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  • L.L. Stephens

Storytelling Through Art

Updated: Jul 15, 2022

Anyone familiar with me will know I love art. On my travels I seek out art museums and the shops of local artists. When I attend cons, I will be found either browsing for new boardgames or hanging out in the art gallery.

Fantasy art is one of my first loves and it's no secret I buy some books solely because they have great cover art. Art speaks to me.

When approached by Forest Path Books about possibly publishing the Triempery series, I asked right upfront for assurance that I would have a say in cover art for the books. It mattered that much. Not every publisher gives their authors artistic input; that FPB does has earned my undying loyalty. I may not know much about how to sell books -- to be clear, I'm a bumbling amateur at that -- but I know for a fact as a consumer and as a long-time reader of writing forums that book covers are front line marketing.

Book covers do more--far more--than simply make a first impression. They do more than just attract attention through smart use of color and design. They are images and images have a lot to say.

A book's cover gives readers their first glimpse of the story.

The cover of Sordaneon lays out critical elements of the story:

  • Sordan

  • the Rill Entity

  • the scale

  • that the main character is small in comparison

  • gold (symbolic for wealth)

  • the book is fantasy

Cover art is a visual language. The image conveys information and does so in a condensed, accessible form. A single image... a lot of story.

A reader cannot mistake the Sordaneon cover as depicting anything other than a fantasy world. Other than that human figure in the foreground, it doesn't look anywhere close to a place we know or understand. A fantasy world with humans, then. And that big something in the center? The reader doesn't know what it is yet but there's an implicit promise that the story will reveal that part. Although the colors are not dark or grim, suggesting that this book probably isn't grimdark, there's clearly something powerful going on.

A book cover doesn't tell the story, but it does show enough of the story for readers to see what kind of book they are looking at.

Here is the cover of The Kheld King (coming in September). It too lays out a story.

Again, it's clear the book is fantasy. There's still a sense of grand scale because the man standing on the rocks is also facing something way bigger than he is.

The color palette of the cover, however, is darker and gloomier.

The Kheld King continues the story from Sordaneon. Fittingly, elements from the first cover carry over... but other elements suggest a different journey will unfold within the pages.

Covers aren't the only art that assist in telling a story. I commissioned the set of illustrations at the top of this blog post because 1) I found a great artist whose style suited the images, and 2) I hoped readers might enjoy experiencing the story's artifacts in a new way. Each image shows the artifact in context -- those who read the books will grasp the contexts -- and each presents a bit more information about them.

  • the author's concept

  • an artist's interpretation of the author's concept

  • a visual aesthetic (instead of prose)

This is a full-size repeat of the image at the top of this post:

Each artifact's illustration tells a story. I collaborated with the artist, Margarita Bourkova, on the story being told. Together we selected color palettes to convey emotional tones; backgrounds to suggest story elements; details to create context.

The Leur's Ring on the hand of an old man stands in sharp contrast to the Rill Stone ring on the hand of much younger man. Those hands belong to characters, as do the hands holding the Wall Stone, the shape of which tells of its origin. The Wall Stone image is cool in emotional texture: the Wall is a remote Entity not attached to the person holding it. The Leur's Ring is also cold to look upon but it suggests power amidst its stormy surroundings. Readers can use the details to create their own stories about who is wearing it. The Rill Stone image is warmer, golden (wealth again) and vibrant, while the ring with its emerald jewels and eagle talons belongs to a story about power. Nammuor's Diadem, meanwhile, crackles with anger and malice. Readers will know or soon learn what makes it that way and how the background represents the crown's history.

Art based on fiction will always be a hit or miss kind of thing. No two readers imagine any part of a story -- characters, artifacts and devices, or landscapes -- in the same way. Still, I enjoy seeing visual interpretations of my work and will continue to commission art wherever I think illustrations will add to reader experience.

In fact, I am thinking about creating travel posters....

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