*stares at blank sheet of paper*
1) Look at the implications of the image.
Say the image is that of a woman with wings kneeling in the middle of a sun-drenched meadow. She stubbornly refuses to have a name, a history, or anything else that might make it easier to work with her. So you look at what she, all by herself, implies.
She has wings. Why? Are her people born that way? Are they magical additions? Are they artificial? Is she not human at all, but a crossbreed of human and eagle, or perhaps a descendant of angels? An angel herself? Are the wings white, bronze, brown, gray, black, some other color? Are there people with wings of other colors?
Does she wear clothes? Are they adapted to fit around the wings? If they are, then that indicates the wings are part of her or she wears them fairly often. If not, perhaps the wings are artificial and decorative, and she’s only wearing them because there will be a parade to celebrate an ancient victory of winged warriors in a short time, and she’s seeking out this meadow as a way to escape all the bustle.
Is she naked? She probably has natural/magical adaptations that will allow her to survive the cold at extreme heights, then. Or perhaps she only flies at the lower levels.
Time to look at the meadow. What is the vegetation like? Is this a mountain meadow, alpine, tropical, grassland, the result of a suddenly-blooming desert or tundra? All of them will begin telling you what kind of food might be available for this woman’s people, what the weather is like, what kind of landscape they have to contend with- and probably something about how that has shaped their culture- and how all of the preceding affects their flight patterns.
…No, wait, you’ve already limited the limitless options, because the sun is shining. Hmm. So is the weather mild? Or is this a mountain meadow, where the sun may be shining but it will still be cold when she flies?
She’s female. Her people apparently have some form of sexual reproduction, and if she’s female in a human way, she can bear children and nurse them. How do they handle it? What are the cultural attitudes towards it? Is she pregnant right now? Menstruating? Is she in the meadow to contemplate marriage, or how she left her children with her barren sister who was born without wings and is therefore pathetically grateful to be able to have a place in the society, or to visit a dead child’s grave? Is infant mortality high in her society?
So many questions to start asking, and one can spin quite a complex story out of them.
2) Crossbreed images.
At one point I had quite a stubborn image of a man walking down a hall with a whip on his belt. I knew he was a clever man, and ruthless, and also bored. But I couldn’t get a story out of him, because every plot I tried, he rejected as being too boring, not worthy of his cleverness. He wouldn’t leave, either.
I also had quite a stubborn image of a fountain of white light, like the tail of a comet, rising from a mountainside. I had no idea what caused it. Once again, no story.
Then I decided that someone clever and ruthless might have caused that fountain of white light, and how would he do it? Bingo. In a half hour I had the clever, ruthless man as one half of a prophecy which stated that one person in it would destroy the world and the other would do something even worse, and the white light as the end result. The whip on his belt signaled that man’s occupation as a torturer, and he’d become one because of his belief in justice, and out of a misguided crusade for justice (which just incidentally stood to punish his personal enemies) he started a chain of events that led to the white light.
Perhaps two stubborn images have no essential connection, but one can do worse than lump them together and see what children come out of them.
3) Use the image as characterization.
Is the image of a character? Then study the way she stands, the expression on her face, the clothes she’s wearing. Perhaps you can’t get quite the mileage out of her that Point 1 affords, because she’s atypical for her society or just asking the questions gets you nowhere. But if the image is keen enough, then you can at least start deciding what sort of a person she must be.
Okay, bang. She’s on a mountainside, staring at something you can’t make out in the valley below. (If you could make it out, perhaps you would have a story). She has blonde hair carefully braided around her neck, her head cocked on one side, her right hand on her right hip and held so it’s cupping it. Her left foot is planted lower on the slope than her right foot. She’s wearing breeches, and the hair on the back of her neck is standing up. Her eyes are large, and blue, and she’s frowning, the lines pulling tight around them. When she walks forward towards whatever-it-is in the valley, she moves with a long, loping stride, like a cheetah.
What does this tell me? The following:
- She doesn’t want her hair blowing in the wind; she’s fussy about it getting in her face.
- She tends to adopt a self-confident posture whether or not there’s anyone around to see her. That’s the cause of her aggressive stance, and the way she walks.
- Her right hand falls to her right hip naturally, by dint of long habit. Is she used to carrying something there? A weapon, a wand, a staff? Perhaps it’s an old injury.
- She frowns a lot; she has crow’s feet around her eyes.
You may have drawn other conclusions from this. And, of course, it does not necessarily spawn a plot or a setting.
But it may get you closer to the kind of character who spins her own plot or setting.
4) Snip it.
This is the opposite of point 2. Rather than adding another stubborn image to the first stubborn image, you take something away. This is a test to see what’s really essential to your image.
Say you have a giant kraken attacking a ship. Can you remove the giant kraken and have it be unchanged? Then perhaps what’s important is the ship, not the kraken. Or the storm raging overhead could be the ship’s enemy. On the other hand, maybe you feel an immediate sense of distress when the kraken goes, but you realize that only about half the madly scrambling people on the ship are important. Did the ship set out with a small crew, or is everyone else dead and these are the characters you want to write about? Swipe the decks mostly clean and look at who’s fighting the kraken. Perhaps the tall, rangy captain can vanish and all will be well, but the small, dark-haired woman who swears a mile a minute has to stay. Or her companion who’s grabbed one of the kraken’s arms like an idiot is important, for all that he seems about to get his brains dashed out. Perhaps the small dark-haired woman is swearing at him. And then you’ve got a bit of character, and perhaps plot if her words indicate their pre-existing relationship, because what kind of person uses up breath to swear at someone instead of fighting the kraken?
This process probably works best with complicated images, instead of simple ones, but even with simple ones, one can get into the details. That might tell you what makes the image so attractive in the first place.
5) Exaggerate the weirdness.
At one point I had an image of giant lizards who looked like they were made of stone crawling in a steady circle around a brazier of white fire, and every few seconds tilting back their heads to unleash gouts of white fire of their own. I didn’t know what to do with it. It seemed to be sometimes the heart of a story, sometimes simply an addition to a larger one- not that I had any larger plot where it comfortably fit.
So I started making it weirder. The lizards didn’t look like they were made of stone, they actually were made of stone. The underground cavern around them wasn’t just some cavern, it had no entrance or exit and was a hollow egg of rock, so how had the lizards gotten there in the first place? The white fire in the brazier wasn’t just bright enough to obscure its kindling, it had no kindling. Who had set it burning? What would happen if there was a double rainbow above the lizards’ heads?
I wound up eventually fitting the lizards and their brazier into a story, and using every question except the rainbow one to do it. When an image is so enigmatic that you can’t even ask questions about it, then force questions onto it. They might lead you somewhere. And since fantasy lends itself to all sorts of weirdness, far more generously than most genres do, this tactic has a better chance of working.
6) Let music alter the image.
This assumes, of course, that your image is a visual and not an auditory one, but pretty much all these pointers do. And it also assumes you’re susceptible to music.
What happens if you listen to a lively classical piece while keeping the image firmly in mind? How do the still things in the image begin to move? How does the motion of those in motion change? Perhaps the image of a still lake becomes a flowing river becomes a waterfall becomes an image of the dazaterzib who has his house behind the waterfall. Perhaps the woman crouching and staring at a pink flower in the middle of a pond grows wings and flies up, dropping the flower, which lands on the rocks and grows into a tree. Perhaps the first scene of ‘Snow White,’ which won’t leave you alone, has blue blood instead of red landing on the snow, and it grows a giant robot monster instead of Snow White.
This is, admittedly, not always a help; the music might give you a series of disconnected scenes rather than a full narrative. But even those scenes, if they seem to be part of the same story, might at least tell you more of what the story is about. And altering a static image can be a great advantage. I’ve had problems before when I tried to build my story too closely around one particular image that I had trouble even describing. Change it a bit, and it might become easier to write, or at least easier to describe.
7) Decide this image is a scene you will love to write because of X.
What part of writing do you like best? Zesty dialogue? Adventurous action sequences? Bare-naked bosoms? Young lovers just finding out that they’re separated by the feuding of their families? Purple prose exposition?
Turn the image into a scene that will involve X, the thing you love writing. Even if it’s stubborn, do it. The scene that was silent and still and intriguing, but useless because you couldn’t get anything out of it, now has to have dialogue- say, witty banter. Make the character(s) talk, to themselves if no one else is there. Have them talk to their surroundings. Write it out, or write it in your head, and see what happens. The writing itself may give you some idea of where the story is heading. Or you may know, now, that this image is near the end of a very long novel, and to get to it, you’ll have to slog through an awful lot of story first.
Here’s where discipline comes in. If you do have a sense of the story now, but all you write is this scene and nothing more, then it doesn’t help (unless that exorcises the image from your head, and that was all you wanted). The rest of the story does have to be written. Use the scene as a springboard, a platform, or a reward if you can put it off, or if you’re a linear writer and this image comes near the end of the novel or story. The anticipation of writing a certain scene can draw a story forward.
8) Track the image to its source.
Where did it come from? A movie, a song, another story, a photograph, a glimpse out of the corner of your eye? Perhaps going back and looking at the original source will give you ideas about where to go from here.
If you have an image of a carousel that did not come from a carousel but from deer leaping along the edge of a wood at dawn, go study deer. How do they move? How do they bound the way they do? Perhaps learning that will inspire you to make the figures on your carousel move as deer do—that is, not like carousels in our own world. From there, it might be just a short step to figuring out why they were built that way.
If it came from another story, go back and look at the original. What did the author do with that storyline or that image that is different than what you intend on doing? List the differences. I think picking up on inspirations from other writing is perfectly fine—stealing images is far different from stealing actual words—but quite often, it results in a very vague ambition, “I’m going to do something different,” without any ability to say what the “something” is. List all the differences that you can, even the most obvious. Does the original author only use the image of a floating city for background color, while you intend to make it the center of a story? Does the author introduce a flower that blooms only for a moment, while you intend to make it immortal? Does the author describe a character’s posture and state that it’s abnormal for her character, while you intend to make someone for whom it’s habitual?
Knowing how you intend to use an image can spawn all sorts of ideas.
9) Notice similarities between this image and others you’ve developed in the past.
Perhaps you have a solid character named Astaran and no idea what to do with him, because he has no family background and no connection to any of your well-developed settings. On the other hand, perhaps he’s very similar to a character you developed a while ago, named Shamastaran.
Could Astaran be his brother? His cousin? Someone else who has a similar background and inhabits a similar world? An incarnation/exaggeration of a trait that’s only a minor one in Shamastaran? Perhaps Astaran is actually the character you wanted to play with; Shamastaran, while being deep, is not very active and cannot carry a story. So you can strip him of his background and give his history and plot to Astaran, who immediately starts moving.
This is where I think an author being aware of her own major themes, obsessions, ideas, character types, etc., is a real advantage. Yes, you might, possibly, start repeating yourself if you use too many similar characters. On the other hand, if you’ve never managed to write Shamastaran, then cannibalizing him into a story that you can write is no problem. And at least if you come up with two very similar freed-prisoner characters several books apart, then glancing back and forth between them and noting the patterns can show you what may work, what will not work, and what you’ve already done to death.
10) Just start writing.
Don’t try to elaborate the image into a scene, or change it, or compare it to something else you already have in mind. Sometimes the best elaborations feel forced and false, the image refuses to change, and it’s too dissimilar from anything you’ve ever done to find a home in previous patterns. (Perhaps that’s why you’re excited about it).
Well, all right, then. Write it down. Describe it. Make someone else see the image as clearly and perfectly as if they were standing in front of it.
This has a number of advantages. It gets the image out of your head, which may be all you can achieve for right now. It gives you practice in describing something that may be very odd or very complicated. It gives the freedom to write without feeling as if you immediately have to develop an outline and a plot. It gets you writing, and that is far more valuable than “I’m going to write someday.”
And it insures that you don’t forget the image. Even the strongest stories can die if they’re only played with and paid no attention to, or if the author grows distant from their source (such as going on a trip to Arizona, getting inspired, and then going back home and trying to write the story about Arizona a year later). Instead, scribble the image down, and maybe it will return and find a home in some other story when you least expect it.
…That’s about as mystical as I ever get about writing, I suppose. And this may be too idiosyncratic a list to have much importance for anyone else. Oh, well.