Writing in Images

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“I don’t see him as evil.”

The writer looked at me in dismay. “But it’s in here,” he said, returning to his pages. “Look here where the character says…”

The project: Television pilot.

The problem: Words, words, words.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the words on the page. Those are our tools, right?

But whether you’re talking film, theatre, fiction or non-fiction, it’s not the words on the page that really count. It’s the story the audience takes away that matters. What they experience. And the most powerful way to tell a story is through images.

You want to make someone in power seem evil? Show them in silhouette or from above looking down. Show them smiling after something bad happens.

You want a couple in love? Show them interrupt a task to touch or kiss each other.

A few examples:

“They skirted the northern rim of the town. No one was abroad at this nearly midnight hour, and nothing was open except a string of desolately brilliant service stations.” In Cold Blood, Truman Capote

With few words, Capote captures something familiar and shows it for what it is. Haven’t we all seen those strip malls, the asphalt swamp of parking lots before them, the lights blaring?

“She is thin, and her polka-dot dress is too large. She is clutching the baby and the suitcase as though she were continuously counting them.” The MisfitsArthur Miller.

Miller gives us both an image of the woman and a wonderful characterization. He doesn’t tell her she is anxious, she shows us.

“I see him, ashen, lost inside his clothes, and always, like me now, with a three-day stubble, moving wraithlike without sound through rooms gaunt with summer’s stillness, a stooped figure flickering trace of his passing save a sort of shimmer, a fold in the air, and a coiling question-mark of cigarette smoke.” Eclipse, John Banville

I love Banville for how he packs images into his writing. In this very long (overly?) sentence, we are shown a very thin man. We aren’t told he’s skinny. He is, “lost inside his clothes,” and that his passing by is evidenced by “a fold in the air.”  We aren’t told he smokes. We are shown “a coiling question-mark of cigarette smoke.”

In his book Stein on Writing, Sol Stein suggests a piece of fiction needs at least one visual on every page. When reviewing a draft he recommends you place a “v” in the margin of every page that has a visual so you can go back and find the pages that are missing a visual.

Readers want to experience writing, not be told about it. They want to make up their own minds, not be told how to interpret. Focusing on images gets you to move from telling to showing.

How much is too much?

As much as I love Banville for his dense use of images, I sometimes wonder if his writing is overworked to the point where style gets in the way of the story. In fact, it becomes the story.

If you’re not writing in images, give it a try. In doing so, you’ll heighten the impact of your writing and find your own balance.


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