Chewie, we’re home, by Ben Jeapes

Whatever you might think of Star Wars, the series of trailers in the run-up to The Force Awakens were little short of genius. In no more than a couple of minutes each, they gave away precisely nothing about the story but whipped up a yearning to see the finished product and find out what the story was. Shot in the same style and the same visual palette as the original movies, we got wholesome good guys and masked, sinister bad guys; the Millennium Falcon dogfighting with TIE fighters around the wreckage of a crashed star destroyer; a squadron of X-Wings swooping in to attack. The last 15 seconds of this one in particular created a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of fans suddenly punched the air and shouted “yes!” This 50-year-old man will admit to getting quite misty eyed - more than I did with the actual movie, which I still enjoyed - simply because he was suddenly a 12-year-old sitting in a darkened cinema again, watching the screen with open-mouthed wonder.

How they did it is very easy to describe and very hard to do. They gave us images: visual, aural (the sound of the Millennium Falcon’s engine still sends frissons to wherever frissons go), emotional.

In a different genre, there’s an interesting discussion here on the allure of westerns - and again, so much comes down to imagery. The prairie, the swinging saloon door, the hats.

Back to science fiction: “Darmok”, a classic episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, has Captain Picard stranded on a planet with an alien and finding himself unable to communicate. The usual universal translator simply doesn’t work. The reason, he eventually works out, is because the alien can only speak in images. Its entire conversation consists of allegory and references to its own world’s mythology. Finally, Picard is able to talk back by retelling the Epic of Gilgamesh, the motherlode of so much human literature.

As I type this, Classic FM in the background is playing the Dambusters March. What immediately comes to mind? Stilted dialogue and a dog with a dodgy name? No: Lancaster bombers, silhouetted against a moonlit lake as they close in on the Mohne dam. And see how that image neatly bypasses what my rational mind knows of the Dambuster raid: the decidedly unheroic losses and suffering that came with it.

Images are what we remember much more than conversation. Our senses have a link straight to our emotions, and our emotions to our memory, both more direct than the more wayward course that words have to take (our brains will insist on trying to understand and filter them first). It was a brave man who got Proust started on the subject of madeleines. The most evocative, memory-linked sense of all is smell, which movies can’t do but you as a writer certainly can, but the other four follow close behind. You will - rightly - obsess over getting your words exactly right: gripping dialogue, believable characters. But if the reader gets no sense of them actually living in a world then they are never going to escape the paper they’re printed on.
Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of 5 novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher, and technical writer.


  1. Interesting, because God often speaks in images, in small moments. A gull hovering on the updraught, clouds in the evening sky.

  2. I agree with you. As I often tell my students at school, if you can paint word pictures your reader could actually reproduce on paper, because you've given them the specifics, you're doing a good job.


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