Thematic image systems

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Stephen was talking about theme yesterday and I seized on the topic like a drowning Leo diCaprio dogpaddling in the middle of the broken pieces of the Titanic –

Well, maybe I’m exaggerating just a little.  I’ve actually been thinking about this this week.

I’d just like to say up front that I’m not here to DEFINE theme, today…

Oh, is that cheating?  

Well, okay, if you insist.  Theme is what the story is about.   On a deeper level than the plot details.   The big meaning.   Usually a moral meaning.

Hmm.    See why I don’t want to define it?

Well, how about defining by example?

I’ve heard, often, “Huck Finn is about the inhumanity of racism.”  

Uh… I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s too soft and vague.   

Also have heard a lot that the theme of Romeo and Juliet is “Great love defies even death.”    Except that – in the end, they’re dead, right?   So how exactly is the love defying death?   Risking death and losing, maybe.   Inspiring people after death, maybe.

Okay, how about this?  “A man is never truly alone who has friends” is a great statement of the theme of  It’s A Wonderful Life.   (And stated overtly in the end of that movie.)

The trouble is,  I personally think it’s closer to the soul of that movie to say that it’s the little, ordinary actions we do every day that add up to true heroism.

So defining theme has always seemed like a slippery process to me.   Different people can pull vastly different interpretations of the theme of a story from the same story.    And even if you can cleverly distill the meaning of a story into one sentence… admit it, you’re not REALLY covering everything that the story is about, are you?

I think it’s more useful to think of theme as layers of meaning.    To not think of theme as a sentence, but as a whole image system.

And that’s where it gets really fun to start working with theme – when it’s not just some pedantic sentence, but a whole world of interrelated meanings, that resonate on levels that you’re not even aware of, sometimes, but that stay with you and bring you back to certain stories over and over and over again.

(Think of some of the dreams you have – maybe – where there will be double and triple puns, visual and verbal).

There are all kinds of ways to work theme into a story.   The most obvious is the PLOT.    Every plot is also a statement of theme.

It’s A Wonderful Life is a great, great example of plot reflecting theme.    George Bailey’s desire in the beginning of the film is to be a hero, to do big, important things.    Throughout the story, that desire seems to be thwarted at every turn by the ordinariness of his life.    And yet, every single encounter George Bailey has is an example of a small, ordinary goodness, a right choice that George makes, that in the end, when we and he see the town as it would have been if he had never existed, lets us understand that it IS those little things that make for true heroism.

In our own genre, Presumed Innocent is an interesting book for plot reflecting theme.   I love how that book (and the very good film made of it) depicts the horrifying randomness of the legal system – that justice can turn on the assignment of a judge, on the outcome of a political race, on the loyalties of a witness – or on the very, very clever defendant himself.   To me it’s a brilliant exploration of what justice really is, or isn’t, or can never be.

And here’s a brilliant example of a plot twist conveying theme:  with Lecter’s escape, The Silence of the Lambs drives home the point that we can win a battle with evil, but never the entire war.

DIALOGUE is another way to reflect theme.

I watched the beginning of The Matrix this week and was very amused to note this blatantly thematic dialogue.   I’ve underlined all the thematic references:


From The Matrix, written by Larry & Andy Wachowski

In Neo’s apartment. He is asleep at his computer, with headphones on. On his computer screen, we see he is running a search on a man named Morpheus. Suddenly on his computer screen appear the words ‘Wake up, Neo.’ He sits up, and stares at his computer screen.

Neo : What?

On the computer, now appears ‘The Matrix has you…’

Neo : What the hell?

On the computer, now appears ‘Follow the white rabbit…’

Neo : Follow the white rabbit?

He presses the ‘esc’ key repeatedly, no effect. the computer comes up with one last message : ‘Knock knock, Neo.’ There is a loud knock at his door, and he jumps. He stares at the door, and then back at his computer screen. it’s now blank.

Neo : …..Who is it?

Choi : It’s Choi.

Neo : Yeah…yeah…you’re two hours late.

Choi : I know, it’s her fault.

Choi gestures towards DuJour.

Neo : You got the money?

Choi : Two grand.

Neo :Hold on.

Neo goes into his apartment, shuts the door, and opens a book, takes out a CD rom, and goes back to the door, handing the CD to Choi.

Choi : Hallelujah. You’re my saviour, man. My own personal Jesus Christ.

Neo :You get caught using that…

Choi : Yeah, I know. This never happened, you don’t exist.

Neo : Right.

Choi : Something wrong, man? You look a little whiter than usual.

Neo : My computer… ever have that feeling where you don’t know if you’re awake or still dreaming?

Choi : Mm, all the time. It’s called Mescaline. It’s the only way

to fly. Hey, it sounds to me like you need to unplug, man.


The Matrix is all about waking up, about what reality is, and about Neo as the potential savior of the world, which has been enslaved by a virtual reality program.  And escaping.   And going down the rabbit hole.

Well, that above is maybe a four minute scene,  and look how blatant the themes are.    It spells out the entire story.   And yet it works on the surface level as well, an audience isn’t stopping to think, “Oh, there’s a theme, and there’s a theme, and yet another theme.”

(If there’s anything I learned from screenwriting it’s that you can JUST SAY IT.   And it generally works better if you just do.)

Another hugely effective and important way to convey theme is through VISUAL STORYTELLING.    Whether you’re writing a book or a film, it’s useful to do specific passes through your story,  thinking of yourself as a production designer whose specific function is to create the look of the story – AND – reflect the themes of the story in those visuals.

Nobody does image systems better than Thomas Harris.   The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon are serial killer novels, but Harris elevates that overworked genre to art, in no small part due to his image systems.

In Silence, Harris borrows heavily from myth and especially fairy tales, choosing elements that create a deeper meaning for his plots, and achieves the sense of a mythic battle between good and evil.   You’ve got the labyrinth/Minotaur. You’ve got a monster in a cage, a troll holding a girl in a pit (and that girl is a princess, remember – her mother is American royalty, a senator). You’ve got a twist on the “lowly peasant boy rescues the princess with the help of supernatural allies” fairy tale – Clarice is the lowly peasant who enlists the help of (one might also say apprentices to) Lecter’s wizardlike perceptions to rescue the princess. You have a twisted wizard in his cave who is trying to turn himself into a woman.

There’s a theme running through Silence of monstrousness.   Before Harris got all Freudian with Lecter,  to the detriment of the character, IMO, he presented this character as a living embodiment of evil – an aberration of nature, right down to the six fingers on his left hand.   In fact, Harris virtually created the Serial Killer as Monster.   

So to reflect this inhumanness (and also just creep us out)  Harris works the animal imagery,  especially insect imagery, with the moths, the spiders and mice in the storage unit, and the entomologists with their insect collections in the museum, the theme of change, larva to butterfly.

In Red Dragon Harris also works the animal imagery to powerful effect. The killer is not a mere man, he’s a beast. When he’s born he’s compared to a bat because of his cleft palate. He kills on a moon cycle, like a werewolf. He uses his grandmother’s false teeth, like a vampire. And let’s not forget – he’s trying to turn into a dragon.

LOCATION is another huge, huge factor in conveying theme.   Places have specific meanings, or you the author can create a specific meaning for a place.    I’ve said this before, but basements are used so often in horror stories because basements symbolize our subconscious, and all the fears and childhood damage that we hide from ourselves.     Characters’ houses or apartments reflect themselves.    The way you describe a city gives it a particular meaning – you can emphasize particular qualities that help you tell your story.

So how do you create a visual/thematic image system in your books?

Well, start by becoming more conscious of what thematic systems authors are working with in books and films that YOU love.    As I am always saying – make yourself a list (ten is good) of books and films that have particularly effective image systems.    Then reread and rewatch some of your favorites, paying close attention to how theme is conveyed, in plot, in dialogue, in visuals, in location.

What I do when I start a project, along with outlining, is to keep a list of thematic words that convey what my story is about, to me. For The Harrowing it was words like: Creation, chaos, abyss, fire, forsaken, shattered, shattering, portal, door, gateway, vessel, empty, void, rage, fury, cast off, forgotten, abandoned, alone, rejected, neglected, shards, discarded… pages and pages like that.

For The Price – bargain, price, deal, winter, ice, buried, dormant, resurrection, apple, temptation, tree, garden, labyrinth, Sleeping Beauty, castle, queen, princess, prince, king, wish, grant, deal, contract, task, hell, purgatory, descent, mirror, Rumpelstiltskin, spiral…

Some words I’ll have from the very beginning because they’re part of my own thematic DNA. But as the word lists grow, so does my understanding of the inherent themes of each particular story.

Do you see how that might start to work? Not only do you get a sense of how the story can look to convey your themes, but you also have a growing list of specific words that you can work with in your prose and dialogue so that you’re constantly hitting those themes on different levels.

At the same time that I’m doing my word lists, I start a collage book, and try to spend some time every week flipping through magazines and pulling photos that resonate with my story. I find Vogue, the Italian fashion mags, Vanity Fair, Premiere, Rolling Stone and of course, National Geographic, particularly good for me. I tape those photos together in a blank artists’ sketchbook (I use tape so I can move the photos around when I feel like it. If you’re more – well, if you’re neater than I am, you can also use plastic sleeves in a three-ring binder).   Brett has talked about doing a slideshow of images he captures on his laptop.   It’s another way of growing an image system. Also, it doesn’t feel like writing so you think you’re getting away with something.

Also, know your world myths and fairy tales! Why make up your own backstory and characters when you can tap into universally powerful archetypes? Remember, there’s no new story under the sun, so being conscious of your antecedents can help you bring out the archetypal power of the characters and themes you’re working with.   

So of course my questions today are: 

What are some books and films that to you have particularly striking thematic image systems? What are some of your favorite images to work with?    What are some ways of conveying theme that I’ve left out?



For those who have been patiently (hah)  waiting for the Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workbook to come out on Kindle for Mac, it’s now available (no Kindle required, just your own Mac).

Also, I’m going to be teaching a couple of in-person workshops in April and May, on both coasts, since I’m nothing if not bicoastal.

April 9-11   I’m at the Black Diamond Romance Writers April Retreat in Santa Rosa, CA:

Sponsor: Black Diamond RWA

Location: A 4000+-sq.-ft. residence on 62 acres in Santa Rosa, CA

Fee: For Day-Trippers: Members: $60, Non-Members, $75; for Multi-Day Participants: Members: $80, Non-Members $100

Date: (For Day Trippers) Saturday, April 10, 2010, includes lunch, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

OR (Multi-day Participants ) April 9–11, 2010, includes meals, small group time with presenter, & overnight accommodations if available.

For more information

Then May 8  I’ll be in Jacksonville, Florida, for a  

Full Day Master Class: Screenwriting Tricks for Novelists
Saturday May 8, 9AM – 4PM, Arlington Congregational Church‎
431 University Blvd North
Jacksonville, FL 32211
For more information:

Hope to see/meet some of you there!

24 thoughts on “Thematic image systems

  1. Jude Hardin

    I’m going to try to make it to your workshop in Jacksonville, Alex. Sounds like fun!

    I don’t really think about theme much as I’m composing. If themes emerge, I might exploit them somewhat in subsequent drafts, but I’m inclined to agree with Stephen King–that starting with a theme in mind is a recipe for bad fiction.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Fantastic, Jude! It will be fun, the workshop and into the night after. 😉

    Not to contradict Stephen King, but the man doesn’t outline either. I’m not inclined to think that I can do whatever it is that he’s doing in the way that he thinks he’s doing it. Genius isn’t often very good at analyzing itself.

  3. Allison Brennan

    Alex, I would love to go to the Black Diamond Retreat!!! I have a book due in 3 weeks, I doubt I can take the time. Wawaaaaa.

    I love THE MATRIX. It is so over-the-top blatant in theme and What The Story Is, but I love it. Great story, great message, fantastic plot, even the acting (and I haven’t always been a Keanu Reeves fan, though he’s done a few really good movies.) I use quotes from the movie all the time, LOL.

    re: Stephen King. I don’t recall he said that about theme, but he does not outline. He starts with a situation and goes from there. He also believes in writing and rewriting and rewriting–the key, IMO, to writing a good story.

    I have a hard time with Theme because I don’t consciously start with a theme, but all my books are about good vs evil. That’s not a theme per se, but whatever my theme is stems from that premise. Margie Lawson once told me I had a theme, but she refused to tell me what it was. Meanie.

    Oh, in short stories it’s easier for me. I have a short story coming out in the BLOOD LITE II anthology and the theme could be, "Be Careful What You Wish For . . . " 🙂

  4. Allison Brennan

    Oh, and as always Alex, an amazing, thought-proviking post. I tried a collage once. I cut out a bunch of pictures. Never did anything with them. I like Brett’s computer images best–I could put them on my Apple TV since I always have music playing. Right now I have book covers flashing by, but I could easily put in images from my book. Hmmm . . . time to have a little procrastination fun!

  5. Debby J

    I’m a sucker for a really good "redemption" theme. It’s why my favorite fairy tale has always been Beauty and the Beast. It’s why I love Shrek (the first). I just finished reading Robert Hick’s A SEPARATE COUNTRY and was absolutely blown away by it. It’s historical fiction, a genre I’m not usually drawn to, but I’m so glad I took the leap in this instance. Every single character in the book has such major flaws, and even with these flaws, they all seek the same thing, whether they acknowledge it or not–redemption. It’s a fantastic book. Beautifully written. I could almost smell the coffee brewing in the houses of 1870s New Orleans, feel the panic as yellow fever takes the city. It’s one of those books where the characters stay with you a long time after you’ve stopped reading. Can’t say enough great things about it.

  6. Robert Gregory Browne

    Great post, Alex. Theme is the thing I always leave to my muse, who works in the background whispering to me at so low a level I don’t even realize she’s doing it.

    When I’m done writing, low and behold, I have a theme.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the more thought I put into my writing, the less I rely on instinct, the worse the writing is. So I tend to trust my instincts and hope for the best.

  7. JT Ellison

    Goddess Alex, thank you. I’m having a quiet lunch before delivering a speech, and I read this. Started thinking of words, and Images, and just had a massive breakthrough on my current story. Can’t wait to get home and work on it. Thank you!!!

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Allison, I so agree about MATRIX. And let’s not forget – it’s sexy as hell. The whole first exchange with Trinity and Neo at the club? She walks right up to him, skin to skin, and says everything she says to him right in his ear, without once stepping back. HOT. The Wachowskis are just splendid at sex.

    And casting. Laurence Fishburne? Send that man right over.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Debby, THANK YOU – I am going to run right out and get A SEPARATE COUNTRY to read right before I do my next pass on my New Orleans book. It sounds terrific.

    Yes, redemption must be one of the top five – maybe top three – themes of all time. It’s not one of my personal drives, but it is DEEP.

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Rob, you’re right, I should probably have said that theme is a whole lot clearer after you’ve actually written a book or script!

    And sometimes it’s not what you think it is at all.

  11. Cornelia Read

    Alex, this is so great, as always. For what I’m working on now, I think Icarus is the strongest image/theme. Family, hubris, alienation, subjugation, falling from grace… you know, a sunny, happy little story.

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Oh, Alex, your posts are always so wonderfully informative. I love them. You’ve given me so much more to work with. I’ve already done much of what you suggested, having gleaned it from one of your earlier blogs. I’ve got my list of films and books and their themes, which I refer to every day. Now I’m going to write my word list, and begin looking for images from magazines.
    I find it interesting that both of my Hayden Glass books have climaxes that take place in a basement or dungeon. I didn’t even realize I was doing that. That’s REALLY subconscious stuff.

  13. Allison Brennan

    Alex, you are so, so, so right. The best sexy books/movies are those that aren’t over-the-top explicit. Not just that Trinity was skin to skin or whispering in his ear, it was also what she said. Leslie Ann Moss (not sure if I’m spelling her name right!) was fantastic in that movie. I’d love to see her in something else because I thought she was very talented, but some actors don’t translate well to different roles.

    I have a fully clothed and semi-public sexual tension scene in CARNAL SIN that I think is both sexier and far more emotional (based on the conversation that precedes it) than the stripped naked sex scene later in the book. But I’ll let my readers be the final judge.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Yeah, well, basements also represent addiction issues, and dungeons – goes without saying. I don’t have anything to say that you don’t already do, Steve!

    I am compelled to talk about these things so that I remember myself. That seems to be the hardest part….

  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Allison, YES, what she said and also that both of them, Trinity and Neo, were set up from the very beginning as so vulnerable, not superhuman, but really terrified of the enormity of their situation.

    It was Carrie Ann Moss, and it is a crime that she isn’t working far more. Great directors know how to use strong women. But….

  16. Allison Brennan

    Movies where image is strong for me:

    FRENCH KISS (chick flick, but every scene is pitch perfect and brings the reader along as seemingly opposites Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline find what they need rather than what they think they want. Also a perfect example of separate and entwined heroes journey for hero/heroine.)
    THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (and also the short story–this was one of the few King books that the movie was as good or better than the story because it translated so well to screen)
    FINDING NEMO (I know, Pixar, but the imagery and theme are so entwined that it’s an intensely powerful story because of it. I just love this movie even though I’ve seen it 50 times and STILL cry–twice.)


    RED DRAGON (the book is better than both movies, and better than SOTL)
    HOUSE OF RECKONING by John Saul (a recent read and stuck with me, largely because of the imagery related to the old house.)
    THE STAND (still my favorite Stephen King book, and powerful in imagery and theme)
    Edgar Allan Poe, though sometimes it’s too much, hit over the head imagery, but I love his descriptions even though I rarely write long descriptions.
    REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier. (Again, a recent re-read because I wrote the essay for it in 100 Must Read Thrillers–the observations of the protagonist are powerful because of how she sees everything, creating an image of both what is there and what is felt.)

  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    "RED DRAGON is better than SOTL" are fighting words, and you know it, AB. Vixen.

    But you redeem yourself with the recommendation of FRENCH KISS, which I haven’t actually seen, and I love Ryan and Kline, and have been looking exactly for a "perfect example of separate and entwined heroes journey for hero/heroine".

    So I guess you live.

  18. Allison Brennan

    The book, not the movie, Alex 🙂 I just love Will Graham’s character, and Dollarhyde is such a great example of a tortured villain with a strong backstory. You see his fall to the dark side and all the opportunities he had to say no, he wasn’t going to kill, and how (and why) he rejected those paths. I can’t help but loving that book.

    You HAVE to see FRENCH KISS. You will love it. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies. My other favorite click flick is WORKING GIRL with Melanie Griffith, Sigourney Weaver and Harrison Ford.

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Brilliant post, Alex. You make me look at the craft in a totally new way. I, too, am guilty of using Redemption as a major theme for the new Charlie Fox book, FOURTH DAY, following on from Respect as one of the themes of THIRD STRIKE. But the one I’ve just handed in is more like a fall, a line crossed, a step too far.

    Or it is at the moment – until I get the rewrites in, at least ;-]

    Thanks again!


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