By 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.
And for more information common themes and symbols that could make up part of the image system for your story, check out One Stop for Writers’ Theme and Symbolism Thesaurus.
C. S. Lakin is an award-winning novelist, writing instructor, and professional copyeditor who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her award-winning blog for writers, Live Write Thrive, provides deep writing instruction and posts on industry trends. In addition to sixteen novels, Lakin also publishes writing craft books in the series The Writer’s Toolbox, and you can get a copy of Writing the Heart of Your Story and other free ebooks when you join her Novel Writing Fast Track email group.