What you need to work on in your writing isn't description it's imagery.
By Gila Green
If you write fiction you've probably been told dozens of times to include vivid description, work on your description, and not to forget description. Likely, you've also been reminded not to overdo it on the description. Unfortunately, being told to include vibrant description that brings your words to life is often well, the wrong description.
What writers really need to do is weave effective imagery into their work.
That's worth repeating. What you need to work on in your writing isn't description it's imagery.
What's the difference?
Let's do a quick writing exercise.
Describe a car.
My heroine drives a blue, five-seater Ford with one broken seat belt.
This description can best be described as visual stimulation. There's nothing wrong with it, but it's not imagery. Description doesn't have to be vivid. Imagery is vivid language that appeals to our senses.
Here's the same writing exercise again using imagery: My heroine drives a car that is the shade of blue that flusters car fans and enters their dreams night after night. It is a car made for motion, all lines and curves.
Okay, so this is overwriting for the average car we find in a novel, but you see the point. The crucial element is to connect your imagery to the emotion you want the reader to feel. Use imagery to reinforce your theme, focus or message. You cannot have too much imagery if it suits the piece. Wild imagery may not suit everyone's tastes, but that doesn't mean it's not a great fit for your work.
Imagery is a literary device you must practice and develop over time. Here are a few tips for developing this all-important tool:
- Great verbs. Compare went, walk, go, look, drink, find, move with blab, swoon, stank, splash, crash, chant, crack, clamp and grip.
- Similes. This advice is often about avoiding cliches. Cute as a button, brave as a lion, busy as a bee and cheap as dirt should be avoided. Consider Alex Sheal's Before the Storm piece, "… we swooned this way and that as if on a deck of a storm-swept ship."Or from the same piece, "…flashing like bonfire sparks in a bottomless night?"
- Dialogue. Yes, great dialogue can evoke imagery! If one character tells another to wear soft colors or that she feels her husband lives in the shadows, this is all vivid imagery. Many authors ignore imagery in dialogue and it's a wasted opportunity. True, people don't usually speak like poets (unless your character is a poet, of course) but they often speak in imagery. Who hasn't had a pounding headache?
- Alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds—not letters). This is one of my favorites. For example, one of my short story titles is Spider Places and another is called White Zion. In the latter example, the 'I' is not a consonant, but the idea is the same. The sound repetition provides a dose of vivid imagery.
- Smell. Smell offers particularly vivid imagery for many readers. Compare "it smells good" with "it smells like burnt sugar" which combines smell with a simile.
- Nature. Wild thunderstorms, heart-stopping hurricanes, beating hot suns, and bone-chilling waves all make for powerful imagery in fiction.
The next time your editor or writing group tells you they are bored, the writing is flat, lacks emotion or other similar criticisms, highlight all of the descriptions in your piece and work on changing some of them from the overused tool 'description' to the underused device 'imagery.'
See what happens. Your story might finally take flight, soar off the page, whiz into the air.