cool is to cold
Effort and ResultShow a relationship between an effort made and the result obtained.training is to strength as studying is to knowledge
Problem and SolutionExpress a relationship where one element represents a problem and the other is a solution.lock is to key as question is to answer
SequentialIndicate a sequence or order of events.caterpillar is to butterfly as child is to adult
Characteristic or FeatureUsed to draw comparisons based on characteristic features.skunk is to stink as rose is to fragrance
Table 1: List of specific analogy types

Examples of Analogies in Dialogue from Film and TV shows

Below are three examples of analogies used in film and TV.

Example 1: Game of Thrones: Knowledge is Power (or is it?)

In this scene, Littlefinger attempts to influence Cersei by alluding to his knowledge of her incestuous relationship with her brother Jaime, claiming that ‘knowledge is power.’

In response, Cersei demonstrates her direct physical ability to command guards to subdue him, proving that her type of power can impact outcomes immediately and decisively. She retorts with, ‘Power is power.’

This is an interesting use of analogy in dialog. Littlefinger’s ‘Knowledge is power’ is a figurative analogy, i.e., understanding the power of information and blackmail. This contrasts with Cerseis’s very literal Machiavellian understanding of power, i.e., a raw, physical, and authoritative power.

Example 2: Forrest Gump (1994): Life is like a box of chocolates

The phrase “Life is like a box of chocolates […]” from Forrest Gump is a figurative analogy describing life’s unpredictability and variety. Just as when you pick a chocolate from a box without knowing what’s inside, life can be unpredictable and full of surprises.

Example 3: The Matrix (1999): A splinter in your mind

In The Matrix, Morpheus uses an analogy to explain the artificial reality of the Matrix to Neo. He compares it to the “splinter in your mind,” suggesting how a tiny, nagging doubt can lead to a greater truth.

The phrase “splinter in your mind” is a figurative analogy rather than a literal description.

The Difference Between Analogy and Metaphor

You might think that analogies are similar to metaphors. While they do share some similarities, they’re not the same.

An analogy explicitly compares two different things by pointing out similarities for clarification or argumentative purposes, often structured in detail. A metaphor, however, implies a comparison by stating one thing is another, enhancing understanding or impact through symbolic or figurative language.

Both serve to illuminate concepts, but an analogy is more direct and explanatory, while a metaphor is more artistic and implicit.

Read more on metaphors in film.

The Difference Between Analogy and Simile

Likewise, analogy and simile can appear similar (pun intended) but serve different purposes.

A simile explicitly compares one thing to another using “like” or “as” to highlight a specific similarity (e.g., “as brave as a lion”). An analogy, on the other hand, explains or clarifies a concept by showing how it is similar to something else, often using a more extended comparison to draw deeper connections (e.g., comparing the structure of an atom to a solar system).

While a simile focuses on a simple, direct similarity, an analogy draws a parallel between two things to provide insight or explain something unfamiliar.

Read more on similies in film.

The Difference Between Analogy and Symbolism

Analogy and symbolism also share the trait of being used to compare things. However, while analogy directly compares to clarify and explain, symbolism indirectly represents more profound or complex meanings.

For instance, saying “the heart of a car is its engine” draws an analogy by comparing the engine’s role in a car to the heart’s role in a living organism.

On the other hand, symbolism involves using symbols—objects, figures, or colors, for example—to represent abstract ideas or concepts. For example, a dove often symbolizes peace.

Read more on symbolism in film.

Movies as Analogies

Let’s move up one level and see how analogies can be used to analyze film plots or narratives. Sometimes, an entire movie can be seen as an analogy for something else. In such cases, the analogy becomes the message of what the director or screenwriter is trying to say artistically:

District 9 (2009) is an analogy for apartheid. Neill Blomkamp uses the scenario of alien refugees in South Africa to explore themes of xenophobia and segregation. The aliens in the movie, derogatorily called “prawns,” represent marginalized communities in society, and the film mirrors the historical apartheid era.

Fight Club (1999) can be seen as an analogy for the struggle against consumerist culture and the crisis of male identity in modern society. The protagonist’s split personality symbolizes the internal conflict between submissive conformity and rebellious aggression within individuals.

The Matrix (1999) operates on multiple analogical levels. It questions the nature of reality and can be interpreted as a metaphor for awakening from the control of societal and technological manipulations, representing a philosophical quest for genuine freedom.

Apocalypse Now (1979) Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” relocates the narrative to the Vietnam War to critique the absurdity and horror of war. The journey up the river is an analogy for the darkest parts of the human soul and the moral collapse associated with imperialism and conflict.

Summing Up

An analogy is a cognitive process of transferring information or meaning from a particular subject (the analog or source) to another (the target).

Movie dialogue uses analogies to drive home a point through figurative language. They’re a great way to invoke images through association in the audience’s minds.

Analytically, movies can be viewed as analogies of something else, as fx is the case with District 9, an analogy for apartheid.

Up Next: What is a figure of speech?

Author

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  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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