“I woke up early one Sunday morning, disturbed by a dream. I was standing in the ocean, the breakers, staring at the shore. Something was wrong with the ocean, and I was shouting this to the trees rising behind the dunes. Something was so terribly wrong that the very texture of the water was changing from liquid to a more solid form.”
That dream, which Billie Buie describes above, was the inception of her novel Nags Way. (See Novel Excerpts, this issue.) Robert Olen Butler could have used it as an example of “cinema of the mind,” the examination of the common ground between fiction and film that appears in his book on writing, From Where You Dream. Billie’s dream has an establishing shot (dreamer standing in the breakers), a long shot (trees rising behind the dunes), and a close-up (the texture of the water). The cinema-like examples Butler uses come from the opening of Great Expectations: the establishing shot of the cemetery, the long shot of marsh and river, and finally, “the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all” that was Pip.
Billie’s ocean and Dickens’ “small bundle of a body” are images that a reader might skip over if not for the fact that something was terribly wrong with the water and that the bundle was fearful and shivering. These are what David Madden calls “charged images.” (See his Craft Session, “Images that Move,” this issue.) David, author of two story collections and nine novels, master teacher of fiction, and the self-described “last writer-in-residence on the Warner Brothers lot,” defines the charged image as the powerful one in a story, “the one that electrifies all other images, as does the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby, Huck and Jim on the raft on the river, the spider web in All The King’s Men…and when we look closely at each image in the novel we see that it moves; it is not static.”
Ah, stasis. When trying to get going on a fresh chapter or story, we writers sometimes find ourselves knee-deep in that condition. One cure, we’re told, is to stop writing, close our eyes, and make a mental movie for ourselves. The challenge then becomes one of focus. What is the charged image that will electrify all others and make the story move along? The fiction writers among us might let the poets be our guides: “an iron bed with a mattress caved in the middle that stinks of old fish” (Shirley Elias); “the red knotted ropes of hair that you cultivated in college” (Samara Scheckler); “that detached smile of granite, gold or jade” (Pat Bresnahan); and “hard-cored female brown-tufted cattails anchored in fertile black muck” (Alexandra Burroughs). Also from this issue, the whole of poet Charlotte Wolf’s “Tsunami” takes us back to the troubled waters of Billie Buie’s disturbing dream.
Dream or nightmare, reality or imagination, or somewhere in between, a cinematic vision helps the reader share the writer’s world.