Visual storytelling, part 2

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I left off last week just before I got to image systems. This is one of my favorite elements of writing.

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 an entire 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.

As it happens, Michael brought home the anniversary edition of the ALIEN series last night. I could go on all week about what a perfect movie the first ALIEN is structurally as well, but for today – it’s 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, once again, my great favorite – you’ve got a monster in a maze.

Those are very specific choices and combinations. The sexual imagery and water imagery opens us up on a subconscious level and makes us vulnerable to the horrors of insects, machines and death. It 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.

I know I’ve just about worked these examples to death, but 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 a twisted wizard in his cave who is performing his rituals to try 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.

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

I know, all of these examples are horror, sorry, it’s my thing – but 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/Roman Polanski do with water in CHINATOWN, and try watching that movie sometime with Oedipus in mind… the very specific parallels will blow you away.

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 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…

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 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, basically, if you’re neater than I am, you can also use plastic sleeves in a three-ring binder). 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 from scratch 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 help me out here with some non-horror examples (horror examples are just fine, too). What books to you have particularly striking visual and thematic image systems? What are some of your favorite images to work with?

I am in San Francisco this weekend with Toni and Rob at the Romance Writers of America National Conference, so no doubt we’ll all be reporting back next week.

(San Francisco – talk about your visual imagery!!)

6 thoughts on “Visual storytelling, part 2

  1. Tom

    C.J. Cherryh’s FOREIGNER series comes to mind, as long as we’re not sticking to one genre.

    The visual principle of the story is “We see what we expect – at our great peril.” Preconception is the enemy of comprehension, here.

    Humans forced to land after a navigation failure meet human-looking humanoids. Appearances are utterly deceiving. Fundamental and structural psychological differences between the races lead again and again to fatal errors of misapprehension. We look like children to the tall, tall atevi. We’re not. They look like they have loving families and extended networks of friends. They don’t.

    This is a wonderful topic, Alex. I take your point, but don’t have command of the visual language you’ve used. It would be a great help to me, and I’ll have to work on it. Thank you.

  2. Louise Ure

    Alex, it was grand to see you … even for a moment … yesterday.

    One early reader of my first book commented on all the religious imagery. I hadn’t been aware of doing it, but looking back found numerous references to crosses, crowns of thorns, passion flowers, mass, martyrdom, belief, magic, faith and churches. Not all of them complimentary. I guess I had more of a visual/topical theme going than I realized.

  3. I.J.Parker

    I guess that proves that the subconscious mind is at work, Louise. I’m such a rationalist that I usually try to deny that. But recently I was working on a novel about the futile search for perfection in a villainous world (I started out with a notion of Voltaire’s CANDIDE) and found when I was nearly done that a symbol (and a working title) presented itself in the marble statue of Apollo holding a lyre with his right hand. Title: THE LEFT-HANDED GOD. (Actually, it’s a thriller of sorts, but I fear it won’t sell, being a tad high-brow. Can’t have all those subtle hints and allusions. Readers don’t understand them.)

  4. Jake Nantz

    Wow. I’m a literature teacher and I didn’t even think of all of the common archetypes in so many thrillers and mysteries these days. This post will definitely make me rethink where I want to go with future works. Thanks Ms. Sokoloff, great post!

  5. JanW

    Oh, IJ Parker, I wouldn’t think it wouldn’t sell because ‘readers don’t understand them’. Au contraire, that is part of the fun of reading a book at various levels — finding those hidden elements. And even if the reader doesn’t get them the first time or even want to, they’re there for those who do want to spend the time, like extra treats. I think that’s why cartoons sometimes work well at both an adult and child level — think Flintstones or Road Runner or The Simpsons.

    Thanks for the post, Alex. The tip to write down a vocabulary of related words is magic! Like making up a palette before starting a painting, with the intention of the colors decided and there, ready and waiting to be used. Nice! But even if the imagery is developed subconsciously, we might find the themes later and create the vocab list after the fact and include them intentionally during revisions to deepen the work.


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