Imagine Gandalf a minute. What do you see?
The first image that pops in my mind is the pointed gray hat. Not any gray wizard’s hat, but a softened hat, slightly bent, worn at the edges, a sense of not only history in him but comfort, no need for embellishments or flash. A true hat, a used hat, a fitting hat.
And what about images that represent not a character alone but an entire story or a theme? Why does the hollowed hiding place in the tree linger with so many of us after seeing To Kill a Mockingbird? On a broader scale, what do the wide expanses of frozen white make us feel in Fargo, and do they come to represent the movie as a whole?
In storytelling, whether in novels or short stories or movies, images can convey as much as dialogue or action. The image doesn’t have to be specifically symbolic, as in a one-to-one relationship like the “A” in The Scarlet Letter, or how a key might come to represent unlocking a secret. Sometimes an image carries with it universal associations that we can’t define: water, doors, open skies, passageways, lone trees, shadows, a sun rise.
A movie or a book can be subconsciously more powerful if the writer or filmmaker incorporates resonant imagery, letting the setting convey ongoing themes or character transitions, letting a single image speak rather than the characters themselves.
Imagine a scene in which two characters stand face to face: one is shouting about an important missed phone call, while the other is unable to speak. The argument has nothing to do with what’s really happening between them, which is a betrayal and a broken promise. As they argue, the silent character’s focus is on a china teacup, narrowing in on the crack running between flowers, a crack that appears larger and larger as the argument goes nowhere.
If later in the book or movie, a teacup is once again seen, in a different house, perhaps an older woman holding a fine cup, never broken, we might not consciously ask, what does this mean, what shift is happening here? But somewhere in our subconscious the new image recalls the old; somewhere inside, something stirs and we sit up, become more engaged with the story, without knowing why.
There’s magic in the subtle play of images. Sometimes you might see a movie or read a book that brings to mind a color. I’ve heard people say, “That movie was so blue,” or “That book felt orange.” Obviously, the writer or filmmaker associated a color with the mood of the story or with the characters’ emotions. Often it’s not a conscious choice, but something that happens in the writing stage, which is taken up unconsciously by the reader or viewer.
But when revising any story, the writer should look at the potential of an image, at what the character might not say, at the action that might not happen, but that the image might show. And trust that the reader, the audience, shares a similar consciousness, and will intuitively know.
Often it’s the subtle image working at the deeper level that stays with the audience, that creates a reaction that feels a bit like a mystery, a stirring inside that lingers after the story is finished.