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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10 thoughts on “How to Manage Image Systems in Your Story

  1. AmAhmad


    I am from Sudan, and first I’d like to thank you dearly for the great post.

    Secondly, I’d like to know more about those Elemental images you mentioned please and their meanings in film.

    QUOTE: “Elemental images such as earth, fire, water, and air, have a long association with certain themes and subject matter in film and literature”


    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Hi. Thanks for the question. Well, to generalise, several of the ancient Greek philosophers, to name but one cultural origin, variously regarded one or more of these “elements” to be the basic building block of matter–the essence of all things. Some thought it was fire, others water, others still, air or earth. The association drifted down through the ages, accruing additional layers meaning and resonance until these elements came to suggest the things they do today (and again I’m generalising here): Fire—destruction and rebirth, change. Air—freedom, spirituality, Holiness. Earth—nurture, nature, origin, being grounded. Water—life-giving, fecundity, sexuality, abundance. Films and literature often uses these associations to imbue their stories with deeper meaning and feeling.

  2. Russ Welsh

    Can a character be an image system? In my screenplay, “What She Wrote About Me”, the protagonist is deeply traumatized by the recent suicide of his best friend (a girl). The protagonist keeps seeing his friend’s face pasted on bodies of other women and he frequently flashes back to happier times. This is largely the driving force behind everything that happens in my screenplay. So, I guess, I was just wondering if image systems are always inanimate or weather symptoms, etc. Or can it be a character who may not be the main character but is definitely the most important thing in the story.

    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Yes, it certainly can, Russ. Any image that is central, in some way, can be part of such a system, especially if it keeps recurring.

  3. Shea Moir

    Hi, Stavros

    Very cool post. It’s a great explanation of an effective tool. Helps you develop a greater sense of connection between fiction characters and the audience. Thanks for that post, Stavros. Without it, I probably wouldn’t have grasped the imagery system quite so well and be now able to apply it effectively in my anticipated second draft of, Remnants.


  4. Mark Landen

    I’ve recently watched Shutter Island again and have a new appreciation for that story. Some of the dialogue is classic!

    I know during my story development when I incorporated two memorable places, one for my protagonist that represents a source of goodness, and an opposing place for my antagonist and his representative antagonistic force, the story took on a whole new meaning. Whether the reader can articulate this as us writers do isn’t likely, but the goal is to illicit feeling and realism through association. For example, a child knows the Death Star is a bad place and its trash compactor even darker. Are these examples usage of image systems?

    Also, how much would you say that the advice, “use setting as a character” fits within managing image systems? I hear that phrase thrown around quite a bit. Finally, could you comment on “setting as theme” in relation to this article as well?

    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Thanks for the questions, Mark. Yep. I think the Death Star is very much an image system along the lines I’ve been discussing. As to a setting taking the part of character, I think with the exception of instances where the setting (say a haunted house) is actually “alive” and acts very much like a character, I’d rather not stretch the definition that far. As to setting as theme, I’d say that setting helps to inform the theme but cannot be the theme. For me the theme contains a moral or ethical premise, which setting alone cannot provide.


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