what a story looks like

“What does a story look like?” It’s an intriguing question, rather cryptic and zen-like, not unlike the sound of one hand clapping.  If ideas were candy, this one would be a jawbreaker. Whatever your answer, it’s probably poetic, deep, and highly subjective:  What does your story look like?  

I stumbled across this question on Joe Ponepinto’s blog a few weeks ago when he posted a TED Talk with Chip Kidd, the book designer.  One glance at Chip (wearing monocle-glasses and a white-margined jacket as cool as the one he designed for Murakami’s latest novel) tells he’s an expert at what he does, which is finding the perfect visual representation to convey the meaning of and capture interest in a book.  He says stories “need a face.” He says he “gives form to context.” The books he designs are spectacular.  They beg to be touched, peeked into, and pondered.

As a writer, what Chip Kidd does appeals to me on many levels, both sensual and cerebral. I make inquiries like his every day: What does this emotion look like? How can that idea be conveyed in a gesture? What small details set a mood?  My process of selection extends from my writing to my appearance, my house, and my garden.  I’m preoccupied with color, texture, and flavors.  I repaint walls. I fondle mangoes; I can’t help myself.  For me, maybe for writers in general, experience is sensual.  That’s why we use imagery.  That’s why we pick up each word and feel its surface, test its heft, and roll it around on the tongue before we choose.  It’s just what writers do.   

So if we writers spend so much time on our words, why do we need someone like Chip Kidd to sell our books?  Do stories really need a face?  You might as well ask if people need faces. Did you know it only takes a tenth of a second for our brains to form an opinion about a personality by looking at a face?  We summarize the whole person in one breath.  The same goes for books, never mind that smugness about not judging books by covers, we all do it. We live in a material world where surface matters and time equals money.  People won’t make a commitment without being given a sign.  The cover is that sign, a distillation of the story that can be gulped in one shot.  It’s a taste test, a free sample.   

I understood all this theoretically, but still it took me a while to apply it to my own writing and ask myself, do my stories need a face?  I may not ever have a book published and sold with the help of a designer like Chip Kidd, but nevertheless, my work is being seen. When I began posting my novel What Would Water Do almost two years ago, I did so without pictures or color, thinking minimalism and monotone would make me appear more serious.  As a writer, I feared that the picture’s wont to “speak a thousand words” would distract from my own. My reticence is even more puzzling considering the facts that I grew up in a house filled with art (my mother is a painter) and, as an English major, I wrote two theses, both about art rather than literature: one on the painter Willem de Kooning’s women and the other on photographer Cindy Sherman.  In my house, art hangs on every wall and I have a huge collection of graphic novels. Why did it take me so long to realize that my writing needed a visual hook? 

So I began tentatively posting pictures.  At first, I was rather inept.  I didn’t know where to find good ones, I was confused about copyrights, I didn’t always get the artist’s permission and I didn’t even know I could ask.  Sometimes, my difficulty finding a visual made it apparent that I didn’t really understand what my own writing was about. Other times, the image makes me realize something about my own writing that I wouldn’t have understood without the visual.  

Here are some of the best images I found to illustrate my novel, What Would Water Do.  


(image courtesy ::fotorosso::)

(image courtesy Kain Marco)

(image courtesy Sean Money)

(image courtesy Ally Oxen Free)

(image courtesy Dalibov Levicek)

My rules for using an image:

  • Always get the artist’s permission. 
  • Always name and link to the artist.
  • The visual must be provocative.  If it’s also beautiful that’s good but not necessary.
  • The image must add to the meaning of the writing.  (It’s more than just an illustration, it’s an accentuation.) 
  • Be careful about the picture-to-word ratio.  For fun pieces, use more pictures.  For serious writing, use only one.   

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About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.


  1. Marc Schuster

    My favorite image is #4, followed closely by #5. Great post!

  2. There’s lots to think about here especially as I contemplate ideas for a cover and how the artwork might relate in that smaller internet size people use to make decisions these days. Our friend Lisa came up with an idea that sounds wonderful, but then my mind went all scaredy cat on me and made me wonder if it was the rightest one. (It probably is.)

    Yes this subject makes some of my ability with words disappear. Thank goodness you also added a new one to my collection. I had to look up ‘ekphrastic’. 🙂

  3. Yes we can all be highbrow and say we don’t judge a book by its cover, but we do, at least initially. I have always loved your gravatar but didn’t know it was a hat made from crows – makes perfect sense!

  4. Great post – I know I always judge a book by its cover. The last book I read, Zazen, had this cover that entranced me. I just kept going back to look at it, and felt more balanced – more able to process the difficult prose – than without it.

  5. Those image are wonderful. Thanks for sharing!

    As to the sensual aspect of writing, I feel this too. That, to me, is why visiting a country with a very foreign culture is so stimulating. Everywhere you look, there’s something different to smell, taste, touch and see. You can’t help but write the world.

    I am also reminded of a famous anecdote about a little girl who loved reading so much, one day her mother found her sitting on top of an open book. “I’m trying to get *in* the book,” she answered upon questioning. Isn’t that what we try to do as both writers and readers? Use our senses; get inside.

    How did you wind up finding images in the end? You have great taste.

    • Someday, they will have scratch-n-sniff pages, I bet.
      I guess I forgot to be specific. Oops. Sometimes I use a famous painting, sometimes I use something of my own or something from the Creative Commons. Mostly, I find my images on Flickr. First, I decide what is the most important feature of the story I wrote, then I search those terms. Then in the comment section under the image I like I write to ask them permission. Sometimes this takes a long time. The artists are usually fine with loaning me their art, as long as I ask, cite their name, and link back to them. Usually they are mildly pleased by my request, sometimes interested or flattered or see it as a way to promote themselves as artists. Once, an artist responded “no,” but no harm done.

  6. Great post Anna.. enjoyed it very much! Love the feet in the bath!

  7. macdougalstreetbaby

    I love your mother’s dinner table. It’s how I imagined I would live all my life.
    Today I went to Macy’s, hoping to get an outfit for my 11 year old who is playing the part of a lawyer in a mock trial. I hate to shop. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. I also don’t enjoy small talk but for some reason the woman behind the register and I started chatting. One thing led to another until she suddenly asked, “How did you know your husband was the one?” I told her I had seen him hug a girl friend who was visiting from out of town. Something about the way he hugged her made me want to spend the rest of my life with him. She looked amazed when I told her this and replied, “You’re a very visual person.” I never thought about the hug in that way but she’s right. The picture I saw affected me deeply. 20 years later and I can still see it in my mind.

  8. Beautiful images. Hard to get them out of my head now. And your comment on how to get permission is very helpful too – I always felt shy about asking for permission, I assumed people would say no.

    • They usually say yes. They just want you to ask. I think the same goes for re-blogging. As artists, we want our stuff out there but we want to maintain some control.

  9. Thank you for this information. I also didn’t know you could or should get permission. Lovely provocative images you chose. How does one go about finding images? Do you find them on google images? How do you get permission?

    • Hi– Love the image on your latest post btw, the skeleton typist, very well chosen.

      I find them on Flickr which has a social element to it that makes it easy to ask. It also tells you if it’s all-rights-reserved or part of the creative commons. Even if it claims copyright, it’s okay to ask. Tell them it’s for a personal, non-commercial blog.

      If you double click the images on my blog, it takes you right to the artist’s cite.

  10. Excellent post. Really great way of looking at something most writers don’t give a second thought.

    And believe it or not, you’re the second blogger to reference one of my posts in their blog today. I’m honored. A good day. Think I’ll submit a few stories to journals.

  11. Thanks for this information – it’s a mine field of little mistakes in this cyber space that I feel I constantly might make if I had the guts!

    Education isn’t always available with such eloquence – you certainly have a way.

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