On Visual Imagery

I am giving a two day workshop on the use of visual imagery in storytelling in Colorado in February 2012. They asked me to write a short piece about the topic for their magazine. I wrote too much and they will probably lose half of it. For posterity’s sake, here’s the whole thing.

A Good Visual Image is Worth a Thousand Words

By Barbara Nicolosi

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” Mt. 13:44


Poetry is the most respectful of art forms. The whole reason for a poem is the acknowledgment that reality is too complex and mysterious to be reduced to the limits of wordy definitions. Poetry searches for metaphors to reveal facets of reality by likening them to other things. In the famous poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant” by John Godfrey Saxe, we laugh to hear that an elephant is alternately like a wall, and then, like a spear, and then like a snake, and a tree, a fan and a rope. The poem assures us that an elephant isn’t any of those things, but is something like all of them.

Poetry is also eminently respectful of the reader, because it has to have faith in his or her intelligence, sensitivity and imagination – basically in the reader’s humanity – to succeed. The poet is a riddler who crafts a picture puzzle and hopes that someone will be enticed to go through the difficult process of unraveling it. If they do, the labor they have expended will make the solution valuable to them. You know what I mean if you have ever been driving along on a country road, and then suddenly understood what Emily Dickinson meant when she wrote,

I had been hungry all the years-

My noon had come, to dine-

I, trembling, drew the table near

And touched the curious wine.

Suddenly, as C.S. Lewis said about the purpose of literature, you know you’re not alone.

Sadly, my sense of so much Christian literature is that it fails because it neither respects the mysteries underlying the human choices it describes, nor the humanity of the reader. Why is it that people of faith have so little faith in people?

Our Lord set the example for all Christian storytellers by extensively utilizing visual images. One has to presume that He could have given a clinically accurate description of His reality as the Second Person of the Trinity. And yet he chose to describe himself as “the Vine”, “the Good Shepherd,” “the Light of the World,” “the Bread of Life.” The Kingdom of heaven is presented to us not through geometrical and philosophical definitions, but as “a great net cast into the sea,” “or a vineyard,” or “a lost coin,” or “a treasure in a field.” Hence, following the example of the Master, Christian artists through the ages have tended to approach reality humbly through images that in their distortion or emphasis bring us wisdom infused with reverence. It was a good way to be.

So what happened to us? Why is so much contemporary Christian art and literature banal? Why do our works not only not cause the world to brood, but cause them to dismiss us? Part of the problem is that so little Christian work today has any powerful lyrical imagery. In so doing, we separate ourselves from storytellers like Homer and Dante and Hawthorne and Poe, all of whom were masters of visual paradox.

My sense is that many contemporary writers couldn’t even say what a lyrical image is or why it is important in a story. At it’s basic level, a lyrical image is sacramental in a story, giving the reader something to see in their mind’s eye that points to hidden realities. Imagery should come into play particularly to get an audience to brood over a project’s theme, but also can be very helpful in making a character’s motivations and choices more resonant.

In her story Good Country People, the great writer and Christian, Flannery O’Connor, created a character who was a PhD with a wooden leg.


“She believes in nothing but her own belief in nothing, and we perceive that there is a wooden part of her soul that corresponds to her wooden leg. Now of course this is never stated. The fiction writer states as little as possible. The reader makes this connection from things he is shown. He may not even know that he makes the connection, but the connection is there nevertheless and it has its effect on him.” (Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners)

The truth is, it is easier to tell people what you think, then to entice them to think on something, which is what a good visual image does. Coming up with a good visual image for a story requires a double portion of the intelligence, sensitivity and imagination that a reader will need to unravel it.


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