Plotting: The Thumbnail

Here You Can Tell Before You Show

What do the films Titanic, The Ring, and Citizen Kane have in common?  Give up?

They’re all what I call “thumbnail1” stories.  By that I mean they all give the plot away at the get-go, using a device that contrasts with the narrative story.  In Titanic it’s the 3-D model with which they demonstrate the sinking of the ship while the beardy oceanographer narrates in a glib way, negating all the drama.  The laugh happens when the actual survivor quips, “Thank you for that excellent forensic analysis,” or some such, an understatement that rips his glibness.

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In The Ring we see the plot synopsized in the artsy black-and-white VHS recording.  And we spend the rest of the “narrative” getting the serotonin rush of recognizing each of the distinct images from that video.

In Citizen Kane the – again – black-and-white nonfiction newsreel gives away all the plot events.  By spilling the beans about the “horizontal2” of the story, the storyteller allows the audience to focus on the emotional weight of the events.  We’re not surprised by a crazy mother whose horses commit suicide… or a ship that snaps in half… or a rich man building a castle in Florida.  Instead, we anticipate3 those events and feel the dopamine anticipation and chemical rush of the pay-off as each event (the Colorado Lode, Susan Alexander, the opera house, Xanadu) occurs in the dramatized, unpacked version of the story.

The device also works by creating a fake “other story,” be it computer modeling, art videos, or newsreels.  This automatically underscores the “reality” of the dramatized story that accounts for most of the film.  All the artifice is squeezed into that condensed “thumbnail” version.  Thus, the dramatized blah, blah, blah that follows seems even more real world.

In books I first saw this with Tom Spanbauer’s The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon.  In the opening scene a child runs through a meadow and we’re given all the upcoming events of the story in a chaotic rambling tease.  None of it needs to really stick in our minds because we’re arrested by the physical action of the character.  The running.  We may or may not retain the quick reference to each event, but – like in Citizen Kane – we only need to collect a few.  That’s enough to hook us.

Seeing the above-mentioned passage in that book, all of Tom’s students tried to do the same trick.  It is massively tough to pull off.  As for me, it wasn’t until years later that I would try to do a “thumbnail” at the beginning of my novel Rant.  In the scene, two men aboard an airplane compare what each paid for his ticket.  The man who paid the lower fare then explains it’s a “bereavement fare4” and goes on to synopsize the death of Rant Casey and the events that led up to it.

In Tom’s book and in my own, this teases the reader with a promise of dramatic goings-on.  A kind of theatrical preview. And it creates a “fake” story being told, to contrast with the “real” story to follow.  And it frees the reader from focusing too much on the horizontal plot events and allows the reader to appreciate the building emotional and psychological weight of things.

Again, do not try this “thumbnail” unless you can ground it in a small scene (as Tom and I do), or you can ground it with a nonfiction device such as a computer model, an artsy video, a newsreel, or whatever seems most appropriate for the story to follow.  By simply vomiting a series of quick references, you’re just going to annoy your reader.

Whatever the case, if you’re telling a story that will veer into the fantastic, and you want your reader to focus on the “vertical” emotional build, consider opening the book with this kind of a “thumbnail.”


Sometimes I call them “postage stamp” stories, but I mean the same thing.


By the “horizontal” of a story I mean the chain of plot events that move a character from beginning to end. By the “vertical” of a story I mean the gradual accumulation of emotion and insight that creates the rising “build” of the story.


Consider the old device of preceding each chapter with a two-sentence synopsis of the events to follow.  For example, “Here our hero Oliver Twist confronts the dragon at the Castle Laynor and must battle to save the hamlet of Eeyore.”  A custom possibly invented for the serialized fiction of the late 19th century, and one I used in Damned to echo that older form of storytelling.  But also a custom that smells like the old television tease at the end of each show:  “Stay tuned for a few scenes from next week’s Star Trek.”  Something no doubt borrowed from old movie serials. “See you next week, kids! When Flash Gordon…”


Also known as “funeral fares” these are the special prices airlines offered to people who needed to buy last-minute tickets to attend family funerals. To get the budget fare you typically had to provide the airline with a copy of the death certificate or ask the funeral planner to sign a document. Friends in the airline business tell me such fares are being phased out. They also tell me that until twenty years ago it was common for people running late — who knew they were going to miss their flights — to stop at a phone booth and call in a bomb threat on the flight in question. This prompted an hour-long sweep of the plane and luggage, thereby allowing time for the straggler to make the delayed departure. More recently airlines have taken to dusting phone booths for fingerprints (I shit you not!) and comparing those prints to the last passengers who checked in. This new measure effectively killed the ‘ol bomb threat trick. So don’t try it, kids!