How Image Systems Can Supercharge a Novel

You know, after 5+ years, we’ve covered a lot of writing-related topics at this blog. At times, it’s a challenge to come up with meaningful material that hasn’t been done to death. So I was super excited to receive C.S. Lakin’s post on a topic that we’ve never discussed before at Writers Helping Writers—a topic that I’d never actually even heard of before: using image systems to improve your novel. What the heck is an image system? I’m so glad you asked….

C.S. Lakin

Filmmakers use a term called “image systems,” and novelists can benefit greatly by creating a similar kind of image system for their novel.

Just What is an Image System?

Think of the overall message coming through your novel. What themes are you honing in on? What controversial issues or moral dilemmas are you presenting? What is the “take-home” feeling you want to leave with your reader after she finishes reading the last page. Asking these questions can help you step back and look at the tone, mood, and intent of your story.

In a film, an image system might include repeating shot compositions—for example, a movie might use a certain shape or image in a landscape and repeat it throughout the film. An image system often uses specific colors—some which may not be easy at first to notice or that work on a subliminal level in some way.

Great novelists know the power of motif and symbolism, often using something like a repeated word or phrase, or an object of importance to the character, to bring a richness to the story and to enhance the theme of their novel. In effect, they are creating something similar to an image system. By taking a look at some of the ways filmmakers develop image systems for their films, novelists can learn much and expand their technique.

Get a Clear Vision of the Story You Are Telling

Filmmaker Gustav Mercado says, “If you want to become an effective storyteller, one of the most important things you can do is to have a clear vision of your story, so that it reflects your unique take on it, not somebody else’s. . . . Anything and everything that is included in the composition of a shot will be interpreted by an audience as being there for a specific purpose that is directly related and necessary to understand the story they are watching [or reading, in the case of a novel].”

Writers, as well as filmmakers, need to first identify the core ideas of their story in order to create an image system. Once that is determined, they can design a system that supports and brings out that core idea in either obvious or subtle ways consistently implemented throughout the book.

Ask these questions about each of your scenes:

• What are the main elements (or one main element) that should dominate the scene and be brought to the reader’s attention? Can these be an object or word/phrase or bit of setting that can be symbolic and repetitive in your novel?
• What should and shouldn’t be included in the scene that will help the reader focus on that element? (Think about all that unnecessary narrative or trivial dialog.)
• What meaning will be conveyed subconsciously by these elements you show?

Overlying all this is your main theme or core idea. You’ve perhaps been told you should be able to sum up your premise in a sentence or two (elevator pitch). In that premise lies your core idea for your book. You may have gotten a germ of an idea for your novel, and from that you developed characters with issues and goals, and you came up with settings and scene ideas to play out your storyline. But overlying all that is your core idea.

In Just a Few Words

See if you can encapsulate the main theme or idea of your story in one line or a few words. For example, the core idea behind the movie Rocky might be about gaining self-respect. That’s a simple summation. But if you can come up with a basic thematic concept, you can gear the elements in your scenes to bring out that theme.

Emblematic Shots to Highlight Theme

Think about including emblematic elements that reveal theme and motif.
• Is there a place your character keeps coming back to?
• An emotion she keeps struggling with that can be symbolized by a particular scene composition and “camera angle”?
• A place where she reflects and looks out on the world that can subliminally indicate her mood, self-image, or view of others?
• An object that she studies close up?

Emblematic shots are usually placed at the beginning and end of meaningful scenes, to emphasize them, make them stand out.

Sum It Up in One Picture

Here’s something you can try. Imagine taking one (only one) snapshot of your novel (not of the actual physical book). This picture needs to “tell” what the core idea or theme of your story is about. Think movie poster.

A movie poster has to somehow convey the feel and premise of the entire movie. Imagine showing this picture you took of your novel to a stranger and asking him what he thinks the theme or core idea is behind the photo. Ask him what symbolism comes through. Did you include symbolic elements? What colors did you choose?

Even without knowing the emotional power of each color, we all resonate similarly when it comes to colors. Can you come up with one image that can be the core of your image system? We’ve heard the cliché: a picture is worth a thousand words. If your picture can just speak a dozen key words to you, you can build an image system around it.

Try jotting down six key words that best “represent” your novel. Then think of emblematic images, places, objects, or phrases that will capture those succinctly.

Developing an image system is just one way to infuse your novel with cinematic technique. The more novelists can borrow great “tools” from filmmakers, the more visually powerful and dynamic their novels will be.

What about your novel? Can you come up with some elements to make up your image system? Share your “poster” concept in the comments. Do you have some emblematic objects, places, or phrases that help create an image system for your story? If so, share them!

Shoot your novel ebook cover final

C. S. Lakin is a multipublished best-selling novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copyeditor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive. Her new book—Shoot Your Novel: Cinematic Technique to Supercharge Your Story—is designed to help writers learn the secrets of cinematic technique. You can buy it here in print and as an ebook. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

[…] Here is a post about how a technique from the world of film can help you with your novel. […]


[…] How Image Systems Can Supercharge a Novel […]

Nancy West
6 years ago

Hi Becca,
Thank you so much for posting this. Great ideas, fabulous advice, and much needed inspiration as I work through the second draft of my book!

C. S. Lakin
6 years ago

Thanks for the great comments! I came up with a lot of these ideas by researching filmmaking techniques. I was raised by a screenwriter and read hundreds of scripts growing up, which influenced my writing. One great book I think you all might enjoy is Gustav Mercado’s The Filmmaker’s Eye. It’s a colorful book showing frames from movies highlighting specific camera shots (which Shoot Your Novel is all about!) and in it he talks a lot about image systems. Writers who use motifs and symbolism in their novels are using an image system, but there is so much more: use of color, angles, shapes, sounds. My book goes into detail how filmmakers use these techniques and then I show how authors can translate that into fiction in their novels. Hope you enjoy the material!

Jo Wake
6 years ago

You know, the more I see about writing novels, the more I am glad I don’t. It all sounds way too complicated to me.

Cheryl Reifsnyder
6 years ago

I’ve never heard of image systems, either, and I’m so glad for the introduction! This is a fabulous explanation of how imagery can be used to crystallize story vision and create emotional impact. I MUST have this book….thanks for sharing!

Rosemary Gemmell
6 years ago

Excellent post – thank you. I love the idea of images and use Pinterest a little to make images around my books that are significant in some way to them.

Susanne Drazic
6 years ago

This was quite interesting. I’ve added the book to my wish list.

LD Masterson
6 years ago

Well, you got me. I’m going to be sitting here all night trying to come up with my “movie poster”. Excellence concept. Thank you.

:Donna Marie
6 years ago

This is an excellent approach that feels like it would really helpful. It’s amazing how often the techniques of making of films and writing screenplays crosses over into novel writing. They really are so similar in so many ways, though different mediums of storytelling. Thanks, ladies!

Julie Musil
6 years ago

Wow, what a cool idea. I especially love the movie poster idea. That can even be parlayed into book cover ideas. Thanks! (and I’m glad I’m not the only one who didn’t know what an image system was–whew!)

Marilynn Byerly
6 years ago

I like the term archetypal images, myself.

I tell my writing students that they should reread their story and watch for images, metaphors, and ideas that they’ve included and decide if their subconscious has been giving them clues about their story’s resonant elements. If they can find this, they should consider sprinkling those judiciously through their story for the reader.

This is often more useful than a deliberate use of images.

My favorite use of subtle images is from Harry Potter movie, THE PRISONER OF ASKABAN, where various scenes in the countryside around Hagrid’s hut are deliberately autumn with pumpkins, etc., when it is spring in the film. The film has time travel, and time being out of joint is a prominent theme. This works more nicely for me than the deliberate images of clocks and hour glasses which are also used.

Denise Willson
Denise Willson
6 years ago

Great advice!