Imagery

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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.

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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 MG/YA 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 willget it.

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.

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.

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.

The examples convey a feeling of jamming a square peg in a round hole. The writer is working hard. Sweat is blooming on her brow. She really wants you toget 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!

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