Friend and colleague Daniel Mueller coined this term, or at least, that’s where I heard it.
What’s a spring-loaded image, you ask? Well, it’s exactly as you might imagine: a spring-loaded image is a visual so compelling that it literally catapults a narrative, first into the mind of the author, and later, after the story is launched, into the imagination of a reader.
Spring-loaded objects are under pressure, coiled, ready to explode.
Which is not to say that such images need convey urgency or velocity or danger.
Think, for instance, of the example Dan Mueller gives when he introduces the term to a class of students. He talks about one such image, that of the wedding cake in the middle of the road.
Incongruity is one of the hallmarks of a spring-loaded image. We don’t expect to see a wedding cake in the middle of the road, and if we do, a whole host of questions leap to mind: How did the cake end up in the road? What became of the bride and groom? Did the marriage occur? Are they looking for the cake?
Dan’s professor, George Garrett, edited an anthology of stories, all of which were written in response to the image and titled, appropriately, Wedding Cake in the Middle of the Road: 23 Variations on a Theme.
Recently, I’ve been working on a screenplay entitled The Sunflower Fence. The title references a visual image, but it’s not spring-loaded because it doesn’t have the element of incongruity. But I am captivated by another image, this one of a little girl, perched on a small pile of bricks, stretching herself tall to see through a window.
Some version of this image has been with me for over thirty years. When I was much younger, in graduate school, I think, I took a turn at writing a story entitled, “Outside the Window.” Never finished it; never figured out what the little girl was doing outside the house, straining to see through the glass, looking at something–what?–going on inside.
The image has dwelt in my consciousness, incubated there, and at long last, I have discovered the story and am writing a screenplay to house it. In this case, the incongruity is the girl’s location.
She is outside looking in, rather than inside looking out. A quick Google image search will bear me out: lots and lots of photos of girl children gazing out windows. None at all of a little girl straining to see in.
(I did find one photo of two little girls standing outside a movie set peering in. The site is here, and I’m posting the photo below.