Central Image: Your Subliminal Advertising


A good story is filled with vivid imagery, similies and metaphors that invest additional meaning in the pictures you’re creating in the reader’s mind: he was as listless as an afternoon shadow in August; her eyes glinted with feline cunning. But a strong Central Image goes beyond those passing moments. It’s a recurring symbol that shows itself in different ways and telegraphs subtle, important information to the reader, often related to the theme. Think of it as your story’s “subliminal advertising.”

When I write, I don’t ever pause and say, “Okay, what central image should I use?” But I do find that as I grapple my way through a story, some image will leap up and seem brighter than the others. Cool, I think. Then I start looking for ways for that symbol to be used again.

In “Mustang” (First Place, Clean Sheets “Every Little Kiss Contest”) my writer-protagonist is ruminating about his past works:

There is no book like your first…Other novels are just ideas you lasso and reel in, polish up with a thesaurus and send out to trot in the ring. Trick ponies.

(That story) had been the mustang of my body, bucking, snorting, pawing at the dirt for thirty years before it broke the traces and thundered out.

Once I’d written that, I knew it captured what I really wanted to project: the idea of a man re-discovering his raw, untamed sexual nature (and creativity.) As the story progressed, I tried to bring up that image of a wild horse several times:

My erection bumped his thigh impatiently like the muzzle of a fractious horse.

Then instinct seized my loins. I began to buck, mindless, plunging strokes and slapping flesh…All the world was my own cock and the bent-over burn of my rutting…

I slipped out into the early morning feeling light, quick, in the mood to run.

The word “mustang” is only used twice in the story, but I hoped to create that image repeatedly with different aspects of the animal.

So how do you “come up” with a Central Image?

If one doesn’t occur to you as you write, take a mental step back from your story. Think of the “big picture.” What are you trying to get across, in general terms? Is it a story about thwarted desire? Deceit? Neediness? Can you think of a tangible object connected to that theme? For example, does deceit make you think of a spider or a snake?

Once you have a tangible object, brainstorm for a word pool. What words might be connected with a spider? Scuttle, filaments, oily, entangled… Once you start, your list will grow to surprise you! you’ll have more images than you’ll be able to use.

One thing to remember about a Central Image is subtlety. You want it to ring in the reader’s mind like a distant bell, not hit him over the head. That’s why the word pool is invaluable. For example, you don’t even have to say the word “spider;” the other images will do it for you. And implied images are more powerful than obvious ones, because the reader makes the connection in his own mind. We all have a stronger response to things we figure out on our own.

As you write, remember the “Rule of Three.” As human beings, we are programmed to respond to concepts that are brought to our attention at least three times. (Try to think of a fairy tale that doesn’t have a trio of some kind.) Your Central Image should arise at least that often, and should definitely come up at the end, to underscore your meaning one more time.

Why have a Central Image at all? can’t a story be good without one?

Of course, but as a reader, I find that a strong Central Image helps me to remember the story after I’ve turned the last page, and gives me something to mentally chew on. As a writer, it helps me polish the piece into a cohesive whole, bring the events together under one visual umbrella. And best of all, it allows me to telegraph what I really want to say in a subtle, unobtrusive way — like sneaking medicine into chocolate.

The jury is still out on whether subliminal advertising is legal and fair. Luckily, good writing has nothing to do with what’s fair, only what works.

“Beyond the Basics” © 2005 Tulsa Brown. All rights reserved.
About the Author: Tulsa Brown is an award-winning novelist who has also written for film and media, and has led many writing workshops for adults and young people.

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