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. 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

  5. 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.”)

  6. 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.

  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. 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.

  10. Jeff on 10.24.2012

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

  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

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