I often tell people that if they want to discover what their book is really about, they should design a cover, even if it’s just written instructions for the designer. When developing a book cover, we are forced to analyze how the various elements of our stories (structure, symbolism, character) function on their own, as well as in relation to each other. We can, if we want, derive as much meaning from the text as possible, and then synthesize that information into a single image.
My father warned me that I would never make any money as a filmmaker. I figured he was probably right, so I did what any sensible teenager would do. I majored in English literature.
I spent the majority of college reading novels, taking them apart in order to search for connections and meaning between the various literary elements. I synthesized large amounts of information, complex concepts, and abstract ideas into coherent, easily digestible bites.
While not a very lucrative commodity, this ability has been indispensable in successfully navigating the typical pitfalls of creative writing programs and workshops. Writing teachers say things such as, “Writing is not about ideas; it’s about character.” This is an oversimplification, the equivalent of saying, “Cars are not about transmissions; they’re about engines.” Every element in a story, if written properly, should relate to some other aspect of the story. Otherwise, how as readers can we derive meaning from the words on the page? Words mean nothing if there is no context, no connection between image and setting, character and theme.
One of the ways I financially support my writing is by freelancing as a graphic designer. Because of my background in literature and writing, I specialize in book jackets.
Usually, a designer hasn’t read the book, but is given a concept for the cover, which they then create for the publisher. In one instance, I was told that a story revolved around the murder of a child, and that I was to use the image of candies. I tried it a hundred different ways, and none of them worked. I called the publisher and said, “Give me another image.” They replied, “Well, there is a tree house.” I immediately knew the tree house was the perfect image. The book was Matthew McGevna’s Little Beasts, and it’s one of my most talked-about covers, created with only three words: Child. Murder. Treehouse. The credit for the cover goes to Matt’s strong, unique images.
To illustrate this, let’s examine certain words in a way similar to the process by which I would normally examine the various literary elements when developing a concept for a cover. This way, we can see how meaning is both derived and created by the visual of the book cover.
First, let’s look at an image writers use frequently to generate a larger meaning, or a sense of scope in terms of their place among humanity.
Two words: Airplane. Tower. What image comes to mind? Many of you knew the image immediately. For the rest, what event comes to mind? Airplane. Tower. These two small words, when read together, will often evoke an event that changed our world forever. We don’t need to create the meaning.
Yet so many writers have juxtaposed the tragedy of 9/11 with their own major life events, whatever the genre, memoirs, personal essays, or fiction, that it would take a lifetime to read them all.
So why do so many people feel compelled to use this image? Instinct, I think. In the same way amateur photographers will instinctively justify objects to the left or right of the frame, writers instinctively know that image can function as a means to manipulate meaning. The image is universally affecting. Nearly every single reader can relate to it. A writer might genuinely believe he or she is being profound by using images of iconic American tragedy in such a way, but a visceral image is a simple way to create meaning and context for anyone reading your story. It’s the literary equivalent of a Toby Keith song, depending upon pre-constructed imagery to carry the narrative. This takes almost no work. That’s not to say that some writers don’t write about the tragedy of 9/11 in meaningful ways; they do. But juxtaposing it with the birth of your child to show you understand the scope of things has been done so many times it’s become a simple cliché.
Now, look at how we begin to construct and alter meaning on our own within a text, using very general words upon which we’ll build meaning and story through detail. By the end we will have built an entire story out of a few words, some details, and a setting.
Four words: Two lovers, camp, animal, summer.
What’s the story about? What do these words make us think of?
Summer camp? Possibly a co-ed camp, but maybe not. The lovers could be a male and female counselor, possibly be two male campers. We don’t know yet. Perhaps the animal is a curious raccoon that has raided the lover’s picnic basket.
What happens if we change the season to winter, and add a word?
Five words: Two lovers, camp, animal, child, winter.
The change in season tells us that time has passed. The animal is still there, so maybe it’s a pet. There’s a child now, which suggest they’re male and female, that the belongs to them.They’re sill at a camp.
Let’s add adjectives: Two tired lovers, isolated camp, stuffed animal, brutal winter, newborn child.
Let’s look at how the images start to merge into a story.
Two lovers struggle tirelessly through a brutal first winter in an isolated camp with their newborn child.
Let’s make some changes: Two people, isolated camp, discarded stuffed bear, spring.
What’s changed? Look again.
The baby is gone. The bear is now discarded. The baby has died.
What’ s the story now?
Two lovers struggle tirelessly through a brutal first winter in an isolated camp with their newborn child. When the child doesn’t survive the harsh conditions, the two devastated lovers withdraw from one another.
Two people, isolated camp, discarded stuffed bear, summer.
The seasons have come full circle back to summer. Time continues to move.
Now, lets give the story a setting: Germany, 1944.
What happens to the story?
Two lovers, imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, struggle through a brutal first winter with their newborn child. When the child doesn’t survive the harsh conditions, the two devastated lovers withdraw from one another.
We simply get an extra detail. Not much of a change.
How does the setting alter the image? The story?
It doesn’t for the most part, does it? We’re making a few assumptions, such as the death of the child being a result of the harsh winter, but let’s pretend we’re correct. The loss of love between the two characters, coupled with the death of their child: a balance is struck between the first two images, and the image of the concentration camp. Emotion becomes a flat line that moves into a steady wave of loss. No image informs another, as we discussed with using the image of 9/11 within story to create scope, or a greater meaning.
As a writer, you might want to create a different effect than this. Maybe it would serve your story if the death of the baby was overshadowed by another event somehow.
Does anything in the story repeat?
The seasons change. By the end, we’re back to the summer.
When do we find out the baby died?
In the spring, when the world is giving birth to new life. There’s a juxtaposition there that the writer might not have intended.
If you were writing this story, and this was a nonfiction story, and the baby died in the winter, you might consider structuring the story so that after that tragic event, the next scene opens at a distance where we see a landscape in the spring time, flowers blooming, as our eye is led back to the harsh conditions of the camp.
We never used the image of the stuffed bear. Why?
Because it doesn’t fit into the storyline, right? “Two people, who gave their baby a stuffed bear…” It has no purpose in the description of the story, however, within the narrative the discarded bear could serve as a reminder of the child’s death. It’s always present.
What elements would you take into consideration when developing a concept?
The first thing I would consider is the fact that the images of death strike a balance within the narrative. I would choose a balanced color due to this, maybe something arresting, but not bright, such as a bone-white.
The thing I’d consider next would be my main image. The image I’d choose in this case is the stuffed bear. The stuffed bear represents an integral part of the story, the death of a child.
What should the cover look like?
Solid bone-white background. A tattered bear sits, slumped over at the bottom right corner of the cover, his legs going 1/4 way across the bottom edge. He’s brown, faded like a vintage photograph. The title in a thick, faded red, font across the top edge.
Later, we might decide on a subtle sign of Nazi imagery for context, or placing baby shoes somewhere near the bear. Anything is possible, and covers do change from the original concept all the time, but the process you just walked through, of finding meaningful connections within a story, is truly a process of revision. You can go back like this and dig into your work to see how these various elements function, what parts fit and which don’t. You just went through the steps. Craft begins here, with revision.
Allow yourself to think like a designer, a sculptor, a painter, anything that works for you. Be the architect. That’s who I like to play. Get inside the actual structure of your story, move something, take a scene out, move a character. See how it changes, see how the story changes.
Try these things any way you want, because at the end of the day, it’s really just about getting your hands dirty over and over again.