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Imagine That!
The Use of Imagery
in Fiction: Part 2

© 2011 Anna Furtado

This is the conclusion of an article on use of imagery in fiction begun in the April 2011 issue of Just About Write (Imagine That! The Use of Imagery in Fiction - Part 1).

In our initial look at the use of imagery to punch up our fiction to make it more memorable, we looked at using the comparatives "tears like diamonds" or "blood like garnets" to give the reader the sense of the importance of those events. We also talked about painting beautiful pictures with our prose that may make the difference between a mediocre story and one that lingers long on the minds of our readers.

I promised more in this issue of Gallimaufry, so here we'll delve into more specific types of imagery to expand writing horizons and challenge writers to enhance writing quality using some of the types of imagery available to us.

Alliterations are phrases that repeat the same letter. She sells seashells by the seashore is a common alliteration. The sounds of the repeated letters communicate a mood and a meaning. In addition to tongue twisters, though, there are other common uses for alliterations. Brand names - and some famous people - have alliterative names. Consider Dunkin' Donuts or LifeLock. How about Best Buy or Krispy Kreme? Names of note include: Marilyn Monroe, Sammy Sosa, Fred Flintstone, and Katy Couric (alliterations have the same sound but don't necessarily have to start with the same letter). Finally, consider these alliterative phrases: last laugh, good as gold, method to her madness (not every word in the alliterative phrase has to begin with the same sound). However, some of these alliterations are clichés, and need to be used with caution - more on that later. Allusion
When we associate someone or something to an easily recognizable person, place, historical event, or a piece of literature, including the Bible, this is called allusion. We can say someone has the patience of Job, and the phrase is fraught with meaning that goes beyond the phrase itself. Most people understand that Job's patience went way beyond the ordinary. Where most people would have given up, Job continued on, again and again, in spite of the things happening to him and around him. Then just when you'd have thought he couldn't possibly take any more, he endured again. I just used fifty words to say what was originally stated in four (the patience of Job) - and even after all those words, I probably didn't do justice to the explanation.

A woman with a Mona Lisa smile conjures up an image for us. That "I-know-a-secret" look is enchanting. It's easy for an image to form in our heads of a woman with the hint of a smile - a woman who has something going on in her head that we wish we could be privy to. It evokes emotion with those three little words.

We don't always have to allude to something famous. The term "a glass-surfaced pool" is still an allusion that immediately gives the reader an image of a pool that is perfectly smooth and without any movement. That pool could be peaceful or its stillness could have ominous connotations. Perhaps we're waiting for the monster to burst forth with a fierce roar and much thrashing and splashing. It's up to you!

Allusion might have a humorous quality showing us human adversity overcome in small increments: A man, living a solitary life in an apartment for years, never having set foot outside because he suffers from agoraphobia, finally makes a friend. After a while, with his new friend's encouragement, he's determined to overcome his disability. He agrees to go for a brief car ride with his friend. As he steps out his front door for the first time in many years, he says, "That's one small step for man…and one giant leap for…me." Not only does the statement begin with one familiar to most readers as one connected to an event that marked a great first step for humankind with an initial walk on the moon, it also puts a humorous twist on the statement without making it unrecognizable. In the apprehension of the moment as the man steps over the threshold, the tension is broken - just like the barrier that has been overcome - and we chuckle with the character for his clever allusion.

Through allusion we identify our story with the larger world surrounding us and our characters. Ideas conveyed in this way have certain emotions attached to them. Call someone a Scrooge and no further explanation is necessary. The person becomes an irredeemable, penny-pinching fool. Biblical references come with understanding even in the secular world. Take, for instance, a character with feet of clay or a prodigal son or daughter. These references will be easily understood by most readers and come with a whole range of emotional responses.

Analogy explains relationships by comparing two things. The point can be made by comparing things that are alike or by using something that is completely opposite. An example: He was so hungry, if he were a lion, he'd be feeding on the pampas; if he were a giraffe, he'd be eating rodents. Since lions are carnivores and giraffes are herbivores, the implication is that hunger (and desperation) would drive them to eat something they usually don't. Another analogy might be something like: He ran so fast, they called him The Jet.

A word that has the sound it's describing gives a larger comprehension of what's happening in the story because it engages more of the reader's senses. A crisp taffeta skirt swishing lets the reader experience the sound of the skirt as the character walks by. Onomatopoeia is a personal favorite of mine. You just can't beat words like: sizzle, pluck, slather, and wobble to conjure up an image. You hear the sound in your imagination. Sometimes, you can feel what's happening.

When I read the word "sizzle" I can almost feel those sharp little spatters that jump out of a hot frying pan and prick the back of your hand. I hear the sustained "s" and "z" sounds that accompany the cooking. When I read "pluck," it almost has a musical quality to it. When I read "slather," I envision hands pushing cool, silky cream over a smooth surface. The word elongates in my head: sla-a-a-ather. Nothing stays completely upright in my mind when I read "wobble." How can it, it's too busy teetering from side to side (and sometimes Laurel and Hardy music plays along with the wobbling).

Dramatic Irony
Dramatic irony is secretive, as when the audience knows more than a character knows in a story. Think of a story where a woman dresses as a man and invades some male bastion to gain or impart knowledge without being found out. The audience knows who the cross-dresser is, but the opposing character and his cronies, even though they may know the woman, don't seem to recognize her. This often makes for a comedic scene.

Another example most people are familiar with is in Romeo and Juliet. Juliet has appeared to poison herself, but we know it isn't true. When Romeo sees her lying there, and presumes her dead, he drinks the poison. We know that Juliet isn't actually dead, but Romeo doesn't. That's dramatic irony. (That Romeo actually dies is poignant.)

Verbal Irony
Verbal irony is often referred to as sarcasm. It's when someone says one thing, but means something entirely different. When, after struggling to get a piece of equipment to operate properly, the machine only pops, then fizzes (another great onomatopoeia), and a little cloud of smoke emerges from the top of the machine, the main character says, "Oh, wonderful!" There's nothing wonderful about it, nor does the character think there's anything terrific about it. In fact, he or she is expressing verbal irony or sarcasm.

When using verbal irony, make sure the sarcasm is true to the character. If it doesn't fit the character's personality, it won't ring true with a reader and could be more of a distraction than an enhancement.

Situational Irony
Perhaps the best explanation of situational irony is found in the O. Henry story, "Gift of the Magi," in which a young woman cuts off her hair to buy her husband a watch chain, and he sells his watch to buy her a set of combs for her beautiful long hair.

Take an inanimate object or animal and give it human characteristics and you've shown it in a completely new light. Fairy tales and other children's stories are full of this one: the big bad wolf speaks. More recently, it was Rio, the parrot, and his pals. We give animals human characteristics to tell a tale.

Personification also works in adult fiction. For example, a cave with a gaping mouth, gives the impression that it's ready to swallow anyone who enters. This imparting of human characteristics on the cave's opening creates an emotional response that makes the scene unforgettable to the reader. The writer may tell us that the mouth of the cave is foreboding, but the "gaping mouth" image eliminates any telling. Instead a formidable image forms in the reader's imagination.

More examples: Trees huddled on a hill during a storm give ominous feeling, again evoking emotions filled with tension or fright. The sea, beckoning with open arms, may give the reader of feeling of refreshing welcome.

With just a few words personifying an object, a writer can paint an image to enhance the reader's experience. This expands the reader's vision of the story and simplifies the explanation of important creative concepts.

A pun is a play on words meant to tickle the listener or reader. The purpose of a pun is to make the audience sit up and take notice. A trying judge, a sole owner of a shoe store, a flakey pastry chef are all puns. Puns are great in humorous gum-snapping-detective novels. In a serious romance, it depends on the personality of the character - and I wouldn't recommend that all the characters in a novel be "punny." Some people consider puns tiresome and cause for groans rather than laughs. Writer beware. Examine your intent and proceed with caution.

Simile, Metaphor (and their cousin, Cliché)
A simile is the comparison of two unlike things using the words like or as. The examples given in Part One of this article ("tears like diamonds" and "blood like garnets") are similes. Other similes might be: "thin as a pencil" or "soft as down."

Similes and metaphors are similar to one another. Similes make indirect comparisons with two ideas that are distinct in spite of their similarities. Tears are very different from diamonds. Yet used in the right context, they can be a believable comparison. Metaphors compare two things directly. When he ran the jigsaw around the wood, he was as precise as a surgeon. The cutting a surgeon does, and the intricate patterns cut by someone on a jigsaw are similar. Both involve a talent for some meticulous cutting.

A word of caution: because many similes are clichés, they should be used with caution. Use of clichés like "eat like a bird" or "sleep like a log" could show a lack of creativity on the part of an author. Going back to our original example of "tears like diamonds," we can see that this isn't a commonly used phrase. (And it may be capable of evoking that emotive response a lot better than the bird simile because it doesn't suffer from overuse. Although "tears like diamonds" is a simile, it isn't a cliché. At a minimum, consider reworking clichés to something that isn't so tired. "Soft as down" is pretty over-used. Try "soft as a puppy's coat."

There may be a place for a cliché-spouting character in a novel, but this person should be deliberately crafted with a specific purpose. Otherwise avoid clichés like the plague. (I just couldn't help myself with that one.) For more on the perils of clichés and other figurative language, such as euphemisms ("downsized" for "fired"), see Lori Lake's May article in JAW: "Waves of Hoo-Haw, Howlers, and Other Bits of Hilarity."

As a general rule, be careful with metaphor use. Both similes and metaphors should be used deliberately and sparingly to impart those beautiful brush strokes throughout your fiction, leaving a lasting impression on the reader. If they're being thrown around haphazardly just to be clever, they won't ring true, nor will they be well received. Exert a little more energy in creating similes instead of using tired clichés, and you'll be rewarded with fiction that's more memorable to your reader.

In Summary
Use of imagery in fictional language is an art form. Invent your own creative illustrations and use them to jolt the reader, giving new perspective in your tale. However, beware of using figurative language without thoughtful purpose. If overdone, it can feel forced and false Instead, choose thoughtfully placed images and comparisons, not gimmicks, to enhance your writing.

Imagery, used judiciously, gives power to a story. These tools are especially helpful to explain difficult concepts to the reader in an economy of words. Get out your paintbrush and brighten up your writing by letting your imagination run wild.
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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