Friday, November 2, 2007

Imagery - Real Description Techniques

The power of prose lies in the imagery. I know this instinctually, but putting it into practice without slipping into floridity is a tall task. I was reading something I wrote years ago. Lord, how it embarrasses me now. It’s so obvious that I was writing with a thesaurus at my hip. And I remember thinking how I was just the cat’s meow for being so creative. Are you there? Have you been there? I’m better now; I don’t pick up the thesaurus nearly as often. Simple is usually better.

But that still doesn’t help with how to get great imagery. I looked up imagery on wikipedia and it said “Imagery is any of the five senses (sight, touch, smell, hearing, and taste.)” Well that’s helpful, I thought, NOT! So I went hunting on the net (gotta love the net) for articles and examples of imagery. I found a lovely article by Stephen King on the subject, which you should really read it if you get the chance. But what I came away with after my search was be specific and be sense conscious. So let’s take a look at each of these aspects of creating imagery.

Drill down from this broad picture.

A city in a rainstorm.
A neighborhood.
A street corner.
A Time frame (Past/Present/Future)
Now for some questions…

Sight
What business or homes are on the corners?
Is there a bus stop?
Is there a mailbox?
Are the drains full of leaves?
Is the street flooding.
Is there anything colorful or drab?
Are there children outside?
Are there vehicles moving/sitting?
Are there potholes?
Are there oil-slicks making rainbows?
Is there one bright colored building in a sea of beige?
A rainbow?

Sound
Are there children playing?
Is there thunder?
Is the rain beating on corrugated metal?
Is it sheeting off an awning?
Are there sirens?
Are there car horns?
Is anyone dancing round a pole singing Singing In The Rain?
Cat meowing, scrabbling to come in?
Ratta-tat of rain hitting the (roof/sidewalk/whatever)

Smell
Ozone?
Decay?
Fresh rain smell?
Flowers?
Sewage?
Manure?
Wet dog (s)?
Diesel?
Smog?
Fire/Woodsmoke?

Taste
Is the rain full of chemicals and taste acrid on the tongue?
Fresh and clean?
Stagnant?
Sweet? Sour? Bitter? Salty?

Touch
Is it soft?
Hard?
Cold? Freezing?
Warm?
Burning?

These are only a few of thousands of details you could tap into. Now you could select the answers to any couple of questions in each category and have the beginnings to a great picture, great imagery.

The place with a dirt crossroads and a copse of alder trees on one corner and a tavern on another is very different than the one with asphalt roads and tightly packed row houses and a drug dealer on the corner.

There is purpose to this selection of details from your character’s POV, which is setting the tone and mood of your story or scene. For example in this sentence:

The rest [of the sky] had deepened into blueberry twilight with bright harsh points of starlight.

My characters were in what should be a romantic setting, but they’ve had a fight so when my POV character noticed the stars coming out (which under other, more normal, circumstances would be romantic) she sees them as being harsh points of light.

When I find an author I love, one of the things that hooks me is when they can build such a compelling picture and I slip into that headspace where I’m no longer seeing the words but a movie in my head, because the words are that evocative and that concrete and before I know it I’ve spent hours with their story. I love that.

Readers read to feel and the more vivid and engaging your descriptions, the more connected those descriptions are to your characters emotions, the more intense and satisfying the experience is for your reader. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

5 comments:

adam brown said...
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bernard n. shull said...
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TL said...

Jasmine - One of the most interesting places I've learned about imagery is in children's picture books. I especially love Hello Ocean by Pam Munoz Ryan. Everything boils down to the word and sentence level in children's books. Another amazing book is Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. To me, imagery is about crafting, and crafting is an art -painting images on a canvas of paper with the brushstrokes of words. TL

Anonymous said...

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A. Catherine Noon said...

I agree that imagery, and painting a clear picture, is a real challenge. Like you, when I started out, I adored language and would try to create rich pictures with my vocabulary. Sadly, it made for dense, purple prose. I've learned to simplify it but every once in a while, I think of a really crunchy word that I just wish I could use.

For those, there's poetry.

:) See? Problem solved.

I like the questions you pose in your post; those are good ones for thinking about our story world.