Movie directors and cinematographers work with Image Systems to deliver a story and character that entertain and offer meaning.
For those of us writing novels, creative nonfiction, memoir, and short stories, working with an “image system” can “deepen” or improve crucial aspects such as Point of View, characterization, momentum, and theme. Some writers also use an image system as a plotting tool.
- Check to see if you have too many chapters or scenes starting with a sunny morning or ending with the character going to sleep.
- Check to see how many scenes are always in the same lighting. Could you vary things more? Use more night-time scenes?
- Does your character note the light/shadow differences as they enter buildings, rooms, alleys, and other realms?
- How might darkness or bright light shock your character? Or scare them? Or energize them? Or bring them new knowledge?
Image System tip 2: Create better and more accurate distance and visual perspectives, as well as sound and smell perspectives.
- Are you monitoring and varying your close-up camera shots versus long shots?
- What can your character really see or not from where she or he stands? Do you mistakenly describe eye color but your character couldn’t possibly see that detail from thirty yards away?
- Smells work the same way. Your character can’t smell a bakery from twenty yards away on a busy street clogged with car exhaust. Within five feet they might be assailed by the cinnamon smell.
- Sounds have logic as well. At how many feet or yards away do certain sounds appear for your character? How do concrete buildings in a city muffle sounds? Remember that ice, water, and air temperatures affect sounds. Readers will love it if you are accurate about these things.
Image System tip 3: Contrasting textures signal emotions.
- The sense of touch is a rich, strong sensation often left out of early drafts of manuscripts, except for that pivotal first touch by lovers perhaps.
- What information does your character get via the sense of touch of other things, or even via looking at various textures?
- What texture holds the key to their happiness? Or makes them sad or take action?
- What texture brings your character fear? Or pain? Or soothing calmness?
- Where does texture appear in each of your scenes and chapters? Do a “texture outline.” Movie and stage sets are filled with well-designed and chosen textures because we innately feel them as we watch; in novels, the description can take us even deeper and help us experience an emotional reaction via textures old and new.
Image System tip 4: Interior versus exterior—create momentum.
- Movie directors use a constant mix of indoor and outdoor shots. They know the audience becomes bored if five or ten scenes in a row take place indoors, for example.
- How many of your scenes take place in the interior (or exterior) all in a row or in total for your manuscript?
- Momentum suffers when characters are in the same place for too long and too many scenes. Readers grow tired of the sameness.
- What about novels where most or all of the action takes place in a single room? Even that can be exciting if you exploit the concept that there are quadrants in that room and each of those four sections has different values of light, shadow, color, texture, temperature, smell, sound quality, and possibly even taste differences.
Image system tip 5: Objects matter in every story and help you sell.
- Directors say that all movies are about the pursuit of an object.
- In the now-classic novel Plainsong, author Kent Haruf gave teenage Victoria a red purse. What does it symbolize? Haruf did a nifty thing by giving that purse a symbolic, simple plot all its own.
- Our own novels soar when we imbue an object with symbolism and emotion.
- What is the object that “matters” in your story?
- Objects with special emotional or plot meaning usually appear on the cover of a book because marketers know they resonate with readers.
Christine DeSmet is a writing coach and instructor with University of Wisconsin-Madison Continuing Studies. She also teaches an online course in novel writing. A past Golden Heart winner and finalist (3 times), her books include three in the Fudge Shop Mystery Series (Penguin Random House) set in Door County, Wis., and the re-issued light romantic mystery novellas When Rudolph Was Kidnapped and Misbehavin’ in Moonstone (Writers Exchange Publishing).