Monthly Archives: February 2012

How to Manage Image Systems in Your Story

An image system is a collection of images, which repeats throughout your story or script. Each new image acts as an echo of a previous instance, reinforcing the main concerns and themes of your story. These images chiefly function in two ways—they are part of the actual “physical” world of your story, but they are also reflections, or symbols of your story’s interior concerns—the inner landscape.

The Power of Imagery

The Power of Imagery

Shutter Island

The film, Shutter Island, drives the story forward by utilising images of water, the sea, and wind, whipped up into a hurricane, which is closing in on the island housing a mental hospital. The hurricane is an important plot element that adds to the tension and ups the ante as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) races to conclude his investigation of the disappearance of a mental patient, who he suspects is hiding on the island, before the storm hits.

Aggravating the frenetic search for the patient is Daniels’s own deteriorating mental condition, as images of his past life as a soldier, then as a husband and father, flash before him, adding to his overall instability and confusion. The image of the hurricane, therefore, is more than a major plot element. It is also a symbol of the inner landscape, a warning of the potentially tempestuous and uncontrollable behaviour that smoulders inside all of us.

The Piano

In the film, The Piano, images of water, the sea, and mud are deeply embedded into every aspect of the story—they are a part of the setting, which sets the tone and mood of the tale. But these images, drawing on basic psychological analysis, also connote the sexual and emotional tension of the characters, becoming stronger each time we encounter them in the film. The piano itself perfectly captures the two-fold function of imagery. The instrument is as much a vehicle for the plot, as it is a substitute for Ada McGrath’s (Holly Hunter) lost voice and suppressed passion.


For an in-depth analysis of the image systems in Chinatown, follow this link to an earlier post.

In Summary

Managing images systems in your stories relies on two major factors: selecting images that pertain to your story world, while simultaneously evoking and supporting the themes and concerns that your story sets out to explore. Elemental images such as earth, fire, water, and air, have a long association with certain themes and subject matter in film and literature. Others, are looser and more mailable. Choosing the right class of imagery will not only help you plot your story effectively, but will enrich and deepen its thematic and connotative layers too.

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How to Build a Character Profile

As has often been suggested in previous posts, well-developed characters are the lifeblood of any story. Even stories rooted in plot-centered genres such as action adventure, require that we care about the characters we are reading about or are watching on the screen, if we are to care about the story at all. Learning to craft fictional characters is a life-long endeavour; it draws on our personal growth as we journey through life, learning from our actions, both good and bad. There are, however, specific techniques that we, as writers, may immediately use to improve our craft. One such technique is the Character Profile.

Character Profile

Character Profile

Character Profile

A character profile is a grouping of elements that work together to deepen the depth, complexity, and verisimilitude of a character. In this post we shall examine six of the most important ones: Basic traits, want vs. need, opposing elements, secrets, flaws, and uniqueness.

1. Basic Traits

Fictional characters usually have three or four basic traits that help shape their actions. In the movie, Rocky, for example, the protagonist is a hardworking journeyman boxer whose toughness, and relentless determination to take whatever the opponent can throw at him help to propel him to a world heavyweight championship fight.

2. Want vs. Need

As discussed in a previous post, what a character wants is not always what he or she needs. In fact, some of the most interesting characters are forged out of this opposition. A want is usually manifested through the pursuit of an outer goal, while a need is often obfuscated by that very goal. Rocky ostensibly wants to go the distance with the heavyweight champion of the world. What he needs, however, is to defend and bolster his self-respect by taking everything the champion throws at him.

3. Opposing Elements

Inner conflict arising out of waring elements, makes for more interesting characters. In Unforgiven, William Manny (Clint Eastwood), a cold blooded killer in his youth, is reformed by his loving wife, now dead, who still continues to exercise an influence over him beyond the grave. In accepting a job to kill the men who cut up the face of a prostitute, Manny repeatedly asserts that his wife has cured him of his evil ways, and he has only agreed to take on the job in an attempt to dispense justice and make a fresh start for his children from the reward money.

4. Keeping Secrets

Someone with a secret makes for a far more engaging character. Secrets sow the seeds of suspense, surprise, and subplot, allowing the writer to craft situations that are inherently more engaging and resonant. In the film, Chinatown, Evelyn Mulwray ‘s (Faye Dunaway) dialogue and actions resonate with a terrible secret—that her daughter is also her sister, a result of an act of incest perpetrated by her own father. It is only when Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, (and the audience) learns of this towards the end of the film that he is able to fully understand the reason for her odd and seemingly deceitful behavior.

5. The Flaw

A character with a flaw seems more human, allowing the writer to play his strengths off against his weaknesses, heightening the inner and outer conflict. In the Shakespearean play, Macbeth, the protagonist is a brave and courageous man who has one damning flaw — overriding ambition. This makes him susceptible to the suggestions of others, especially his wife, that he should be king. This flaw drives the story and ultimately determines Macbeth’s fate — his death.

6. Uniqueness

A unique personality doesn’t have to be totally unusual; one or two unique habits or surprising traits are often enough to differentiate a character from the pack. In the novel, The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is a wealthy, mysterious man who throws outlandish parties in the hope of attracting Daisy — the great love of his life — to one of them. His unique trait that distinguishes him from everyone else of his ilk is his gift for wonder, his capacity to stay true to his vision of Daisy as the beloved.

In Summary

A character profile is a way of defining and managing essential aspects of your characters. Keep each character profile close at hand as you write your scenes to ensure that the action and dialogue your characters engage in stay on track.

High Concept

This post is in response to a request by Russ, one of this blog’s regular readers, that I say something about High Concept. High Concept is a term that’s commonly used in Hollywood to refer to a film whose story contains certain characteristics. Spielberg has referred to High Concept as a high-level idea that can be expressed briefly, allowing one to hold the entire story in the palm of one’s hand.

High Concept

High Concept

At its most basic, High Concept entails three crucial aspects:

1. It contains a core concept that is unique.
2. It appeals to a large audience.
3. It can be stated in a single sentence, allowing us to “see” the overall story at a glance.


Of course, no story is truly unique. We’ve often heard that there are only so many stories in existence, and they’ve all been told before in one way or another. But this does not mean that elements within these stories can’t be arranged in a unique combination. Jurassic Park, for example, is a classical monster movie, but the idea that the monsters spring from the DNA of prehistorical animals, which has been preserved in tree resin, was new and unique at the time.

Wide-Spread Audience Appeal

This is one of the most difficult elements to pin down. After all, if we knew beforehand precisely what would prove popular with audiences or readers, we’d all be millionaires. Having said that, there are sources that we can look to for hints. The top ten most popular books and movies is a good place to start.

Can Be Stated Succinctly

How is it possible that one can encapsulate and visualise an entire story in a single sentence? Well, that’s what’s so marvelous about High Concept – it’s a pithy statement that allows one to intuit the overall shape of the story in a few bold strokes. The movie Seven, for example, very much a high concept story, can be stated in one sentence: A serial killer selects and murders his victims based on each having committed one of the seven deadly sins. Although the details are missing, we can easily visualize the general thrust of the movie, while being intrigued by the idea of the murder plot being based on biblical sin.

In Summary

High Concept is a single sentence, describing a story in broad strokes, which encapsulates an element of uniqueness and appeals to a wide audience. Some of the most popular books and movies of all time have utilised High Concept to obvious effect.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. I post every Monday.

How to Establish Character Identification

In a well-crafted film or novel, we often identify with the characters in the story. At the very least, we need to identify with the protagonist – if we are to be drawn into the tale at all. By identification, I mean the tendency to experience a character’s achievements, failures, foibles, likes and dislikes as if they were our own. Identification is not the same as liking the character, although, in the traditional story, it is one of the most important elements. Because identification helps to draw us into the story more effectively than is otherwise possible, it is one of the most important story-telling skills to master.

A child kissing its reflection in the mirror

Character Identification

In his book, Writing Screenplays That Sell, Michael Hague lays out several ways to achieve this. Here’s six of the most important:

1. Create sympathy for your characters. This is one of the most effective ways to achieve identification with a fictional character. A character that has been made the victim of some undeserved misfortune is a someone we can root for — Ghandi, Joan of Arc, Rob Roy are all people that did not deserve the punishment meted out to them.

2. Place your character in peril. Worrying about a character’s well-being draws us closer to him. In The Matrix we worry that Neo’s conflict with agent Smith will result in his death. This forces us identify with his predicament even more.

3. Make your character likable. If we like someone we are more likely to root for her. A character that is funny (Inspector Clouseau), good (William Wallace), or merely skilled at what he does (Dirty Harry), posses traits that make him likable.

4. Make your character powerful. Readers and audiences are fascinated with powerful figures. Superman’s arch enemy, Lex Luthor, holds our interest precisely because his is a powerful enemy.

5. Introduce your protagonist as soon as possible. The reader is waiting for someone worthy to root for. The sooner you bring her into the fray, the sooner the process of identifying with her can begin.

6. Give your character familiar flaws and foibles. In comedy, especially, we often identify with a character who is awkward or clumsy precisely because we recognise some of these characteristics as our own. Woody Allen’s characters are an effective illustration of this technique.

In Summary

Creating a strong sense of Identification with your protagonist and her plight is essential. Use one or more of the six tehquniques mentioned above to achieve a stronger and more engaging storyline.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. I post every Monday.