Creating Mental Motion Pictures For Readers

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

Looking up from his laptop, Richard Cambridge adjusted his eyeglasses before resting his elbows on the lectern. He surveyed the packed room of Stonecoast faculty and fellow grad students at a session he led Thursday. “How many of you’ve seen Mission:  Impossible?” he said. Several hands shot up, remembering the opening montage of the popular TV series: a hand striking a match and lighting a fuse.

Cambridge smiled. That fuse burning across the TV screen, he noted, is what happens inside the reader’s mind when he/she reads a great book.

Cambridge’s Making Movies on the Mental Retina is among the 19 of 26 Graduating Student Presentations that occurred so far during the Stonecoast MFA summer residency, which we’re midway through.

The second half of the residency officially started yesterday. Scott Wolven killed the Flash Faculty Reading that included Tony Barnstone, Rick Bass, Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Carolina De Robertis, and Nancy Holder. I enjoyed Jaed Coffin’s coming-of-age essay on his adventures in a small town, changed by gentrification.

In his presentation on imagery, Richard Cambridge was on a mission: to equip his peers with a new layer to what he called “our writer’s ‘toolbox'” of techniques, making “one word worth a thousand pictures.”

Using Elaine Scarry’s  Dreaming by the Book, a work on literary aesthetics, Cambridge identified five techniques used by writers to power the projector reel of the reader’s imagination. That list includes rarity, dyadic addition and subtraction, stretching and floral supposition.

(ARTWORK: Princeton University Press)

The one that jumped out at me was radiant ignition, or the lit fuse burning through the reader’s mind where the story plays out like a movie. I immediately thought of Stephen King’s article Imagery and the Third Eye. “Some critics have accused me…of writing for the movies,” the bestselling author writes. “It’s not true, but I suppose there’s some justification for the idea.”

According to sources, his books have  sold more than 350 million copies. “All of my novels to date have been sold to the movies,” he writes. They’ve also been adapted into TV movies and comic books.

King noted that both film and fiction share an interest in imagery. “I’m suggesting that my novels have sold to the movies,” he writes, “simply because they contain elements of vivid image that appeal to those who make films.”

However, the author of contemporary horror, suspense, science fiction and fantasy fiction knows images don’t carry a whole story. “Novels are more than imagery—they are thought, plot, style, tone, characterization, and a score of other things,” he writes, “but it is the imagery that makes the book

‘stand out’ somehow; to come alive; to glow with its own light.”

According to Scarry, “Radiant Ignition  sets narrative in motion…helps make apprehensible the interior motion of fictional persons…to animate what would otherwise be, however vivid, only still pictures in the mind.”

Radiant Ignition is closely related to dyadic motion. The clearest explanation of this technique is as a “rapid composition of a series of still images.” Think animation, where a cartoonist sketches the cartoon’s every motion. Flip those pages of sketches, and the two-dimensional character appears to move.

Citing examples of two of Scarry’s theories in practice, Richard Cambridge turned to Joe Hill’s novel Heart-Shaped Box, which tells the story of aging rock star Judas Coyne who’s haunted by the ghost, Craddock McDermott, after buying the dead man’s funeral suit. Craddock was the father of a groupie Jude dated before she committed suicide. The dead man’s out to kill Jude for revenge.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

Richard Cambridge’s noted an example of dyadic motion in the following passage:

Craddock McDermott moved in stop motion, a series of life-size still photographs. In one moment his arms were at his sides. In the next, one of his gaunt hands was on Georgia’s shoulder. His fingernails were yellowed and long and curled at the end. The black marks jumped and quivered in front of his eyes. ¶Time leaped forward again.

Cambridge noted that Hill gives away his technique. It’s the “first ‘instruction’” he gives the reader “to compose the movement of this particular character in his movie that is playing in our head.” The instruction comes again here:

In one instant Craddock’s hands were gently cradling Georgia’s head. In the next his right arm had come up to point out and away from his body: Sieg heil. Around the dead man, time had a way of skipping, a scratched DVD, the picture stuttering erratically from moment to moment, without any transitions in between.

The descriptions of Craddock’s fingernails (“…yellowed and long and curled at the end”) and how time moved (“…skipping, a scratched DVD, the picture stuttering erratically…”) are what Stephen King called “the bright picture that glows in the physical eye or in the mind’s eye.” Scarry’s theories and Hill’s use of them go back to the caveman who “held his audience spellbound around a fire at night.” Perhaps, King writes, “he even got an extra piece of meat for his efforts if the story was a good one, the first writer’s royalty!”

Those details are also why Hill, Cambridge noted, gets away with giving his readers “instructions”.  As a writer, he said, “You don’t take the audience behind the curtain and show them how the trick is done.” But Hill can do it because he doesn’t break the trance.

5 thoughts on “Creating Mental Motion Pictures For Readers

  1. Great writers use imagery well and King is a master. I’m reading one of his (older) books now and can’t help note how his metaphors are right on the money calling exact images to mind. It’s no wonder so many of his books have been adapted to film and television. I’ll have to check out that article you mentioned. Also, loved his “On Writing.” Have you read it? Nabokov was good at imagery too, his descriptions in “Lolita” called for camera directions and angles that weren’t even possible at the time. And you’re right, a novel isn’t all about imagery, but it does help to leave a mark in the reader’s mind.

    Good article, Alan!

  2. Alan,

    Thanks so much for this. From the looks of it, I got the information across. And thanks for adding to the debate tying it in with King’s essay. It’s interesting you took it in that direction, SK being Joe Hill’s dad.


    1. Richard,

      Your presentation was amazing. I didn’t know Stephen King was Joe Hill’s dad! My fiancee and I were blown away by that fact. Thanks!

    1. Thank you so much! I’ve been excited by the writers I’ve come across in the nearly two years I’ve been blogging. I’m glad to know you and be able to count you among the writers in this ever-growing community of bloggers I appreciate!

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