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Imagine That!
The Use of Imagery
in Fiction: Part 1

2011 Anna Furtado

Imagery in fiction is all about descriptive language done in sweeping brushstrokes across the page and lending a richness of meaning to readers' experiences. Imagery isn't done for the sake of the image but to entice the reader more deeply into the story. As we experience a scene through a character's eyes, we not only catch a glimpse into the world itself, but we also come to understand the experience as the character does. Imagery weaves complexity into the fabric of the story beyond mere words.

The old adage: a picture is worth a thousand words applies here. Which would you rather read?
She cried.
Tears fell on her cheeks like diamonds.
Again, which conjures up the richer image?

Droplets of blood glistening red.
Droplets of blood glistening like garnets.
Images elicit strong emotions.

The phrase tears like diamonds makes an inner connection. If the character observing those tears thinks that phrase, it indicates recognition of something beyond tears. What is it the character knows without actually revealing about the person who sheds the tears? Has a relationship suddenly ended, extracting a great price in the process? Again, blood like garnets could convey the concept that spilling blood, no matter if in small or large amounts, is something very costly. This type of imagery helps explain ideas or emotions that defy mere description.

Don't simply write words. Paint pictures. Allow the reader to read between the lines. Create a mood. Emphasize a point with imagery. In a famous quote from Anton Chekhov, we get to the point. "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." Chekhov is telling us to use imagery to transport the reader. Imagery replaces the ordinary with a kind of magic, inviting the reader to linger under its spell. The glint of moonlight reflecting on broken glass rather than the moon is shining may make the difference between a reader succumbing to a long list of chores to be finished or the decision to stay with the story just a little longer.

Returning to the previous example, in spite of the significance of the shedding of tears, she cried probably won't have the same impact on the reader as the imagery in her tears fell like diamonds. Chances are the latter will make a much more lasting impression in the reader's psyche, the image evoking so much more emotion. Something of great worth is being lost. The diamond-tears will soon evaporate into the ether, leaving nothing but a memory. Using the imagery of diamond tears, all the expository words can be left unwritten. The reader will still understand.

Another use for imagery is in establishing the way a villain carries himself or how he uses a prop. There's a reason the Emperor always appears hooded in the Star Wars adventures. It's the image of those beady little eyes buried deep within the darkness of the hood that tell us who he really is. Another sinister person might wear a black fedora pulled down low on his forehead.

A heroine might wear a pendant, which may be one (or more) of many things: a talisman, a keepsake, a reminder of something or someone from the past. Even something avoided can evoke images that will stay with the reader and keep her turning pages.

Take, for example: Ever since it happened, she never walked down Crescent Street.

Wouldn't you want to know what that event was? What happened that made such an impression that the character avoids a particular street? It could take the entire story for the reader to find out what that event was and why it impacted the character so much. All the while the image of the mystery can keep the reader turning pages to find out what happened.

Using imagery forces the writer out of the "telling" mode. It even goes beyond the "showing" mode. It can change a scene from a few dull statements that inform us what's going on into a world that's alive and interesting, subtle, yet revelatory—not telling, not even showing, but experiencing the scene, the character, the thoughts, and the life within the scene.

Indicate what the character experiences in a scene using as many senses as possible. Here are some examples:
Sight: A field of flowers waving in greeting.
A hitch in his step that hints at a rusty left hip.

Sound: A voice, screeching like nails on a blackboard.

Touch: His ruddy face resembled the Arizona desert at sundown.

Taste: Her voice sounded like honey, satisfying and sweet.

Smell: Her hair smelled of lavender and a crisp spring morning.
Embrace a character's senses to have her experience imagery and you're enhancing your writer's toolkit as you reveal who your character really is.

The following paragraph is full of imagery that goes beyond the words the reader reads and evokes emotions from underlying meaning.

She had worked like an oxen-at-the-plow for years to finally be able to afford this land—this place that made her feel like she understood the concept of heaven. She stepped toward the edge of the cliff. The crunch of an invisible frost beneath her boots released the loamy smell of rich, dark soil and rotting leaves. As the valley below came into view her breath caught, as it always did at the view. Standing in awe, she felt the frozen ground beneath her, granite-like. It would make building difficult now, but in spring, with the sun warming the ground like a mother hen warms her chicks with her soft feathers, she'd put shovel to the earth and begin a new life for herself. Now, the pines surrounding her wore white knit caps with many matching mittens on their limbs. In spring, the snow would melt to feed the thirsty roots and give the trees new needles glowing like green neon lights. In that new season, she would rebuild her life.

Did you feel a sense of weariness for the character at first? One gets the feeling she worked at a job as dull and boring and as laborious as pulling against a plow, up and down, back and forth all day long. After years, that job finally allowed her to secure that land with its beautiful view. The crunching of her footsteps is something that's both tactile and auditory with an added bonus of the scent of earth and composting leaves. A hopeful feeling starts to permeate the scene with the addition of the mother hen analogy. It's contrasted by the scene of pines in winter wear. But optimism rises within the character as she envisions trees springing to life, nourished from the very winter snow that once kept everything frozen and asleep. Bright colors will permeate the character's new life as she works the soon-to-be-softened soil to build her home.

Note that this expository paragraph directly above contains lots of "telling." The imagery in the one above that contains lots of "experiencing." In the italicized version, the mood moves from fatigue and darkness to brightness and hope.

Imagery enhances mood. Are you writing a thriller? Your mood should be tense and suspense-filled. Shadowy images will help here. Are you writing a romantic comedy? Go for a light-hearted, happy mood. Prompt your readers to feel a certain way with the use of imagery.

Take an example of imagery using trees again. Trees might overlook an ocean cliff, huddled together against a buffeting wind. In contrast, trees could be dancing a hula in a tropical breeze. Each image elicits quite a different mood. (By the way, those tree examples are "personifications" and we'll discuss them and other image-enhancing specifics in Part Two of the next installment of "Gallimaufry.")

Other techniques take the form of comparison or contrast. Going back to our original examples, real blood is nothing like garnets. Yet declaring it is compares the two and conjures up a mood and an image. Fresh droplets of blood, associated with a precious gem, give much more subtle meaning than would reference to the blood alone. It also eliminates the tedium of writing (or reading) a description of how important that loss of blood really is, instead invoking an image of something of worth that the reader relates to it on an emotional level.

Tears like diamonds can indicate that the character's emotions are special to the observer. The mood is one of tenderness and the reader experiences those tears feeling privileged that the character has allowed her to witness this vulnerability. Yet none of this is expressed in words beyond the comparison itself. Everything else is merely implied.

Tears like shards of glass would never evoke the same feelings of tenderness. Perhaps tears described this new way could be used to manipulate and hurt the other person. They would be "cutting."

Blood and garnets, tears and diamonds, or tears and glass shards are examples of comparisons.

Here's an example of contrasting:
Jo reminded me of a yardstick.
Comparing Jo to a barely three-dimensional measuring tool might indicate that she's really thin, but it might have another meaning, one that alludes to her depth (or lack of it) as a person.

Comparisons can be even more subtle. A name like Ivan can insinuate an association with Ivan the Terrible and suggest a sinister character to the reader. This general overview of figurative language lays the foundation for our next installment of "Gallimaufry" in the June issue of Just About Write. We'll delve deeper into figurative language by looking at specific types of imagery in detail. So until next time, keep writing—in metaphors, similes, allusions, comparisons and personifications (some of the imagery we'll look at next time)—and may your words gush from your pen like the juice from ripe blackberries.
Anna Furtado is the author of The Heart's Desire—Book One of The Briarcrest Chronicles (a Golden Crown Literary Society Award finalist); The Heart's Strength—Book Two of the Briarcrest Chronicles; and The Heart's Longing—Book Three of The Briarcrest Chronicles. Anna is also a featured columnist at Just About Write (JAW) and contributes book reviews to JAW, as well as at the L-Word fan site in the literature section.

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