Sunday, February 12, 2012

Creating the Image Arc for Your Book

This week I'm in Florida, treating myself to a workshop with my wonderful painting instructor, Susan Sarback of the School of Light and Color.  It's truly a gift to myself to be able to get away from the chill of New England and get saturated with images of sea, sun, and sky.

It seems fitting that last week one of my online classes created the "image arcs" for their books, a process I didn't have a clue about as a new writer, but which transformed my understanding of story when I found out about it.

Image arcs exist in all books--essays and short stories often have them too, although they are most apparent in longer works.  Images thread something called the "inner story" which is where readers get the emotion from your writing.  Events provide momentum; images provide emotion.  Both are needed to (1) keep a reader reading and (2) make your story have an impact on more than just an intellectual level. 

When readers "fall in love" with books, it's usually because the image arc is strong and well threaded throughout the chapters, from beginning to end.

But how does a writer begin working with her book's image arc?

I didn't even know the image arc existed when I began my early books, and I worked primarily with editors at the publishing houses who took care of that sort of thing.  I was responsible for the material itself, they did the fine-tuning.  But as I published more and taught more about how books are constructed, I found out about this very important element. 

So this week I want to share with you the writing exercise that my online class has been working on (Part 3 of Your Book Starts Here class, sponsored by the Loft Literary Center).  I find this exercise interesting to do at any stage of book writing, but it's most helpful at revision.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise:  Creating Image Arcs
Images link the parts of your book's inner story, providing a pathway for a reader to follow. 

Images are part of "language" revision.  This exercise asks you to track the key images in your book to see if they create this all-important pathway for your reader.

1.  Look at the 5 main moments of your book.  You can use the W storyboard, as explained in this video I made.  Write down the events associated with these moments, as specifically as you can.  To do this exercise correctly, it's important to choose one event or a small series of events that happened in the same time frame (not over weeks or years, for example, but in several hours or one day). 

2.  List the primary location for each of these 5 events.  You may also notice that certain objects, or details of atmosphere such as weather, stand out in these events. 

3.  Find the key image in each of these 5 locations.  The key image might be a body of water, an object, a certain sense like smell or weather, a building, a color, a texture.  Make a list of these 5 main images.  Note:  you may have images that repeat within these 5--that's fine.  Ask yourself how the repeating image changes, evolves, at the different points.

4.  Now look at the chapters between each point.  They are bookended by a pair of images, yes?  (Act 1 has two main points, triggering event as #1 and end of act 1 as #2.)  How does each chapter between those bookends continue the image you begin and transition to the image you end with?

5.  Can you build this pathway, or image arc, in the chapters between your points?

This is a wonderful but challenging exercise.  If it interests you and you'd like to work more on it, consider attending one of my summer or fall retreats on beautiful Madeline Island (July and September this year), where we spend five days together exploring the deeper levels of your book--including its image arc.