Visual image systems

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I am finally catching up on some films I didn’t get around to last year for various massive personal reasons, and I just watched Black Swan.

I have a lot to say about this movie if I were just writing about this movie. It was immediately striking how very, very, very, VERY seldom Hollywood puts out a movie that’s about a woman. It really is outrageous, when you think about it.  And when they do, it’s a not-so-sane-to-begin-with woman descending into complete madness. Well, maybe we wouldn’t be so damn mad if movies actually acted as if we exist.  But that’s not what I’m writing about today.

It reminded me of the old Bette Davis movies, really not something you see very often these days. And yes, I have to say the dancing drove me completely crazy.  Natalie Portman is a very good dancer for an actress, but she’s not even in the same universe as a prima ballerina; I wish they’d just used the real one throughout.

But the real reason I am starting this post with Black Swan is that it is a great example of a blatant and shameless visual image system.
Look at the fun Darren Aronofsky and his designers have with black and white: note when the heroine wears white, when she starts wearing white and black, when shades of gray are used (as with the company director), who else wears black and when.

It made me want to revise a previous chapter on Visual Storytelling and Thematic Image Systems to incorporate other examples I’ve come across in the last year.

I’ve said that I think it’s most useful to think of theme not just as one sentence, but as layers of meaning, a whole set of morals and lessons and ruminations and propositions; a 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, where there will be double and triple puns, visual and verbal. And by the way, if you’re a writer, and you’re not keeping a dream journal, you’re working too hard. Why not let your subconscious do the work?).

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. DIALOGUE is another, as I’ve discussed before.

But today I’m going to revisit the concept of reflecting theme through primarily visual image systems.

A great example of working a thematic image system, in this case entirely visually, is the first scene of Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

The very first encounter and shock moment comes less than two minutes into the film, when one of the guides in Indy’s search party chops through undergrowth to reveal a huge, demonic statue. The terrified guide runs away, screaming. It’s a thematic reference to the awesome power of the gods (And a setup of Indy’s CHARACTER ARC: he begins the movie without fear of the supernatural; by the end he understands that there are things he will never understand, awesome forces that need to be respected).

The entrance to the cave is temple-like, part of the thematic image system of world religions and mysticism.

Inside the cave, Indy pushes through a veil of cobwebs. At first this just looks cool and spooky – but maybe it’s also symbolic of piercing the veil between reality and the supernatural or divine.

Beyond the chasm Indy and the guide pass by a gold Aztec calendar (or something like one!) at the entrance of the cave: another visual representation of world religions, which will be presented in various ways throughout the film. The calendar is also part of the ongoing theme of mysticism and the supernatural; note the eerie music.

And finally, the inner chamber and the altar with the gold idol, another religious image. Indy susses out another booby trap: the stepping stones: if you step in the wrong place, poisoned darts fly.  

Just as Indy makes it out of the cave, there’s the reversal and defeat that the natives are right there with bows and arrows… and Belloq steps up to take the idol away from him. When Belloq holds the idol up, all the natives bow down to it, externalizing the theme of the power of the gods and the necessity for reverence.

And you thought all that was going on there was action, right?

Of course, one thing all my screenwriting has been good for is learning how to convey a story visually. But my obsession with visual storytelling started way before I started writing scripts. Production design is a crucial element of theater, too, and we had a brilliant head of design in the theater department at Berkeley, Henry May, so I got spoiled early on with mindbending, thematic sets that gave a whole other dimensionality to the plays I saw in my formative years. A good production designer will make every single thing you look at on stage – color scheme, props, sets, costuming, shapes, textures – contribute to your deeper understanding of the play’s story, characters and themes.

That was a lesson that served me well when I started screenwriting. And then working as a screenwriter opened up whole new worlds of visual storytelling.

So what can we as authors learn from screenwriting about writing visually?

A lot.

In film, every movie has a production designer: one artist (and these people are genius level, let me tell you) who is responsible, in consultation with the director and with the help of sometimes a whole army of production artists) for the entire look of the film – every color, costume, prop, set choice.

With a book, guess who’s the production designer?

You are.

And how do you learn to be a great production designer?

But studying other great production designers.

Alien is a perfect example of brilliant production design. The visual image systems are staggering. Take a look at those sets (created by Swiss surrealist HR Giger). What do you see? Sexual imagery everywhere. Insect imagery, a classic for horror movies. Machine imagery. Anatomical imagery: the spaceships have very human-looking spines (vertebrae and all), intestinal-looking piping, vulvic doors. And the gorgeous perversity of the design is that the look of the film combines the sexual and the insectoid, the anatomical with the mechanical, throws in some reptilian, serpentine, sea-monsterish under-the-sea-effects – to create a hellish vision that is as much a character in the film as any of the character characters.

Oh, and did I mention the labyrinth imagery? Yes, my great favorite: you’ve got a monster in a maze.

Those are very specific choices and combinations. The sexual imagery and water imagery open us up on a subconscious level and make us vulnerable to the horrors of insects, machines and death. The combination imagery also gives us a clear visual picture of a future world in which machines and humans have evolved together into a new species. It’s unique, gorgeous, and powerfully effective.

Obviously Terminator (the first) is a brilliant use of machine/insect imagery as well.

Nobody does image systems better than Thomas Harris. 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. 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 another twisted wizard in his cave who is trying to turn himself into a woman.

You have the insect imagery here as well, 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 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. A lot of authors will just throw in random images. How boring and meaningless! What makes what Harris does so effective is that he has an intricate, but extremely specific an
d limited image system going in his books. And he combines fantastical visual and thematic imagery with very realistic and accurate police procedure.

Hopefully I have by now trained you all to be on the lookout for SETPIECE SCENES in films and books. But a really great setpiece scene is a lot more than just dazzling. It’s thematic, too, such as the prison (dungeon for the criminally insane) in Silence.  That is much more than your garden variety prison. It’s a labyrinth of twisty staircases and creepy corridors. And it’s hell: Clarice goes through – count ‘em – seven gates, down, down, down under the ground to get to Lecter. Because after all, she’s going to be dealing with the devil, isn’t she? And the labyrinth is a classic symbol of an inner psychological journey, just exactly what Clarice is about to go through. And Lecter is a monster, like the Minotaur, so putting him smack in the center of a labyrinth makes us unconsciously equate him with a mythical beast, something both more and less than human. The visuals of that setpiece express all of those themes perfectly (and others, too) so the scene is working on all kinds of visceral, emotional, subconscious levels.

Now, yes, that’s brilliant filmmaking by director Jonathan Demme, and screenwriter Ted Talley and production designer Kristi Zea and DP Tak Fujimoto… but it was all there on Harris’s page, first, all that and more; the filmmakers had the good sense to translate it to the screen. In fact, both Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon are so crammed full of thematic visual imagery you can catch something new every time you reread those books.

If you watch or rewatch Sea Of Love, which I did just recently, you’ll see how the storytellers work the sea images and the love images throughout the film. The film is often shot in blue tones and against backdrops of wide panes of glass, with moving shadows –  all creating an undersea or aquarium effect, especially in the suspense scenes. The story explores themes of love, including obsessive love, and addiction – sex addiction and alcoholism. There are repeating visuals of bottles, glasses, drinking, nudity, erotic art, X-rated movie theaters, hookers.  

The film also uses color to create emotion and thematic meaning: red for passion and attraction (in clothing, flowers, fruits and vegetables), and white for innocence, truth, new love (again in clothing, bedclothes, dishware).  Al Pacino as the protagonist starts wearing the soft leopard-print slippers his lover gives him to reflect that he is discovering his sensual and animal side.

The Harry Potter books are so crammed full of visual imagery it would take a book to  go into it all (there probably is one, in fact…) The books play with all the classic symbols of witches, wizards and magic: owls, cats, gnome, newts, feathers, wands, crystals, ghosts, shapeshifters, snakes, frogs, rats, brooms (I don’t really have to keep going, do I?).  But Rowling also uses recurring images very specifically – and numerology as well. Twos are ambiguous and problematic, a classic symbol of duality, with good and evil unintegrated and opposing. You see this in the character clusters of Harry and his rotten cousin, Dudley; Harry and Draco Malfoy; Harry and Voldemort (who are linked by the feathers in their wands, only two of a kind in existence, produced by the same phoenix, another recurring image). In the first book and film, Voldemort lives as a tumor on the back of Professor Quirrell’s head (creating a Janus two-face). Even the cake that Hagrid brings Harry for his birthday is cracked in the shape of the yin/yang symbol.

Threes, on the other hand, are good: there’s the triumvirate of Harry, Ron, and Hermione; and the other powerhouse three of Dumbledore, McGonagall and Hagrid. Even the seemingly threatening three-headed dog turns out to be a guard dog named Fluffy who is in the service of Dumbledore and Hagrid.

In The Secret Life Of Bees Sue Monk Kidd builds a wonderful, intricate thematic image system based on fairy tale symbols and tropes and representations of the goddess and femininity. The young protagonist runs away from her abusive father after breaking her African-American housekeeper out of custody, and the two of them are taken in by a group of three African-American women who keep bees and practice worship of the Black Madonna.  This is total fairy tale stuff: the girl and her companion, the three fairy godmothers who raise her to true womanhood in the wilderness (relatively). But the three fairy godmothers are also representations of the Triple Goddess; bees are the classic symbol of the goddess; there are lots of references to flowering and queens, Mary and the Black Madonna, as the girl discovers the strength of her own femininity and femininity in general. There is also a strong theme of love transcending and healing the wounds of racism. It’s a great book to study for superb use of image systems.

Look at The Wizard of Oz (just the brilliant contrast of the black and white world of Kansas and the Technicolor world of Oz says volumes). Look at what Barbara Kingsolver does in Prodigal Summer, where images of fecundity and the, well, prodigiousness of nature overflow off the pages, revealing characters and conflicts and themes. Look at what Robert Towne and Roman Polanski do with water in Chinatown and also, try watching that movie sometime with Oedipus in mind… the very specific parallels will blow you away. Take a look at Groundhog Day, which constantly provides groundhog images, images of stopped or handless clocks (and that malevolent clock radio), an ice image of the eye of God, anthropomorphic weather.

It’s always useful to start with blatant use of symbolism and visual imagery, as in the some of the examples above, to get the hang of how storytellers use these visual techniques, and then start looking for more subtle usages. But if you prefer your stories more bare instead of dripping with imagery, well, great! It’s all about what works for you.

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

Well, start by becoming more conscious of what image systems authors are working with in books and films that you love. Some readers/writers don’t care at all about visual image systems. That’s fine – whatever floats your boat. Me, with rare exceptions, I’ll toss a book within twenty pages if I don’t think the author knows what s/he’s doing visually.

What I do when I start a project, along with outlining, is to keep a list of thematic words (in my notebook!) 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… I did pages and pages of words 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, 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 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). Other people do collages on their computers with Photoshop. I am not one of those people, myself, I need to touch things. But it’s another way of growing an image system. And 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? Chris Nolan was blatantly working the myth of Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur in the labyrinth in Inception (a little too on-the nose to me to actually call the character Ariadne; we get it, okay? But overall, it was good stuff).  

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 I’d love to hear some books and films which to you have particularly striking visual and thematic image systems. And authors (painters, dancers…) hat are some of your favorite images to work with? Are you aware of having recurring thematic images in your work?

– <a href=””>Alex</a>

17 thoughts on “Visual image systems

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    Ok, just wow.
    I've had a story rumbling around in my brain with big themes (and I usually don't think of stories in themes). In mentally going through a quick list of keywords just now, I got to the fourth word and I figured out how the murder victim dies.
    You are magic. 🙂

  2. Eika

    Oh, god, I'm going to have to refer back to this. While I do try to have some imagery in my stories, I don't know if I'm near as successful as those other examples. At least I have the theme words down; I was trying to think of words that made the current one work, and came up with the title from there.

    "(Think of some of the dreams you have, where there will be double and triple puns, visual and verbal. And by the way, if you’re a writer, and you’re not keeping a dream journal, you’re working too hard. Why not let your subconscious do the work?)."

    I do not keep a dream journal, and I am not sorry about it. I dream about twice a year.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    You're right, it's a great way to brainstorm titles, too!.

    But Eika, you know that's not true about dreaming, don't you? We all dream many dreams per night, we'd be completely psychotic if we didn't.

    You just don't remember your dreams. They're slippery, and they take some coaxing. Not that you have to remember if you don't want to, but they're there for you if you ever do.

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Brilliant stuff, as always. I'm going to have to go away and think about this – probably quietly in a darkened room…

  5. Kagey

    For some reason this makes me want to re-read Nick Bantock's Griffin & Sabine books, which are at least as much visual as they are written. Talk about using visual imagery to propel the story.

    I once had a work-in-progress where a dream helped me realize that one of my characters was Boo Radley in disguise. Once I had that figured out, the rest of the plot flowed easily. (But what archetype was Harper Lee pulling on to create Boo?)

  6. Catherine

    At this point in my morning I can't think of particular movies or books that reflect the themes I am fascinated by. I think a lot of books I read have these themes at their core.

    The themes I am fascinated with are light and shade, polarity, the flip side, the fluidity of perception changes, the multiple view points which make the whole. When I create anything I am likewise fascinated with depth, texture, the contrasts, the moment, the longevity, the symbolism of colour. I'm both repelled and attracted to the trickster.

    Mind you I spent my Friday night hanging with a Jungian society listening and talking about Technology and Soul so I have a heavy acceptance for seeking archetype and layered meanings and myth.

    Next month's Jungian Society meeting has a speaker discussing fairy tales which now I think of it would have a lot of themes I am drawn to(mentioned above.) I think the speaker has been pivotal in developing this project.

    I'll likely will explore this site after I've visited my Mother and later maybe hang out with friends at an Irish bar and maybe get some work done, or at least plan work for tomorrow. Maybe.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Ugh, damn, Alex…you're so friggin' good. You KILL me with this stuff. I love it. Such great examples from such great films and books. I'm going to have to re-read all your posts now as I move forward on my WIP. Now you got me thinking…

  8. Allison Davis

    Ok, sorry it's so late but have been entertaining my goth niece from Fairbanks, Alaska today.

    I definitely do themes but not as consciously as the list of words, which is brilliant and oh so helpful (and much better than keeping then in your head). Currently, it's veteran, military, guns, gangs, and our Lady of Guadalupe for a visual.

    I barely have time to do the writing though, not sure I could keep a scrap book. I do have a box I throw articles and photos and clippings in though and I shuffle through them when I need to rethink, revamp or break through. What I really want is a wall like Mallory uses in the O'Conner books. Thanks very much Alex. You are a great coach.

  9. Catherine

    As I was driving down to the coast to visit Mum today I realised that the Secret Garden, both in book and movie medium contain many of the themes I mentioned appeal to me.

    In the film I remember a scene where Mary tears away whatever is blocking the light into Colin's room. I can't quite remember if the windows were boarded up or if it was just heavy curtains, but seem to remember the dust motes revealed by the light. I remember his fury at her doing this. I remember from the book that I like Mary is stubborn and moody and yet holds steadfast to what she believes is true. For such an alone child she continues to find ways to connect with others. The themes of shut in people in closed rooms vs the unfolding growth of the garden, secrets vs truth, imperfect people finding ways to connect, not giving up…finding a way to gain entry to a garden, or oneself, or to each other… I think this book and movie have some quite vivid imagery intertwined.

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Kagey, you are so right – Griffin and Sabine had the most amazing imagery. I have a box set of postcards of the images from that book – I need to find that. Amazing stuff.

    Hmm, you probably could get the answer to your Boo question in one of the recent Lee biographies. Now you've got me wondering.

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Catherine, I got one tantalizing view of that link and then was shut out for not being Australian!!!! I'd be Australian if I could…. What a drag – it looks phenomenal.

    Your themes have a ton of crossover with mine. Oh, that Trickster….

  12. Jeff Abbott

    Alex, I loved this post. In my notebook I keep a tabbed section called Imagery just for this kind of thinking. Sometimes when I'm stuck going through that section is more helpful than thinking of "plot points" in getting me back on track.

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Allison, I have to admit I often balk at adding to my collage books because of that time factor, but when I do, it always helps. But the word lists – there's no better way to jump start the visual and thematic. And it takes no time at all – I often start out a workshop by giving students two or three minutes to do the list. Everyone gets excited listening to everyone else's lists – you actually start to get a visual picture of the book without knowing a thing about the story!

  14. David Corbett


    Sorry to be a day late, but I saw your post yesterday, realized I wanted to read it all, reflect, etc., before commenting, and then like most Saturdays my time just vanished.

    I was struck by your CHINATOWN/Oedipus allusion. I resisted it at first — just because there's incest, why invoke poor Oedipus? As the old joke goes, if there's one person we KNOW didn't have an Oedipus complex, it was Oedipus — he really did NOT want to kill his father or bed his mother. And the incestuous figure is Noah Cross, who hardly seems to represent Oedipus. But the other theme of blindness vs. sight, with the inversion Sophocles weaves into the story — it's the blind seer who, yes, sees, and Oedipus who is blind, until the end, when he rips out his own eyes in symbolic blindness to represent that he finally sees — and it's Evelyn's eye that's shot out. That I get. And yet is this theme any more Oedipal than it is existential? (I'm more than willing to cede this point if you know of some commentary by Polanski about weaving in this theme, especially given his rewrite of Towne's script.)

    The reason I resist is the same reason you recoil from the ham-handed use of Ariadne in INCEPTION. I find a lot of myth being shoehorned into storytelling these days with about as much insight as Teabaggers have of the Constitution.

    The constant evocation of Theseus, for example, as the great slayer of the MInotaur and rescuer of Ariadne. Except, in the most prevalent telling of the tale — and all these myths have multiple renditions — he abandons Ariadne on Naxos for reasons that are either neglectful, absent-minded or cruel. If he "seized the sword" as Vogler would have it, he apparently decided to use it on his bride.

    I agree, a re-reading of the myths is a great idea. But it makes you keenly sensitive to how they're mangled or just used hodge-podge — not re-invented — in far too many modern tellings.

    Also: I think one has to be sensitive to the difference between a symbol and a theme. This is why I like your take on image systems — to provide a way to represent them throughout a story, i.e., thematically. But a theme also conveys a premise, a movement from Point A to Point B, at which point symbols can become mere wallpaper if just thrown in to provide a kind of imagistic ostinato. (Or so my over-logical left brain screams at my circular imagistic right brain.)

    Okay, that's all the blabber I have in me, and please excuse its semi-coherence. As always, incredible post, with so much to digest and learn from. I always love coming to your class.


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