Want your photo to compel onlookers to find out “the rest of the story”? Capture a scene that’s out of balance.

Whatever scene you capture, it’ll be the imbalance — the conflict between incognruence elements — that creates story appeal and adds intrigue to your photo.


When everything fits, we have no need to wonder at any kind of explanatory backstory. But when we experience the extraoardinary, not only do we pay attention, but we have a built-in need to understand the cause and meaning of the exception. A need that can’t be triggered absent imbalance or trouble.

If your wife comes home every evening at 5:30 pm, and you see her car roll into the driveway at 5:30, you’re not about to wonder why, are you? There’s no trouble, no curiosity

But if it’s 6:45 pm and she hasn’t come home or e-mailed or called, well… you’ll start to wonder why, right? And in wondering, you’ll start creating scenarios — stories! — to explain the exception to your wife’s ordinary routine. It’s called worry.

So here’s the thing: for any visual scene, there are only 5-6 basic elements at play, and the imbalance usually only occurs between two of them. For instance a person pictured might be attempting to accomplish a goal with an outlandish or rather exceptional tool. Here’s an example of just that kind of imbalance:

Of course, the image is made all the more powerful by the symbolism inherent in the incongruence. But the symbolism only enhances the story appeal inherent in the imbalance, it doesn’t create it.  How do I know, because photos depicting similar action-tool imbalances create similar amounts of story appeal and intrigue:

Again, there is a lot of symbolism in these photos that helps enhance the impact, along with many visually arresting aspects of these photographs that also add to their ability to hold our attention, but these elements are additive and not generative, when it comes to story appeal. They enhance; they do not create intrigue. That’s why the heart of all these civilian-soldier photos lies the same central imbalance — the same engine for story appeal.

Another example is the action-agent imbalance. The things being done by or  to a person are out of balance with the nature of the person pictured.  Famous example:

And here’s a very similar photo showing the same imbalance:

And here’s a very different photo that still manages to capture that same agent-action imbalance:

What’s the point?

According to the late, great David Ogilvy the most effective, hardest working advertising images are those with what he called “Story Appeal.”  Yet no one that I’ve been able to find or have heard of has ever made a methodical study of just what goes into creating story appeal within an image.

But it’s not like it’s an impossible code to crack… and I thinkI can say (without sounding too imodest, I hope) that I have cracked at least a part of that code…

Interested in reading more about this? Let me know either in the comments section or  by e-mail.

P.S. There are other elements and factors that can make an image visually striking and appealing that don’t require imbalance. The extreme beauty on display in an Ansel Adams photo is one example.  But wherever you find story appeal, you’ll also find imbalance.



  1. wayne on 10.22.2012


    I am interested in learning more.

    If a picture is worth a thousand words, the RIGHT picture must be worth millions.

  2. chaz on 10.22.2012

    More, please. There’s no reason the story of the hero’s journey needs to be told in words. This post is a good example of how imagery can be very powerful, especially when paired with complementary copy.

  3. Chuck McKay on 10.22.2012

    Jeff, I’d imagine that photography, or even illustration, make good stories when there is conflict. Is that the same as imbalance, as you understand it?
    Chuck McKay´s last blog post ..Wizard of Ads partners in Denver on 10/30/12

  4. Jeff on 10.23.2012


    Well, depends on how you understand conflict, but no matter how you define it, conflict tends to be a more limited term than imbalance. Most people think of conflict more narrrowly in terms of arguments and fights. And while depicting arguments and fights can crerate intrgiue and story appeal, it won’t be very powerful unless there is some other imbalance. For instance, a picture of two gunslingers at the OK Coral shows conflict, but the story appeal would be far stronger if you added imbalance to the scene by making one of the gunslingers a priest.

    So, Imabalance means there is a “conflict” between one of the elements of the scene and the surrounding context, which may or may not result from a depiction of outward conflict. And may, in fact, come from a scene that depicts peace between people who you’d expect to be in conflict. In Ogilvy’s example of Story Appeal, he talks about the Hathaway ad showing “the man with the eyepatch,” playing cards. There is no conflict in terms of fights, but there is an imbalance between the posh, upperclass surroundings, the dressy, aristocratic dress of the man, the domestic act of playing cards, and the man’s pirate-like eyepatch.

    All in all, I use the term imbalance rather than conflict, as I think its more technically precise and also more connotatively neurtral, in terms of preventing people from assuming that you have to show fights to have story appeal.

  5. Di Mace | Word Swords on 10.23.2012

    Jeff, As a usual lurker, today you’ve prompted me out of seclusion 🙂 Yes, I’d love to hear more on creating story appeal with an image…. they add so much unspoken depth and nuance (as compared to words alone) a study or code cracking guide would be priceless!
    Di Mace | Word Swords´s last blog post ..The [simple] story of a brand

  6. Travis Burchart on 10.23.2012

    The mythological illustrations on your blog create a kind of external imbalance between the imagery and your content. They resonate more with a site on mythos than with a site on copy . That said, these illustrations intrigued me and prompted me to stop, scan and start reading your blogs on copy. While they don’t necessarily create an imbalance in and of themselves (such as your photo examples), they do create an imbalance between the content (copy) and their inherent nature (myth) (i.e., “those incongruence elements.”)

  7. Jeff on 10.23.2012

    Thanks, Travis. To me, great copy IS (or borders on) mythos — and a lot of digging for it comes in the depths of our subconscious. So the gap is supposed to be meaningful, but it is also there to grab a second look, which is the same role required of ad imagery, as you correctly pointed out.

    I’d love to say that was all planned out by me, but much of it was just fortuitous: this is a free theme that didn’t look like every other blog format out there, so I snagged it and tried to bake that other stuff in after the fact : )

  8. Melissa on 10.23.2012

    Hey Jeff,
    I’d definitely be interested in hearing more. This piece, combined with the recent video Derek Halpern did on the importance of having images in your sales copy is really selling me on their potential when used correctly.

    He showed the stats on how much having an image (ANY image) in your sales copy improves the trust factor—I can just imagine how much have one of THESE images in your sales copy would impact it.

    Now I just need the rest of your analysis to figure out how to pick the right pic each time!
    Melissa´s last blog post ..Creating Characters from Scratch

  9. Jeff on 10.24.2012

    Thanks, Melissa. Can you provide a link to Derek’s video? I’d love to see it…

  10. Jon on 10.23.2012

    I would love to know more about the code. I know that images can move people quicker and farther that words. Show us what is behind that.

  11. Melissa on 10.26.2012

    Hey Jeff,

    Based on your new post, you found the link — but in case anyone else wanders down to these comments and wants it, Derek’s video is here.
    Melissa´s last blog post ..Creating Characters from Scratch

  12. Anthony Dina on 11.01.2012

    Seriously. Don’t stop! Tell us more about the code. The illustrator in me knew exactly what you meant about imbalance from the very beginning. However something tells me you will have more to say than imbalance as a key for storytelling. Robert McKee might suggest we are compelled to engage with stories with characters who are put into situations which challenge their status quo. Little drips leading to bigger drips of tension which causes the character to eventually transform. Likewise you will likely refer to Normal Rockwell’s uncanny ability to depict an American ritual right in the middle of things. And our personal memories cannot help but correlate this back to our own history. And thus are engaged in that world. Am I getting warmer?
    Anthony Dina´s last blog post ..Italy in my pocket