Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Writing Tips - Imagery 101

Descriptive writing is an art. Luckily, it's an art most writers, with practice, can learn. The best descriptive writing often makes use of the various techniques of imagery. Although overuse of any one of these various techniques will definitely result in "purple prose," careful and judicious use will add much flair and vibrancy to your work.

One of my favorite descriptive passages (and favorite descriptive writers) is the opening of In the Forest by the great Irish writer, Edna O'Brien:

Woodland straddling two counties and several townlands, a drowsy corpus of green, broken only where the odd pine has struck up on its own, spindly, freakish, the stray twigs on either side branched, cruciform-wise. In the interior the trapped wind gives off the rustle of a distant sea and the tall slender trunks of the spruces are so close together that the barks are a sable-brown the light becoming darker and darker into the chamber of non-light. At the farthest entrance under the sweep of a brooding mountain there is a wooden hut choked with briars and brambles where a dead goat decomposed and stank during those frantic, suspended, and sorrowing days. It was then the wood lost its old name and its old innocence in the hearts of the people.

This is not only uncommonly gorgeous prose, it also sets the place and tone of the novel. It tells us something about the way the narrator thinks.

There are several techniques you can use to deepen the imagery in your fiction writing. When you're writing your first draft, you should give yourself permission to overuse any of them. When you revise and polish, you can take out the ones that don't quite work and keep the ones you love.

Two of the most common techniques for creating and deepening imagery are similie and metaphor and you're probably very familiar with both of them.

A similie is a comparison of two unlike things linked by the word "like" or "as."

"The stars were strewn like diamonds across the sky" is a similie. Stars, of course, are not diamonds, but it is possible to compare them to diamonds - and many other things.

"Her hair is like my hair," is not a similie because the writer is not comparing dissimilar things. He's comparing hair to well, hair.

Metaphors are similar to similies in that they compare two unlike things, but they do it without using the words "like" or "as." Metaphors are more subtle than similies, yet they can be more powerful as well.

"The kite was a symphony of color in the wind," is a metaphor. Kites, after all, really aren't symphonies of any kind, except of course, in fiction.

"Her dark gaze was a dagger of jealousy and hate," is another metaphor. A gaze, of course, can never be a dagger.

Even though similies should be used sparingly, metaphors should be used even more sparingly still. As I wrote earlier, it's perfectly fine to overdo in your first draft, but be careful in your final one.

One of the easiest ways to create imagery is through a simple analogy. "The garden path is a maze of twists and turns" is a simple analogy, neither a similie nor a metaphor. We aren't comparing the garden path to a dissimilar thing.

A zeugma is a rarely used comparative technique, but when it's done right, it can be very beautiful. A zeugma is simply a word that's used twice, in two different ways.

One of the best examples of a zeugma is from the Paul Simon song, "Duncan" and goes like this: "Holes in my confidence, holes in the knees of my jeans."

In the first case, of course, the word "holes" is metaphorical; in the second, it's literal.

Repetition can be a powerful device to use in writing, but be extra careful not to overdo this one. Faulkner often repeated a word in a paragraph that had appeared in the immediately preceeding one as a way of tying his work together. It worked beautifully for him, but remember, none of us are Faulkner...yet.

You can repeat phrases and images as well. Just be careful or you'll render this powerful device ineffective.

Irony is saying the opposite of what's really meant. If one of your characters is sitting and crying her eyes out and another character walks by and asks, "Well, happy now?" that's irony.
Irony should be obvious in the statement itself. You shouldn't have to tell your reader a character is speaking in an ironic manner.

Character names often mean quite a lot to some authors. A character can be named "Hope" or "Solita" for very good reasons other than the fact that the author simply likes the sound of the name. The unreliable male narrators in Irish author John Banville's books almost always have highly significant names. "Max Morden," the protagonist of Banville's 2005 Booker winning novel The Sea is one. So is the family called "the Graces."

A character has to have a name that "fits," but a character doesn't have to have a name that's significant. In fact, if you choose to use a significant name, you should limit it to one character only or it's going to be way too obvious to even the dullest reader.

The use of symbols is another way to add beautiful imagery to your fiction writing. I love symbols. I could write a book about symbols and nothing else. But I won't.

If you choose to include a symbol or symbols in your writing, you need to be very, very subtle about it. For example, we all know the Statue of Liberty symbolizes freedom, but to use this in a story would be trite and cliche, it's so obvious. However, the cooing of a mourning dove to symbolize sadness or melancholy could be used effectively. Withered and faded flowers could symbolize a death of some kind. Rain is often used to symbolize many things, some of them happy and some sad depending on the story and how the symbol is used.

Don't, for heaven's sake, tell your reader what your symbol means. It's your job to choose the right symbol and integrate it into the story perfectly; it's the reader's job to be perceptive enough to know what it means.

One of my favorite symbols is the green light on the Buchanan's dock in F. Scott Fitzgerald's quintessential novel of the Jazz Age, The Great Gatsby. What does it mean? It's your job to figure it out. Fitzgerald was a masterful writer and he wisely didn't tell us.

Ninety-nine percent of the stories I read contain no imagery or contain imagery used in the wrong way. More than ninety-nine percent of the stories I read could benefit from one of more of the techniques of imagery used in the right way.

Writers of short stories have so many tools at their disposal. We aren't like the screenwriter or the poor playwright who must forego description. Make use of these techniques to deepen your story and to increase the emotional power and beauty of your prose. If you overuse them at first, that's fine. Overusing them is one way to learn to use them judiciously. Using them judiciously and properly is a very, very good way to catch the eye of an editor or publisher. And that, I think, is one of the goals of almost everyone who writes.

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