Image as impetus

Writing tips
Benjamin Benne

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. When searching for the words to write a play, there are many sources that we, as playwrights, turn to. Some writers begin with an idea; others are adamant that character be the trigger; while another may turn to plot as their guiding force. I consistently find that for me, an image is the catalyst. That old idiom rings true: a picture is the source from which thousands of words flow. That picture becomes a portal.

A writer’s unique fingerprint lives in the specificity of each story. For me, this is the key to the power of image. A picture lives in memory, imagination, in the distinct perception of the writer. A picture takes on a personal association. Moving that image from memory, imagination, or perception in order to relay it vividly to another human takes at least a thousand words, assembled uniquely by the storyteller. And the complexity and specificity of a story will continue to sharpen when additional words, images, and associations are added to the original image.

But how does one practically collect images?

A corkboard.

Obtain a corkboard. 

Place it in your creative space. (Mine is a lovely behemoth that measures 48"x36")

Then begin the work of plucking a picture from memory, imagination, or in physical form and place it on the corkboard. That image should speak to you, haunt you, and/or evoke a world. Since my corkboard is visible from my bed, that picture is the first thing I see when I wake up and the last thing I see before I go to bed. Sometimes I see it again in the interim dream world. Over time, more images, words, and phrases will find their way onto the board.

Steadily, a collage forms.

Sometimes, there’s a color story that emerges, a guiding tone, or a clear thematic thread reveals itself. Other times, it’s a disparate and enigmatic collection. It’s a puzzle that will require more time to solve.

For me, the sweet spot is when I can begin to see some connections between the collected items but haven’t completely solved how every piece fits together. That’s when I begin writing.

Some of my favorite works have begun this way. I’m thinking specifically of a piece whose origin was the image of human bodies packed into a public transport. A phrase came to mind: “Sardines in a can.” Voices that belonged to people with specific, personal associations to fish, followed.

The image of my mother’s catfish soup came to mind. I added it to the board.

I saw a body suspended in water. I added that image.

A tessellation pattern that looked like fish bodies fitting perfectly together was added.

I dug up an old Escher piece that I remembered seeing as a kid.

I recalled the memory of fish in a tank.

I watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Suddenly, I was inside a world, a collection of images and inspirations that couldn’t have been assembled by anyone other than me. That’s when I wrote a scene between two characters that took place in a fish store. This was the start of a play called at the very bottom of a body of water.

In the rewriting process, I’ve learned to let go of lines, characters, and entire scenes. But what I always hold fast to are the images. They are the bedrock. The spine. My true north. I cling to them as the core of the play. I admit, some images will inevitably fall away as the shape of the play reveals itself. In my previous example, that image of humans packed like sardines was a prologue scene that is no longer in the most current draft of the play. But even though it was cut, it still served an important role as a portal into the world. And the other related images that it led me to have remained vital organs that make the play what it is.

For some, the notion of story emerging from a string of images may seem panic-inducing. One may wonder, “How do you not have a sense of plot or structure before you begin writing?” For me, that’s part of the fun. In writing from image to image, I let my subconscious do the majority of the heavy lifting; I have faith that the path will reveal itself. And surely then, a story may unfold in what I believe is a more organic, unpredictable, and surprising way than if I had planned it out in advance. Furthermore, I’ve often experienced an image evolving into a symbol that captures the soul or essence of the story in a sublime way that I couldn’t have conceived had I been intentionally trying to conjure it.

So the next time you find yourself at the beginning of a writing process, I encourage you to get a corkboard and see what finds its way onto it. (And if not a corkboard, Tumblr and Pinterest work as a virtual substitute.)

What’s the first picture that speaks to you?

Is it a skull? A sunflower? Is it abstract brush strokes?

What does it evoke for you?

What other images find their way onto the board?

Do words appear? Phrases?

Is there a dominant color story?

A clear pattern?

A pervasive mood or feeling?

Where do these things transport you?

Whatever you decide to ultimately call this collection (a vision board, inspirational collage, a haphazard mess), it may be the place of origin for your next play.


About the author

Benjamin Benne

Benjamin Benne is a 2017 Robert Chesley/Victor Bumbalo Playwriting Award winner, a 2017-18 McKnight Fellow in Playwriting at the Playwrights' Center, and was previously a 2016-17 Many Voices Fellow. His plays include a mortality-themed trilogy: Terra Incognita, at the very bottom of a body of water, and What \ Washed Ashore / Astray. His work has been produced and/or developed with The Lark's Playwrights' Week (NY), the Playwrights' Center (MN), Pillsbury House Theatre (MN), Annex Theatre (WA), Forward Flux Productions (WA), Parley (WA), Umbrella Project (WA), and Seattle Repertory Theatre (WA), among others. Additionally, his plays have been finalists for the Princess Grace Award, O'Neill National Playwrights Conference, Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Headwaters New Play Festival, and Austin Playhouse's Festival of New American Plays, as well as the runner-up for the National Latino Playwriting Award and semi-finalist for the Blue Ink Playwriting Award. Benjamin participated in a bake-off with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel as part of the Dramatists Guild Fund's Traveling Masters Program, the 2013 NoPassport Playwriting Intensive with OBIE Award-winning playwright Caridad Svich, and the New York Theatre Intensives 2011 summer conservatory (in association with EST/NY). He is a queer Jewtino of Guatemalan heritage, who was born and raised in Los Angeles County but currently resides in Minneapolis, MN.