Imagine a chrome skeleton with muddy drawers carrying an umbrella in a snowy wood.
March 4, 2010 12:55 PM   Subscribe

The Terminator, The Sound and the Fury, and The Chronicles of Narnia: In each case, the author/creator said that his idea for the thing began with a single visual image in mind. What are some other works of narrative art that supposedly started off like this?

James Cameron said he dreamed of "a chrome skeleton emerging out of a fire" and developed the Terminator story from there. William Faulkner said he began with an image of a girl's muddy drawers in a tree. And C.S. Lewis said he had had a picture in his mind of a faun carrying an umbrella in a snowy wood since he was 17 years old.

I'm curious to learn if there are any other similar creation stories for other narrative works of art where the creator has explicitly traced the development of a work back to a single visual image. (I limit this question to narrative works just because I'm guessing it's less notable for a work of visual art like a a building or a painting to develop this way.)
posted by chinston to Media & Arts (24 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The Star Spangled Banner
posted by mkultra at 1:04 PM on March 4, 2010

Lewis Carroll claimed that the final line of "Hunting of the Snark" came to him and wouldn't let him go. So he wrote the rest of the poem.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:09 PM on March 4, 2010

If I'm not mistaken: Robert Altman's 3 Women.
posted by Joe Beese at 1:15 PM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I should have also mentioned Coleridge's Kubla Khan as something of an example.
posted by chinston at 1:16 PM on March 4, 2010

King Kong was created first with an image of a giant ape on top of the Empire State building and then the story was fashioned to somehow work towards that goal.
posted by cazoo at 1:24 PM on March 4, 2010

I can't for the life of me remember where I read it, but I recall Stephen King saying that some of his longer books or series were the realization of a single image or concept. I want to say that The Dark Tower series was one of the plots he mentioned.

Of course, the way my memory works, you should probably take all of this with a grain of salt.
posted by ElDiabloConQueso at 1:31 PM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

There'll be some crossover between this question and some previous ones.
posted by Paragon at 1:31 PM on March 4, 2010

ElDiablo--I definitely remember that King said that his story "Everything's Eventual" was precipitated by his image of a guy dropping coins down a storm drain, which the character Dinky does.
posted by dlugoczaj at 1:47 PM on March 4, 2010

Stephen King has said these kinds of things regularly spark his inspiration. For example, The Shining was inspired by his stay at a real Colorado hotel that was in the midst of shutting down at the end of its tourist season.

"When we arrived, they were just getting ready to close for the season, and we found ourselves the only guests in the place — with all those long, empty corridors . . ."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:22 PM on March 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Horace Walpole imagined a giant disembodied and armoured fist resting on a banister rail and invented the gothic novel while writing around it.
posted by tigrefacile at 2:39 PM on March 4, 2010

the road
posted by nihlton at 2:49 PM on March 4, 2010

This seems to have happened to Robert Louis Stevenson for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
posted by rustcellar at 3:00 PM on March 4, 2010

I've read, but cannot find the reference at the moment (it was probably in a dead-tree book) that Browning woke from a dream with a murky image of the Dark Tower.
posted by lex mercatoria at 3:07 PM on March 4, 2010

*cough* Stephenie Meyer says that the image of Edward and Bella came to her in a dream...or something like that.
posted by redsparkler at 3:52 PM on March 4, 2010

I remember seeing an interview with an associate of Alfred Hitchcock, re: the film "North by Northwest" (it could have been one of the actors). While the discussion about Hitchcock wasn't framed in quite the same way as "idea for the thing began with a single visual image in mind", the central vision for him was two men fighting on Lincoln's nose on Mount Rushmore (original title of NBNW was "The Man on Lincoln's Nose").

Specifically, apparently Hitchcock was getting flak from the National Park service about using Mount Rushmore, and it wasn't clear he would get permission to film there. So someone asked him why not just cut the scene where they're fighting on Lincoln's nose. Hitchcock said that without that scene, there was no movie...
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 3:56 PM on March 4, 2010

Tom Tykwer's The Princess and the Warrior:
Your stories always start with an image, what was it in THE PRINCESS AND THE WARRIOR?

It was under the truck, the moment when you don't know what led to a woman lying under a truck talking to herself. I had read something somewhere about tracheotomy, the windpipe incision, and I had repeatedly had people explain to me how to do it. You really can't do anything wrong: where it is hard, there is air beneath it. It has a spectacularly bitter taste to it, but in essence it is really very simple. I liked the basic constellation of having two people get closer than they might ever come to anyone else in their whole lives, before they have even got to know each other. The meeting under the truck is an incredibly physical and in a strange way, sensual scene.
(it's a really, really beautiful scene.)
posted by spindle at 5:03 PM on March 4, 2010

J.K. Rowling said that Harry Potter walked into her head while she was travelling on a train.
posted by TooFewShoes at 5:24 PM on March 4, 2010

George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire (interview):

Well, actually, I started back in 1991 during a lull while I was still working in Hollywood and I was working on another book, a science fiction book I had always wanted to write. So I was working on that book when suddenly the first chapter of A Games of Thrones, not the prologue but the first chapter, came to me. The scene of the dire wolves in the summer snow. I didn't know where it came from or where it needed to go, but from there the book seemed to write itself. From there I knew what the second step was and the third and so one. Eventually, I stopped to draw some maps and work out some background material.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 5:57 PM on March 4, 2010

The first line of the Hobbit apparently just popped into Tolkien's head while he was grading papers one day. Not visual, but still ex nihilo.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:09 PM on March 4, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks to all - just what I was hoping to see.
posted by chinston at 7:16 PM on March 4, 2010

Gabriel Garcia Marquez has commented that much of his writing originates in exactly the way you mention. This interview, for example, includes the following exchanges:
Interviewer: What is your point of departure for a book?

GGM: A visual image. For other writers, I think, a book is born out of an idea, a concept. I always start with an image. Tuesday Siesta, which I consider my best short story, grew out of seeing a woman and young girl dressed in black with a black umbrella walking through a deserted town in the scorching sun. In Leaf Storm, it's an old man taking his grandson to a funeral. The point of departure for Nobody Writes to the Colonel was the image of a man waiting for a launch in the market-place in Barranquilla. He was waiting with a kind of silent anxiety. Years later in Paris I found myself waiting for a letter - a money order probably - with the same anxiety and I identified with the memory of that man.

Interviewer: Which visual image did you use for One Hundred Years of Solitude?

GGM: An old man taking a child to see some ice which was on show as a circus curiosity.
Though I can't source it just at the moment, I seem to remember having read somewhere that GGM said his inspiration for Love in the Time of Cholera was the image of an old man and woman dancing on a raft in the middle of a river.
posted by sixo33 at 9:29 PM on March 4, 2010

Sorry, I've googled hard but I can't find the source of the quote I have firmly in my head from years back when a world-class writer (?Graham Greene) said in an interview that he believed every novel was born this way. The only novel I ever published started out with a scene (a guy driving to his weekend hideaway in the woods meets a suspicious pedestrian on the track) totally suspended in space. The scene finished up somewhere around page 30, and the storyline took off on its own from there, both forward and back.
posted by aqsakal at 11:30 PM on March 4, 2010

Stephen King's novella The Langoliers (later a TV movie) came from a dream that King had had of a woman traveling in a plane who put her hand over a crack in the fuselage, and starts to get sucked through the crack. (Interestingly, the short story "The Raft", written very early in King's career, has a similar bit in it.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:07 AM on March 5, 2010

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