A Companion Glossary for “Suggestive Verbalizations in Film”

By Julian Hanich and Sanna McGregor

A glossary of terms can often be a student’s closest ally, gearing them up to navigate the myriad labels and concepts they will undoubtedly encounter in their academic careers. They will encounter several in Julian Hanich’s article “Suggestive Verbalizations in Film: On Character Speech and Sensory Imagination,” in which various concepts are unpacked and addressed in establishing a new term. So, to us, an introductory glossary seemed well suited to accompany the article as a contribution to the New Review of Film and Television Studies’ blog.

In Hanich’s article he takes a closer look at the concepts that capture components of what he terms ‘suggestive verbalization’ in film—vivid language that addresses the spectator’s imaginative capacities. While the paper develops this new, more encompassing framework in greater depth, we hope to offer a little more background here on some of the terms that make up, overlap with, or could be supplanted by suggestive verbalization. While by no means complete or definitive, this glossary also lends itself as an opportunity to include additional examples and visual material illustrating, and occasionally parodying, the described terminology at work in cinema. 


From the Greek for “description,” ekphrasis in its narrower sense refers to the representation of art in words and is often encountered in poetry. Visual culture studies scholar W.J.T. Mitchell argues for a broader view of the term, subverting the binary conception of verbal and visual modes, and emphasizes that ekphrasis is “the perception of a visual image that is translated into verbal form” (Barbetti 2011: 11, emphasis added, see also Brosch 2018: 226). Examining ekphrasis in film studies and the depiction of art in cinema, Laura Sager Eidt’s Writing and Filming the Painting: Ekphrasis in Literature and Film outlines four forms of ekphrasis: attributive, depictive, interpretive, and dramatic (Sager Eidt 2008). As its use and relevancy moves into the digital age, Liliane Louvel has outlined a typology of its forms while examining its synesthetic interfacing of word, image, and imagination (“Types of Ekphrasis: An Attempt at Classification” 2018). In its essentially evocative meaning the term is a predominantly textual expression of the rhetorical devices enérgeia and → enárgeia. These devices are central to → suggestive verbalization, which is similar to ekphrasis but extends beyond textual forms and encompasses both narration and description. 

Enérgeia & Enárgeia

Two Greek terms with closely related, and often conflated, meanings concerning how that which is absent is evoked. Monica Westin unpacks Aristotle’s definitions, wherein enérgeia is the “quality of language that sets things before the eyes as though they are unfolding in the present moment” with “a quality of aliveness or activity in speech” (Westin 2017: 254). Westin makes the case for defining enérgeia as “unfolding into presence” in a manner that is striking, in a subtle distinction from the vividness of enárgeia. This latter term refers to a vivid description, which according to Ruth Webb confers a “quality of language that derives from something beyond words: the capacity to visualize a scene. And its effect also goes beyond words in that it sparks a corresponding image, with corresponding emotional associations, in the mind of the listener” (Webb 2009: 105). Many of the examples in Hanich’s article exemplify enérgeia and enárgeia, and the Netflix franchise Criminal he opens with offers numerous demonstrations of rich and vivid → suggestive verbalizations such as this monologue by Kit Harington in the UK edition (Netflix, 2020).

Figure 1: Alex (Kit Harington) in Criminal: UK (Netflix, 2020)

Iconogenic Narration 

A technical term in photography, Michel Chion adopted “iconogenic” based on its etymological roots to refer to “generating icons or images” (Chion 2009: 405). When applied to narration, scenes in which characters’ words are matched—or playfully subverted—by the filmmakers’ choice of images are examples of iconogenic narration. Essentially it becomes “a game of speed: the speed of the editing in showing what’s brought forth by the barrage of words and the speed of the spectator’s ability to integrate these dense superimpositions of text and image” (Chion 2009: 399). Examples of iconogenic narration are fairly commonplace, a playful instance is Peter Falk’s (repetitive) narration of a shrieking eel attack in The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1987). 

Messenger Report 

This term is derived from the theatre, where playwrights often employ messengers to convey exposition or narrative developments that occurred outside the staged time or space. As Lloyd Davis puts it in his discussion of Shakespearean messengers, they are “expedient figures […who] can explain backgrounds, set up situations and convey information about unstaged events and dialogue” while they may also “tap into complex patterns of interpretation and spectacle” (1998: 95). Falling within Hanich’s broader alternative notion of → verbalization-of-the-past, the messenger report can be traced back to ancient Greek plays and appears throughout theatre history—it is a common enough theatrical trope to have spawned parodies. Messenger reports are notably less common in film, which is less restricted to the single space of a theatre and more inclined to visually convey the action (Eversmann 2005). A cinematic example of a messenger report is the scene Hanich describes from Hotel Rwanda (Terry George, 2004) when Cara Seymour’s character recounts atrocities she was forced to witness in the conflict-torn city. 

Figure 2: Screenshot from Hotel Rwanda (Terry George 2005) where Paul and Tatiana Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo) listen to the messenger report of Pat Archer (Cara Seymour)

Noniconogenic Narration

In contrast to → iconogenic narration, noniconogenic narration is characterized by the absence of visual depictions of the subject matter: “the screen doesn’t show what the words evoke, and instead the camera remains exclusively with the talking face of the storyteller and the reactions of onscreen listeners” (Chion 2009: 399-400, original emphasis). This absence invites the viewer to imagine what is being recounted. An example of noniconogenic narration is Nicole Kidman’s memory of her attraction to a naval officer in Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999).

Figure 3: Alice Harford (Nicole Kidman) in Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)

While close to Hanich’s proposed → suggestive verbalization, Chion’s term concentrates on narration and does not encapsulate descriptive verbal instances, while the negative prefix also problematically positions iconogenic narration as the norm (Hanich 2022). 

Offscreen Space 

Essentially encompassing all dimensions of diegetic (and non-diegetic) space beyond the screen frame that are nonetheless suggested by what is on screen, the concept of offscreen space was most concretely defined by Noël Burch. In Theory of Film Practice, Burch establishes six “segments” of offscreen space that are located on each side, above, and below the frame as well as behind the camera and backstage. These segments can generally be indicated through characters’ entrances, exits, or camera movements (Burch 1981). Burch also distinguishes between imaginary offscreen space, where the off or that which occupies it is not revealed to the viewer, and concrete offscreen space that is at some point visible to the viewer (this revelation may also retrospectively make imagined space concrete) (1981).  Kayo Adachi-Rabe comprehensively reviews theories of offscreen space, while positing a seventh dimension of the offscreen within the image itself in terms of the spectator’s position and imagination (Abwesenheit im Film 2005). Various forms of → suggestive verbalization make reference to offscreen space, though → teichoscopies perhaps most obviously do so.

Radiant Ignition

Coined by literary scholar Elaine Scarry, “radiant ignition” refers to the role of contrasting light in the shaping of the imagination, and imagined movement in particular. She discusses Homer’s use of light in the Iliad to outline the various ways in which radiant ignition can operate: “What moves may be only the light itself […], or it may be the motion of an embodied man or woman. The light may originate on the moving person’s body, or in something the moving person passes […], or may surround and contain the persons […]. The luminous motion may even be interior to the human body” (Scarry 1999: 70-71). An example of → verbalization-of-the-past through radiant ignition, in this case where the light is close to a moving figure, is the final scene of No Country for Old Men (Ethan and Joel Coen, 2007). Here, Tommy Lee Jones’s Sherriff Bell relates a dream during which he was on horseback and another rider passed him carrying fire in a horn, this lit his movements ahead of Bell and aids the viewer’s imagination of the dark dreamscape. 

Sensory Imagination 

The imagination is often conceived of as Kopfkino, a kind of “inner movie” (Carroll 2014: 20), though it can perhaps be better defined as “the presentational and transformational activity of human consciousness, the latter understood as both intentional and embodied” (Gosetti-Ferencei 2019: 26). The qualifier “sensory” seeks to ensure the inclusion of multiple sensory modes, beyond the purely visual, in the discussion of spectatorial imagination. Films may elicit the imagination of a particular sensory experience, such as the evocation of odours when Dustin Hoffman’s perfumer tries to identify the notes of a competitor’s scent in Perfume: Story of a Murderer (Tom Tykwer, 2006). Sound is often also left to the imagination—particularly in one-sided phone calls (Dr Strangelove by Stanley Kubrick [1964] is a classic case)—but it can also stimulate the imagination in other sensory modes, as Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin (2008) demonstrates: the soundtrack sparks an imagination of what the women onscreen are watching (Hanich 2018). Of course, it is also important to acknowledge the variation and subjectivity of imagination in film spectatorship, as sensory experiences are highly individual. 

Speech Act (Theory) 

A theory of language first articulated by J.L. Austin and J.R. Searle, who referred to “illocutionary acts” (Searle 2012), about speech that is more than descriptive. They argued that some utterances were in themselves actions, that sentences such as “I do” in a wedding ceremony constituted the action they described: “to utter the sentence (in, of course, the appropriate circumstances) is not to describe my doing of what I should be said in so uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it” (Austin 2020: 10-11 original emphasis). Sarah Kozloff has argued for the relevance of speech acts in film dialogue, in which sometimes “the key narrative event is a verbal act” (Kozloff 2000: 41). Following Kozloff, Hanich posits that characters’ suggestive language also acts upon film viewers in that it can evoke a sensory mode of imagination” (Hanich 2022: 6, original emphasis).

Suggestive Verbalization

Hanich proposes this term to indicate a range of linguistic utterances in cinema that stimulate the viewer’s imagination of what remains unseen through “vivid and evocative language” (2022: 7). It is distinct from Michel Chion’s → noniconogenic narration in encompassing descriptive verbal utterances as well as narration, and extends beyond existing (theatrical) terms such as → messenger reports and → teichoscopy. The focus on verbalization is key, as the emphasis on language clarifies the exclusion of nonverbal suggestive elements such as recognisable sounds. The verbalizations concerned are suggestive in the sense that they address the spectator’s imagination, which is not the case for all language in film: “the extent to which film addresses the viewer’s sensory imagination therefore does not depend on the sheer quantity of what is being said – it’s partly a question of its vividness and evocativeness” (Hanich 2022: 9). Though there are various ways suggestive verbalizations could be categorised, Hanich opts for temporal distinctions and identifies four subcategories: → verbalization-of-the-past, → verbalization-of-the-present, → verbalization-of-the-future and → verbalization-of-generalities. 


Another Greek term, teichoscopy refers to “viewing from the walls,” or the simultaneous narration of events as they occur, and is a form of → verbalization-of-the-present. This synchronicity is relatively uncommon in film, though a recurring example can be found in the descriptions of “Ugly Naked Guy” in Friends (NBC, 1994-2004) (with thanks to Jet Berkman). A less classical form of teichoscopy is the verbal portrayal of something obscured within the frame, such as the description of paintings that are only visible from the back in An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey 1957). Other examples can be found in Münchhausen (Josef von Baky, 1943) and The Hour of the Wolf (Ingmar Bergman 1968) (See also the examples given in Hanich 2022: 13 and Hanich 2018).

Figure 4: Courbet (Fortunio Bonanova) describes obscured paintings to Nickie Ferrante (Cary Grant) in An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey 1957)


This is perhaps the most common form of → suggestive verbalization and refers to action that has already been completed, generally in past tense and offering a reflection on what an event or experience was like (Hanich 2022: 12). Verbalizations-of-the-past tend to be more narrative than descriptive in nature, and examples can be found in crime drama confessions, witness and → messenger reports, or the recollection of personal trauma as is the case in Salò (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975) (For further examples, see Hanich 2022: 12). 

Figure 5: Signora Vaccari (Hélene Surgère) in Salò (Paolo Pasolini 1975)


This type of → suggestive verbalization indicates invisible objects or simultaneously occurring events that are significant to what is visible on screen (Hanich 2022: 11). These objects or events are frequently located in → offscreen space, and are expressed in present tense to answer the question “how is something right now?” (Hanich 2022: 12, original emphasis). Verbalizations-of-the-present include teichoscopies, simultaneous reports from afar such as phone calls, and Hanich even includes verbalizations of imaginary spaces in this, offering the example of ‘precog’ Agatha’s (Samantha Morton) vision of the protagonist’s deceased son in Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002). 


This term points to → suggestive verbalizations of what is expected to occur, though it may not actually come to pass, for instance in plans, predictions, threats, or even commands to action. This form of suggestive language is exemplified in the drill sergeant’s orders in Full Metal Jacket  (Stanley Kubrick, 1987), as he threatens creatively horrific punishments for cheeky recruits. Another, slightly longer, military example is this scene from Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009), in which Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) explains what his recruits will be doing and foreshadows the fear they will inspire.  

Figure 6: Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) threatens Private Joker (Matthew Modine) in Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick 1987)

Figure 7: Lieutenant Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt) verbalizes future violence and fear in Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)


This final form of → suggestive verbalization speaks to references to types of objects or events, rather than token ones, that either recur or are generally like the description given. In these cases, “the temporal reference is either switched to a permanent state; or the vector refers to recurring points in time” (Hanich 2022: 15). An example of the verbalization-of-generalities Hanich offers is a scene from Se7en (David Fincher 1995), in which Martin Serene’s character typifies a client within the genre of performance art, as he perceives it. 

Visual and Linguistic Narrative Instances

The narrative instance is a concept drawn from narratology, describing “the conjunction between (1) narrative voice (who is speaking?), (2) time of the narration (when does the telling occur, relative to the story?) and (3) narrative perspective (through whom are we perceiving?)” (Guillemette and Lévesque 2019, 252 original emphasis). In film studies, Markus Kuhn has posited a distinct visual narrative instance as opposed to those that are linguistic. Hanich notes the second type can be either extradiegetic, in the form of subtitling or voice-overs, or intradiegetic in the case of characters’ letters or book (2022: 21).  

Though brief, we hope this glossary and the included examples offer a helpful supplement to Julian Hanich’s explication of suggestive verbalization in film. READ ARTICLE.

Julian Hanich
Julian Hanich

Julian Hanich is Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of Groningen. He is the author of two monographs: The Audience Effect: On the Collective Cinema Experience (Edinburgh UP, 2018) and Cinematic Emotion in Horror Films and Thrillers: The Aesthetic Paradox of Pleasurable Fear (Routledge, 2010). With Daniel Fairfax he co-edited The Structures of the Film Experience by Jean-Pierre Munier: Historical Assessments and Phenomenological Expansions (Amsterdam UP, 2019); and with Christian Ferencz-Flatz he was responsible for an issue of Studia Phaenomenologica on ‘Film and Phenomenology’ (2016). He is currently writing a short monograph on Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s City Girl (Edition Text + Kritik) and co-editing a volume entitled What Film Is Good For (University of California Press). His research focuses on film aesthetics, cinematic emotions, film and imagination, film phenomenology, and the collective cinema experience. His work can be found at Julianhanich.deAcademia.edu and Researchgate.net.

Sanna McGregor

Sanna McGregor is a master’s student and research assistant in the Department of Arts, Culture, and Media at the University of Groningen. She holds a BA in film studies and an MLitt in dramaturgy, and has taught writing at universities in Singapore and the UAE. Current research interests include ecocinema, stop frame animation, and operational aesthetics.


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