Writing Imagery

I know I should probably start you off with some blah-de-blah’s about characters or plot or pacing, but let’s be honest: Most of that is learned by doing, not by reading. Or by reading books meant to be enjoyed and tearing them down into itty-bitty, digestible pieces. You can and should be doing both of those if you like to write. No doubt as you’re reading this, you already have characters, plot, and are figuring out pacing, so let us jump straight to the chase.

What is Imagery?

Imagery is what makes a book interesting. It is how you as a writer describe the action and environment in your tale, and in such a way that is natural and a little artistic. The most common advice in this matter is, “Show, don’t tell”, but not only do I find this advice annoying, I also find it wrong quite frequently. Imagery is a tool, and you need to use it only when it is appropriate. Sometimes, something is only fleetingly important and you don’t need to spend two sentences discussing what makes the coffee horrible. Is the coffee important, or is the coffee a way to communicate that the character who made it doesn’t care about their work, has self-esteem issues, or is overworked? See what I’m getting at here?

An Example of How to Use Imagery:

Before:

Our cat is crazy.

Ok, so there is a cat; at least I didn’t say “animal” or “pet”. From this, we can also gather that “we”, as in more than one person, own or take care of said cat. Now, there is the word “crazy”. What does crazy mean? And please, no clinical definitions here. What makes the cat crazy? What does she do? Or is it a mental condition? How does the cat display this? Are there physical manifestations of being “crazy”?

I can hope that (s)he does not smell crazy or taste crazy, but does the cat look it, sound it, or feel it (and there are two sorts of feel—emotional and physical)?

Revised example:

We are careful to never leave the doors open for more than a split-second, or else our cat, in heat and maddened to a mating frenzy, will claw her way out to reach the toms.

Not only does imagery paint a vivid picture, but it contributes to the story—or in this case, it makes the story. We know that the owners do not want their female cat to get pregnant, we know that for whatever reason she is not spayed. We also know now that she is kept indoors, at least while she is in heat, and that she is crazy because she is “maddened to a mating frenzy”. Even if you do not know what the term “in heat” means, you should be able to gather that it is the time when cats seek mates.

A Second Example:

Bad:

Bill’s computer crashed right before he was about to submit his assignment.

Revised:

For the fifth time, the Windows’ “restart me to install updates” window cropped up on the corner of Bill’s screen, and he slammed on the postpone button, causing his screen to paralyze and darken, the mouse refusing to budge or listen to a single command. Three minutes before his paper was due, and his computer was frozen. Bill could have used his umbrella to beat the screen into submission, just to make himself feel better, but instead he laughed and said, “Hope the deadline to drop classes hasn’t passed.”

Imagery and telling are used side-by-side here, woven together in a way that is natural and reveals much about the character—-and his dilemma. The “telling” section (three minutes before his paper was due, and his computer was frozen) is not so much about telling the story, but about revealing the character’s thoughts and perceptions on his situation. I see this segment playing part in a frantic count-down for completing the one assignment that would be the difference between passing and failing.

Now, the “bad” example can be saved by using it as the shock-value, then going into detail.

Bill’s computer crashed. For the fifth time, the Window’s “restart me” window cropped up in the corner….(and so forth).

This works because it serves as a way for “Bill” to communicate with the reader, or with himself, such as the times when you say to yourself, “I can’t believe I did that!”

What Imagery is Not:

Adjectives, Adverbs, and “Fluff” are not imagery, unless that information is important for identification purposes (“Hit the green button, not the teal one.”), but even so that doesn’t help to push the story forward—unless the person is colorblind and sees gray geraniums, but I digress. It still isn’t imagery.

Example of Non-Imagery:

The pink, frilly wand is topped with a feather boa and lots of glitter.

How to Save This Non-Imagery:

Glitter cascaded to the ground as Tammi tapped the feathered wand to Patches’ notched ear.

The Take-Away Message:

Imagery isn’t necessarily about images, it is about motion and making that tiny video play in your reader’s head. While earth-shattering explosions are fantastic, just as effective is a single dewdrop sliding down a grass blade.

Practice it!

  • Describe a beloved pet in two sentences, making him/her come alive in the reader’s mind.
  • Tell me about your favorite pen.
  • What is the one thing that boils your blood faster than anything else?
  • Why is your favorite drink your favorite drink?
  • Make a headache so vivid that your reader gets one just by reading your passage.
  • Use the atmosphere to set the stage for an argument.
  • What makes a man/woman dreamy?

If you do some of these exercises (or others), feel free to link to this post or leave a comment below. Also feel free to add in your two cents about writing good imagery. What was the best advice you ever received?

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2 thoughts on “Writing Imagery

  1. Nicole-

    Lots of good information here. I find this is where I spend most of my revision time. Taking a black and white pencil drawing and turning it into a living, breathing realty is where the fun of storytelling lives.

    -Dennis

    1. I completely agree! I actually think of writing in terms of drawing. If you do a rough outline, I think of that as the squiggly composition drawing. Then the first draft I think of like line drawings. Then the shading is using vivid verbs and motion imagery. Finally, you do your little touches that make it pop. If only it were that simple, for both writing and drawing! But that is the essence.

      And I’m glad that you think the post is worthwhile. I have a slew of writing books, and some have great sections on imagery, where others are sorely lacking. I do try to pull it all together in the hopes that others will benefit.

      -Nicole

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