Focus Your Story with a Central Image

This is a guest post by author PJ Reece. PJ’s novel, Roxy, was published in Canada. Get the eBook on Amazon. You can also review Roxy through Story Cartel . Follow PJ on his blog.

A CENTRAL IMAGE: build one into your story and readers will love you.

What would Moonstruck be without its full moon? Or Moby Dick without its white whale? When you think of The Sun Also Rises, you think of Spanish bulls.


Photo by Ava Verino

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Even a picture that has been mentalized out of clunky old words. The image, once conjured up, is a powerful clue to what the story is about.

Think about it—we think in pictures, not words.

Central Images Focus Your Story

In my first novel, Smoke That Thunders, the central image is the hero’s destination—a legendary waterfall on the Zambezi River. People go misty-eyed just speaking its name. As an image or concept to keep the story in focus, the waterfall was a no-brainer.

That’s what a central image does—it acts as a symbolic nexus to bind disparate story elements together. It’s a touchstone for your story’s theme.

Central Images Are Destinations

The central image in my second novel, ROXY, I like even better.

The 17-year-old protagonist wears a tattoo over her heart. It’s a text tattoo that reads: Shangri-La. It’s the mythical Himalayan paradise. Ultimately, it is Roxy’s destination, too.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that…

Every central image in a story is a destination—materially, emotionally, or spiritually (you should probably tweet that).

Tattoos serve especially well as central images in fiction. For the wearer, they often symbolize a value of some kind. If that person is the protagonist, then the tattoo reveals their dream or aspiration. We understand what moves them.

Roxy’s Shangri-La tattoo is hidden, as central images often are. But there’s no confusion about it—it represents the basis of her belief system. The mere mention of “Shangri-La” reminds us why she acts as she does throughout the book.

When she discovers that her personal icon is a lie—look out!

Central Images Add Meaning

The central image in any good film or book lends us understanding without laborious thinking. It works behind the scenes to…

  • clue us in to what the book is about.
  • point to where the story is headed.
  • help define the protagonist.
  • unlock the story’s meaning.

Once you discover your central image, it will demand to appear as early in the story as possible. And without question, it will feature on your book’s cover.

Central image: build one into your story and you, the writer, will love yourself.

Do you have a central image in your story? What is it?


What image would make a powerful central image for a story? Practice describing a central image for your work in progress or for a story you hadn’t yet considered.

Describe the central image for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section.

And if you post, please be sure to give feedback to a few posts by other writers.

PJ Reece’s Y.A. novel, ROXY, has just been released as an eBook on Also on Amazon, check out Reece’s STORY STRUCTURE TO DIE FOR.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • I think we’re drawn to these images more than we realize. The other day I was reading on Bob Mayer’s blog that the reason Slideshare is taking off is because people respond to images more than words. And, importantly, they remember images more than words a lot of times. Bit of a depressing thought for a writer…until you realize, as you say, PJ, that you can weave imagery into plot. As for Central Image, it’s a matter of keeping it somehow fixed in the reader’s mind without bashing them over the head with it.
    In the books I’m working on, I was lucky enough to have a central image come to me early in the writing of the rough draft. And you’re right, it anchored the whole story. The sacred object/relic/talisman that becomes the treasure the youth team hunts for seemed a likely image. But, there was one problem, it was merely a chip of stone. And there’s nothing impactful about a lump of rock.
    However, the elite team of warriors detailed with the task of searching the world for said lump of rock, gave me another idea. The ‘Order of Twenty-four’ are covert agents, and they needed a way of recognizing one another in the field. So, I gave them a medallion to wear. It’s a solid silver disc. On one side is carved the talisman (lump of rock, called the Or’in of Tane Mahuta). It’s ‘twice-crossed by dragonfly wings’ while on the reverse side is imprinted the number of the agent (from 0-24).
    What I need is artwork for the medallion. I asked my nephew to design it for me, however so far, he’s failed to produce any artwork. I need it up & running soon, so that I can put the shamanistic power of this symbol to work on my website as soon as possible. It can create, as you say, a Central Image for the rest of the stories to be empowered by!

    • mariannehvest

      I know what you mean about the idea that “a picture is worth a thousand words” could be bad for writers but I think really it is the pictures that we conjure up with words that make writers strong. I always am able to picture what you, for instance, write Yvette and it makes me want to spend some time with your words. A way that description can trump a still image it that the reader imagines the image that the writer suggests and thus makes it more his than the still image because he has invested more energy in it. I think you idea for the rock and the amulets sounds perfect.

      • Yes, I second that. A medallion would make a great icon on a book cover. Circles, Xs, Zeds (zees)… you can’t go wrong.

  • Russ

    I’ll go with an image I used for the first novel I’m going to indie publish in a little bit. The novel’s title is Akeldama, and the image is what’s on the front cover – a brown cross with a pair of fangs hanging over the arms of the cross.

    • Russ… a cross is one of the most powerful images, obviously. Also the “X”. Are you having your cover professionally done? That’s another discussion… how good does it look? A good graphic artist can make the most of your “image”.

  • Simon Richards

    I work as a Medical Writer but I want to start a creative project. Thanks for this article, my mind is now spinning with ideas.

    • Simon… good luck on your project. I seem to start a new project every other day. Like this morning… and I came up with the image of Zorba the Greek making his announcement that “Life is trouble!” Now my head is spinning with the possibilities flying out of that image. Have you ever seen “Zorba”? It’s a great flick.

      • Simon Richards

        I can’t say I have. But after a quick trip to IMDB I think it’ll go on the to-watch list. Thanks

      • Have you read the book as well? It’s awesome.

        • By Kazantzakis… yes! He’s one of my favourite mystic authors. He was always asking us: “what is life?” “Life is trouble! Only death is not.” Hey, here’s a YouTube link to that famous scene in the movie: