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Theme, Imagery, and Description

This is quite literally a literary grab-bag of thoughts. The things mentioned in the title — theme, imagery, and description — are important considerations when revising a manuscript, but they usually come into play below the surface. Things like plot, character and dialogue are obvious, they’re right in the reader’s face.

It’s the subtler things that can really make or break your work, though. And a huge part of revising is seeing what common threads and themes you’ve left for yourself. It’s like magic. Your subconscious usually puts lots of things in your manuscript for you to find on a second or third read… connections you never knew you’d made, common images and ideas that resonate with the larger meaning of your work, all sorts of interesting stuff.

When you revise, think about what your work is saying. You’ve got to have a reason for writing it. There should be distinct themes and ideas that you could point to as the center of your book. GRACELING isn’t just an awesome fantasy story about people with special talents, for example. It’s also about one’s place in the world, duty, honor and empowerment. Those are the ideas that Kristin Cashore weaves into the manuscript, her themes.

Once you know what these are — and you usually won’t until you’ve started revising — you can use them as a lens. This sort of fits with the point I’ll be making about voice before the month is out. A theme for your work should color everything in it, subtly, especially the descriptions. If you’re working with a theme and a plot with a lot of loneliness in it, settings aren’t “empty,” they’re “desolate,” which has a much stronger resonance with the themes you’ve set out to play with. Filter your writing, your descriptions, your characterizations, through the lens of the bigger idea or theme that you want to work with.

The next time you’re reading a really well-written book, think about how the author is using imagery, description, metaphor, all of those fancy-pantsy literary devices that usually crystalize during revision. I bet all of the author’s prose seems to just fit with the plot and the theme of the work. In writing, everything is a choice. When you get to the really fine-tuning work of a fifth or sixth pass revision, you’re looking for all the little places where you can make the right choice. If you’re setting up a scene where a person is alone in their snowbound house, you wouldn’t say that a “boisterous” wind rattled the windows, you’d maybe say, “a pang of wind made the glass shiver,” or whatever.

Everything has to fit. From the way you describe a scene to the verbs you use to the seemingly-innocuous metaphor you choose for your character’s frame of mind at the moment. I hate putting labels on it like “theme” or “message” (because you really don’t want to be teaching anyone stuff with your fiction writing, readers, especially kids, don’t cop to that sort of thing) but there really should be something larger at work, something subtle but everpresent, in your novel. It’s in revision that it gets teased out and crafted. Every sentence should ring with it… whatever it is that you want your reader to feel and experience as they’re moving through your story.

In that same vein, don’t overload on the literary stuff either. Don’t go crazy with metaphors and similes to the point where every sentence has a “like” or “as” in it. And don’t go crazy with description, either. Those days when readers indulged in long, lavish scene-setting and endless purple prose are over.

The best description gets the job done quickly and economically. I like to tell people that the best writing comes from very specific, extremely well-chosen details. Let one or two perfectly-picked specifics do the work of paragraphs. Isn’t it enough for me to say, “Dinah saw that her thong was sticking out past the waistband of her jeans, blushed, and pulled her pants a notch lower,” for you to get what Dinah’s about as a character? I don’t have to describe her push-up bra or skimpy tank top or hooker heels or the silver cross nestled ironically in her cleavage… you get it right from the thong-flash.

So make intelligent choices that fit the larger goal of your work. Think like an MFA student for a day and make sure your images and descriptions match your theme. Cut out blocks of description and replace them with well-chosen details. See if you can’t make your writing tighter and more effective, sentence to sentence, page by page.

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  1. Shelley Moore Thomas’s avatar

    You know, this is very true…(of course, YOU know it’s true, or you wouldn’t have written it!) The subconscious does stick lots of little thing in the story that become clear only during revision.

    I have a piece awaiting revision and I’m going to print this out and save it for when I’m ready to tackle it.

    Thanks, Mary!

  2. Brian F.’s avatar

    When talking to writers about these elements, I point them to David Almond’s KIT’S WILDERNESS. I think it’s about the most technically perfect novel there is in terms of using imagery and description to evoke theme. Efficiency of language and not a single ill-chosen word.

  3. Bane’s avatar

    This is one of your best posts yet, IMO. Thank you for all your wonderful advice.

  4. Mary’s avatar

    Bane — That’s so sweet of you! I was wondering if this was too disorganized to work well, er, I mean… I planned it this way all along. :)

  5. Sheryl Gwyther’s avatar

    Mary, very insightful post.
    I agree with Brian F – reading David Almond’s work, espec ‘Kit’s Wilderness’ and ‘Skellig’ is a sure way of recognising (and hopefully soaking up his magic touch) a masterful use of imagery and description.

    Thank you for your posts. I love getting them pop up on my Facebook!

    Wishing you a very happy Christmas all the way from Down Under.

  6. Theresa Milstein’s avatar

    Imagery and description provide the necessary window-dressing, while theme is the heart of the story, so it would seem that they might not work together as a theme for a post. If an author wrote a query, the manuscript’s theme would be provided. But imagery and description are the parts that may not be conveyed in a query, yet they tell more about the writer.

    I agree that theme, imagery, and description all work together to make the story one worth reading. Plot, character and dialogue are the first components an author works on (and probably the easiest to teach), but the others reveal the author’s distinct voice and talent. Weaving them seamlessly into a manuscript is probably the greatest challenge.

    I look forward to your posts this month to see where this goes.

  7. Anita’s avatar

    This post really hit a note for me. The fiction that I enjoy has the above aspects that you are talking about- something subtle yet powerful woven through the work. And after it’s all said and done you just spend a few days thinking about the many layered meanings and themes. I can only hope to achieve this with my writing. Thank you for this post!

  8. Karen Cioffi’s avatar

    Thanks for a great explanation of using theme imagery and description. I feel like I’m taking classes reading your posts.

    I’ll read this again when I’m working on my revisions.

  9. Melissa’s avatar

    I loved the post, Mary.

  10. aj finnegan’s avatar

    These posts for revision are getting better and better! Thanks for taking the time to do this :)

    After reading your “Show, Don’t Tell” post, I went back to reading Pride & Prejudice (I’ve been dying to ever since I finished P&P&Zombies!) and happened to be in the scene where Darcy asks Elizabeth if her feelings have changed, and such, and HERE is the climax of the romance, and here we get what?! Only a few paragraphs in which she TELLS us how pleased Darcy was, and how pleased Elizabeth was, and how happy they were that they’d worked it all out. And I just started laughing because I thought of your post, and how one of the most famous of all novels (and authors) totally blew it right there. For me, anyway. No dialogue?! Just “Well, they were both quite happy about stuff, so that’s all you gotta know.” AHH! :) And yet we get pages and pages of Mrs. Bennet and Lydia going off about hairbows and such. And still, I love it. Love it, love it . . . just wish there could be a little more “show” in the best spots, and less in others :)

  11. Stina’s avatar

    Great advice! I’m going to go through my ms again just to make sure I did do as you advised.

  12. Mary’s avatar

    Amy — Well, to keep things in perspective, telling was much more in vogue when P&P was written. That sort of style just doesn’t fly anymore. :)

  13. Liesl’s avatar

    I found your site from you interview with GLA. I love it! This is a great post, such wonderful advice, and Graceling is one of my favorites so I can see what you’re saying.

    “The best description gets the job done quickly and economically. I like to tell people that the best writing comes from very specific, extremely well-chosen details.”

    I like that especially, because I do think these things can be overdone and since I’m deep in revisions and starting to pay attention to theme and imagery, I’m wondering how I can flesh them out but not beat them to a pulp. I like my guacamole slightly chunky, you know, and I’m finding that less is always more.

    I’m excited to read more of your blog!

  14. Eliza Osborn’s avatar

    Sometimes even side characters’ names can illustrate theme, imagery and description. Like Prim from THE HUNGER GAMES — the name reminds me over and over again of what Katniss is fighting for: the kind, innocent people in the world.

  15. Mary’s avatar

    Eliza — Well, Dickens was KING of this technique. A woman alone with her delusions? Miss Havisham (Have-a-sham). Etc. This is a bit of a Victorian tactic but, in your HUNGER GAMES example, works very well for the right story.

  16. Linda Wilt’s avatar

    I remember reading The Great Gatsby back in high school, and thinking that the teacher was just “reading into” it, telling us that his friends’ names being Endive, etc., showed that they were insubstantial, and that sort of thing. I didn’t believe that someone would have all of those little details in their head while they were writing, and that Fitzgerald was just a victim of English Lit. teachers with too much time on their hands.

    When I wrote my MS, however, I realized that it was full of those things, too, things that I had not thought of as I was writing but were integral to the novel.

    Fitzgerald was so clever!

  17. Mary’s avatar

    Linda — I think that some novels are definitely victims of “reading into it” but, the truth is, lots of thematic things come out under the surface, so even the author is unaware that they’ve made connections within their work!

  18. Constance Lombardo’s avatar

    Thank you for this great post. We did an exercise on theme in my writing class, and it had an enormous impact on my manuscript. I look forward to reading more on this site!

  19. paulette’s avatar

    i was just thinking about this today, so i’m glad to have stumbled on your post. I pushed away from my computer and asked myself ‘what the heck am i trying to write’. Subtle, but there. I’m hoping my subconscious remembered to write it in LOL. I look forward to the revising-read to see just what it was :)

  20. Linda McLaren’s avatar

    Oooo I just love this post. I’m exactly at the point with my editing to keep what you’re saying in the front of my mind! I love, love, love this post!
    Just perfect!

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