Reaching for the Sublime: Image Systems in Fiction

Humans find comfort in patterns. Patterns encompass us; we live within them. Breathe in, breathe out. The heartbeat, circadian rhythms, daily rituals, the weekly cycle of work and rest, the seasons’ round. Patterns allow our minds to rest, secure in the recognition of the known, the predictable.

On the other hand, it’s variation that fascinates. We’re lulled by repetition, and spellbound by difference. Did you ever spend an hour or two on a beach, just watching the surf roll in? Or stare for hours into the dancing flames of a campfire? 

Johann Sebastian Bach understood these human tendencies as well as anyone ever has. The fugues comprising the building blocks of his music are merely variations on simple, easily internalized melodic patterns. And Baroque music, like most music, is built upon rhythm: a repetitive ground bass holding the whole complex structure in place like the frame of a house.

Like music, prose narrative is an abstract form of art that plays out over the dimension of time. It stands to reason that we would find patterns here as well. It’s not hard to come up with examples: chapter length, sentence length, paragraph length. The three act structure. Alternating POV’s. I could go on.

But there’s one important type of pattern in fiction you may not have noticed. Robert McKee defines it as a “strategy of motifs,” and “a category of images embedded in the story that repeats from beginning to end.” It’s basically the literary equivalent of Bach’s musical rhyming. It’s among the most powerful tools in a writer’s toolbox, but also one of trickiest to employ.

As good writers know (and as I have explored elsewhere), well-executed imagistic description is the key to fictional transportation. Much depends on the extent to which an author can imagine the world of the story and get the sensory details of that world down on the page.

Beyond this, though, the use of repeated and varied image systems is one of the keys to making a novel or a story resonate on a subconscious level. Note that we’re talking about categories of imagery here, not the same exact images over and over. Categories broad enough to contain several different varieties of image. 

Moby Dick’s whaling imagery encompasses not only the white whale itself, but the whale teeth that line the gunwales of the Pequod. In Phillip Pullman’s masterful The Golden Compass it’s images of the north: icecaps, polar bears, the northern lights. 

Authors are not limited to one category. In George R.R.Martin’s brilliant Game of Thrones, we experience repeated images of winter – ice, snow, wolves – alongside repeated images of cold, sharp iron: swords, knives, axes.

Classical Hollywood knew all about image systems, of course. In Casablanca it was imagery of enclosure and captivity – shadows of the window blinds casting the illusion prison bars, searchlights, cloying fog, etc. In Chinatown it was motifs of blindness or false seeing: broken glasses, binoculars, the blank eyes of a corpse.

Image systems are, of course, determined by the story in question, and you can’t really plan them. You must recognize and bring them forward in revision. In rereading a first draft you might discover a recurrence of water images, factory images, the seasons, machines, the moon and stars, whatever. In revision, image systems must be teased out artfully, with subtlety and constant variation.

Image systems form a repetitive pattern -- this is key -- but the pattern can’t be so obvious that an unschooled reader will recognize it consciously. The images must rhyme in ways that will amalgamate power and bring emotional unity to the story. In order to resonate, the images must emerge from the subconscious, and they must appeal to the reader's subconscious as well. They can’t be out in the open, or the effect will be ruined.

Obviously, this is extremely tricky. You have to be subtle, and you have to use your intuition. If you’re a writer, you know exactly what I mean.

Do all novels and stories contain image systems? No. But many do, and most of the best works of literature do. So if you’re looking for a way to take a good story draft and jump it up into the realm of the sublime, you might want read that draft one more time. Look for recurring images, then put those images to work.