Heavy-Handed Imagery and Theme

I was recently working on a novel outline, helping the writer flesh the idea out so that they had the strongest possible “road map” to work from when writing their story. It’s a service that I really like because I push writers to consider all aspects of their story before they invest the time and energy in turning the idea into a manuscript. I believe it makes the writing process tighter and easier. It also leads to less long-term headache because we’re figuring things out ahead of time that most people don’t realize until revision. Well, this writer happened to have a very specific theme in mind. In fact, I believe the theme might’ve been the idea kernel that set the whole story in motion. Unfortunately, the story idea was mostly just a vehicle for this theme. In other words, the theme was so prominent that it became heavy-handed.

Why is this an issue? Well, in the case of this story, the writer could’ve easily turned the theme into a motivational poster and left it at that. You know those inspirational quote squares that are all over your Instagram and Facebook feeds? One of those. Why write a novel when all you want to do is communicate an idea that can be summed up in one sentence? This is why theme-heavy story ideas hardly ever work. There’s simply not enough nuance for the reader to be interested in digging deeper. “The point of the story is so front and center, what is there for me to do?” the reader might ask.

A lot of writers have such strong themes. It’s not bad to have a theme. In fact, every story needs at least one. The issue becomes how to express it. If you’re quite subtle about it, you may not be communicating your idea clearly. But I hardly ever see this problem. Much more likely is the issue of overt theme.

Picture books probably suffer the most from theme overload. Many writers are extremely tempted by the idea of putting a wise adult character into their stories for young readers that voices the theme outright. “And that’s why,” the kind grandmother said, “it’s so important to share.”

Yuck. That belongs on a classroom poster. Not at the heart of a story. Now, if you show a character’s life being enriched by sharing, that’s another thing. That lets the reader see the benefits of sharing for himself, and to make the connection that sharing is probably great on his own.

In novels, theme usually manifests itself in imagery. Let’s go back to my client’s story. It was a classic coming of age, where the character goes on a journey of self-discovery. Now I’ll depart from the actual idea for the sake of anonymity. What images can we use to talk about transformation, freedom, and self-expression? I know. Butterflies! They go from weird caterpillars to beautiful creatures. The journey is painful. The outcome uncertain. They crawl on the ground and then, all of a sudden, they take flight. These images are evocative and they fit the theme. In that sense, using the image of butterflies to communicate a coming of age theme is a home run, right?

The problem is, this image is heavy-handed. Too many writers have gotten to it already. It feels very familiar. There’s nothing fresh here. Unfortunately, more creativity is required not only to avoid clichés in writing, but to couch the theme in a way that’s thought-provoking, and not just a shortcut.

I would wager that if you were reading a YA novel about a character’s personal transformation, and the climactic scene took place in a botanical garden where there’s a butterfly exhibit, and the main character let a butterfly take flight from the tip of her finger, you would…groan a little? It’s been done. It’s a part of a very obvious conversation.

If you innovate in terms of your imagery as it pertains to your key theme, you will likely get a more engaged reader out of the bargain. What is your theme? What images are you using to convey it? How can you freshen up those images, make them more unexpected, ask the reader to use their imagination more?

After all, the world is your…abalone. 😉

Picking a Level of Description

I often tell writers that good writing is about the balance of action and information. I’m also always telling writers about mimetic writing. The other day, with an editorial client, I thought of a great image that helped them conceptualize these ideas in a way that made sense.

Let’s say that we have a getaway car. It’s assumed that it will be used in a chase sequence, which is primarily action. Per the idea of mimetic writing, the narrative style of this passage should be quick and to the point, since we’re dealing with a scene that’s meant to move quickly.

Now think about a camera taking a picture of the getaway car in order to convey what it looks like to the reader. This camera can take amazing high resolution images, or it can take grainy “potato quality” shots like you’d find coming from a middle-of-the-line cell phone. In this case, a many-megabyte high resolution picture of the getaway car might be beautiful, but if we try to work with that picture or send it to someone (the reader), it’s going to be a huge attachment, it’ll take time to upload, and it’ll clog up their email bandwidth. (Unless they have fiber, in which case this analogy is useless!)

For the chase sequence, then, we’d be fine with a quick, grainy snapshot of the getaway car so that we can get on with the action and not get bogged down with information. Here the balance swings to action rather than information. If we’re establishing a very important setting, then the beautiful high res image is very appropriate, and the balance swings to information. The reader wants to know the delicate details, and you can dwell on them more, taking your time.

I hope this short but effective reminder helps you craft tight and effective prose as you start a new year of writing!

Three When One Will Do

I’ve been doing a lot of editing recently and have noticed a quirk that I’m totally guilty of. Instead of choosing one very strong image that says it all, writers don’t quite trust their readers to get it (a very common problem) and are dogpiling several related ideas into one sentence of description.

For example:

Looking at the buffet, she was so famished that she could swallow it all in one gulp, leaving nothing left, licking even the grease trap of the giant rotisserie oven clean.

Girl is hungry, we get it! (Side note: Don’t try and write examples on an empty stomach.) Here we have three images, one weak (leaving nothing left), one medium (swallow it all in one gulp) and one very strong and specific (the grease trap thing).

The reason I went a bit off the deep end with the final image is that it is unusual, descriptive, and teaches us a little bit about character while conveying the same information as the other two–not only is she hungry, but she’s a little grungy, and knows her way around a kitchen. There are people who just want the tenderloin steak, and then there are people who want the gristle and bones to gnaw clean. The strange way her mind goes to the drippy, fat-caked grease trap puts her firmly in the latter camp.

So pick one strong, specific image with potential emotional or characterizing undertones to it. Your aim isn’t to give a reader information as many times as possible, it’s to do it once, and ideally in a memorable way. Less is more. In fact, in writing, piling imagery onto one idea actually dilutes the effect instead of concentrating it.

Explaining the Joke in Writing

Explaining the joke in writing is so tempting. Everyone knows the feeling of loving a joke so much yet having it fall flat. Then, instead of accepting defeat, explaining to everyone how the joke works and why it’s so brilliant. If you’re me, you might also strongly imply that your audience is somehow deficient for failing to laugh.

If any of you have heard me speak or taken one of my middle grade or young adult webinars, you may remember the lame Twilight vampire/”high stakes” joke that I try and shoehorn in every time. It has met with a tepid response from Idaho to Japan but I keep on trying because, well, I’m convinced that one day I’ll fall upon the perfect audience that will get it.

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Do you get it? I mean, really get it? Because the joke is…

Explaining the Joke in Writing Is Unnecessary

If you’re in this boat with me, we all need a wake-up call. Sometimes a bit of cleverness or specificity doesn’t have the payoff you’re seeking. This doesn’t just apply to jokes, of course. I see this phenomenon at work especially with imagery in people’s writing.

An example from the actual literary canon  (rather that some stupid made-up thing that I wrote last minute) that has always bothered me: “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” by Adrienne Rich. This has literally vexed me FOR OVER A DECADE.

Adrienne Rich is a wonderful poet, may she rest in peace. And this is poem reproduced widely in many school texts and taught all over the place, which is a testament to her talent. But the work itself is rather–please excuse the obvious pun–heavy-handed. I’ve included a link so you can read it, above.

Uncle’s wedding band is heavy on Aunt Jennifer’s hand. Her hands are ringed with ordeals she was mastered by. She’s desperately stitching a bunch of tigers. The tigers are not afraid of any men. The tigers are free, ironically, while Aunt Jennifer is caged. Etc. etc. etc.

Avoid Redundancy in Writing

Here Rich explains the images over and over again, in case you didn’t get it the first three times. She works very hard to make sure you know exactly where she’s going with the poem. In this case, I can let it go (I guess!) because the image works with the story that the poet is telling. Wedding bands, hands, etc. all tie into the symbolism of a woman feeling trapped in a marriage.

There are times when writers are just as insistent about images, however, and the image isn’t successful to begin with, like my lame vampire joke. This is something to watch out for in your own work. If you catch yourself trying a little too hard to CONVEY THE PERFECT-EST THING EVER to the reader, you may be picking either the wrong image or something so specific that it’s not going to be  resonant enough.

Avoid Heavy-Handed Imagery

Some less-than-graceful examples would be these stupid made-up things that I’m writing last minute:

The sound of the children’s laughter bounced down the hallway like a tin can full of quarters bouncing down a concrete staircase.

It was her turn to go up and give the science presentation. Nerves shot up Nellie’s spine like that feeling she always got when breaking down a cardboard box and feeling the brown paper surfaces rasping against one another.

These are not successful images to me. The first one is off because the two things being compared have very little connecting them. The writer may have once heard the perfect tin can full of quarters and it could make total sense to her to compare it to children’s laughter, but it’s more likely that the link exists only in her head.

The same idea goes for the second image, and here it’s like the writer is trying very hard to describe exactly what this type of nervousness feels like but it’s too specific to have that frisson of recognition or universality. I happen to hate anything the results from pieces of cardboard touching one another, but that’s me, and my personal biases may not belong in the scene about Nellie’s science presentation.

Aim for Organic Humor and Imagery

The examples convey a feeling of jamming a square peg in a round hole. It’s heavy-handed imagery. The writer is working hard. Sweat is blooming on her brow. She really wants you to get it. Oftentimes, though, the best images, jokes, turns of phrase, etc. are more simple and organic than that. Keep an eye out for instances where you might be explaining the joke at the expense of your true meaning and goal in the moment.

Also, a round of applause to Bethanie Murguia, whose SNIPPET THE EARLY RISER was reviewed in the New York Times yesterday!

Are you working hard and not getting anywhere in your writing? Maybe you’re working too hard. Hire me as your developmental editor, and I can help you decide where to best apply your creative energy.