Tag Archives: images

How to Create Structure with Images

30 Dec
Mario Alberto Zambrano's novel Lotería uses a deck of cards to chart the story of a young girl's family and its demise.

Mario Alberto Zambrano’s novel Lotería uses a deck of cards to chart the story of a young girl’s family and its demise.

When working on a novel, writers often reach a point where the thrill is gone. Whatever impulse that kicked off the project has vanished, and all that is left is plot: who did what, what they will do next. The novel begins to resemble an outline. One way to solve this problem is to create a structure that doesn’t hinge on the next plot point. This is why you often see flashbacks and backstory at the beginning of chapters: that information provides an emotional context for the present action that follows. Another strategy to provide that same context is to use images.

There is probably no novel that demonstrates this approach more clearly than Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano. You can read an excerpt here and see a preview with images here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is structured around images from the game lotería. It’s a Mexican game, played like bingo but with illustrations called out (through the recitation of riddles) rather than numbers. In the novel, each chapter begins with one of these lotería images, for instance La araña (the spider) and La sirena (the mermaid). The result is one of the most beautiful books you’ll ever see and a strategy that offers the writer as many possibilities for structuring chapters as there are cards.

The novel begins with La araña and this opening:

This room has spiders.

¿Y? It’s not like You don’t see them. The way they move their legs and carry their backs and creep in the dark when you’re not looking. You see us, ¿verdad? You see what we see? It’s not like You don’t know what we’re thinking when we lie down at night and look up at the ceiling, or when we crawl in our heads the way these spiders crawl over furniture. It’s never made sense why people think You’re only there at church and nowhere else. Not at home or in the yard or the police station. Or under a bed.

The card is used to create setting (the room with spiders) but also a metaphor for the character’s mind. Because the narrator is talking to a specific entity (the You in the passage is God), the introduction of spiders colors that conversation. If God can see spiders, then He can also see everything (like what goes on in police stations, a place the novel will quickly move to).

Sometimes the image doesn’t enter the chapter until the end. For example, in El cantarito (the water pitcher) the chapter is about the narrator interacting with social worker, and the imagine arrives in the last paragraph:

Standing there, all of a sudden, I was like a jug of water trying to be taken from one place to another, and little by little, I was spilling. The nurses didn’t even look at me anymore.

At times, the image informs the novel in the lightest way. In El alacrán (the scorpion), the image is never referenced directly. But the word sting appears.

Some images inform characters or their actions, as does El borracho (the drunk).

And, of course, the cards can inform plot. The El pino chapter (the pine tree) begins like this:

“The truck is a piece of shit,” Papi said. He’d bought it from someone he worked with. I liked it because it had a handle for the window to go up and down instead of a button. So the window was going up and down, up and down, and Rocío Dúrcal was on the radio, a cassette we listened to all the time of a live performance in Acapulco. It was Sunday, early morning, and while most people were headed to mass we were going to buy a tree. Just the two of us. It was going to be the first Christmas without Mom. It had been awhile since she’d disappeared and it seemed okay to talk about her.

The cards give the novel a way to resist or slow down plot, which gives it room to develop place, character, and voice.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s use image to structure passages, using Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano as a model:

  1. Choose a series of images. Zambrano has used the images from a game, but your images don’t need to have an official connection. They could be connected by theme or place or geography or culture or job. Think of the way that children’s vocabulary books (or chapters of a foreign language textbook) introduce words: restaurant, home, workplace, shopping, animals, things in the sky. Give yourself a filter so that you can quickly choose an image rather than starting from scratch each time you need one.
  2. Use the image to inform setting. Zambrano does this with the spider. Because the room has spiders in it, he’s able to assume other things about this place: not just the room but the world around it and the characters within it. Every place has spiders, of course, but focusing on them in the first sentence creates a very different passage than if the first image was a bottle of champagne. So, insert the image directly into your prose and create a passage around it.
  3. Use the image to inform emotion. At the end of the water pitcher chapter, the narrator explains how she feels like a jug of water. You don’t need to wait until the end of a passage. Choose an image and force yourself to connect it to emotion or sensation—what things feel like. You may end up writing a sentence that begins like this: It was like a _____ (image)…
  4. Use the image to inform diction. The only presence of the scorpion in Lotería is the word sting. Yet that’s a powerful word. Try word-association. Choose a few that seem loaded in some way (charged, not neutral) and give yourself the goal of working them into the passage.
  5. Use the image to inform character. If your image is a drunk, the possibilities are clear. We do this all the time: pig, dog, even the word animal. What does it mean for a character to be ____ (image)?
  6. Use the image to inform plot. Obviously, if your image is a gun, then the plot possibilities are clear. But it might be more useful to choose an image that doesn’t seem directly connected to dramatic action. Zambrano uses the pine tree and turns it into a trip to buy a Christmas tree. This trip provides his characters an opportunity to interact away from others. In a way, the image inserts a kind of detour into the plot, which is often where the most interesting moments of a story appear.

The goal is to use image as a structuring devices and create space for play and imagination within plot.

Good luck.

%d bloggers like this: