Recently, I’ve walked a few full novel editing clients through the use of imagery in description. I decided to write a post about it because there seems to be some confusion about what imagery is, when to use it, and why you’d want to in the first place. Read on!
What is Imagery in Writing?
I have an MFA in Creative Writing, and as you can imagine, us Creative Writing MFAs spend a lot of time sitting around in coffee houses, thinking about the building blocks of the fiction craft. (Just kidding! Sort of!) Well, one of those important building blocks is imagery.
An image is a description that is meant to evoke emotion. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. Because we all know that the number one thing a fiction writer must do is make the reader care.
So an image serves to deepen the reader’s understanding of what’s going on and how to feel about it. The image is a tool. It adds something. It enhances.
A lot of writers believe that an image is necessary for every situation. It isn’t. My preference would be that you use imagery more sparingly. That way, your figurative language will mean more.
When to Use Imagery in Description
So that brings up the question of when to use imagery. A big mistake I see in manuscripts is that writers use imagery when it really isn’t necessary.
Here’s a good example of imagery used incorrectly:
He was so hungry that he felt like a swarm of ravenous bees were buzzing around in his stomach.
There’s figurative language in this sentence (the bees). But what does it add? The information is: He was hungry. Does the image of “ravenous bees” and all of this activity in his stomach add anything to our understanding that he’s hungry? No. It’s restating the information and there’s no sense of depth or enhancement.
I’d argue that, here, there is no need for an image. A lot of writers are terrified of doing any kind of telling, and I understand why. And that’s where this overuse of imagery comes into play. But sometimes it’s better to just include information (our friend is hungry) and move on, rather than trying to make it into a Writing With a Capital “W” moment.
Here’s a good example of a situation where imagery works:
He watched her accept Jake’s promposal. Regret gnawed at him like a hungry tiger, and he stormed off, slamming three dozen red roses into the trash. Why hadn’t he made his move yesterday?
This is a bit of a melodramatic description, but the image here serves a purpose. It introduces the idea of a specific emotion that’s playing out inside him, and adds the layer of how deeply it affects him. Regret is like a predator, and he feels like prey–vulnerable, exposed.
This is an emotional moment, and the image spins it in a more visceral direction. The alternative would be:
He watched her accept Jake’s promposal, feeling regret. He stormed off, slamming three dozen red roses into the trash. Why hadn’t he made his move yesterday?
This has a lot of the same information, but it might be a little dry. Does it have the same resonance? That’s up to you as a writer. But it’s a good example of where an image might be desirable, if you’re the type to add embellishments to your significant and emotional moments.
Using Focused Imagery in Description
Another thing to consider is how much imagery to use. A reasonable description of regret, per the example above, instantly becomes overkill in an instance like this:
He watched her accept Jake’s promposal. Regret gnawed at him like a tiger, lashing into him like a thrashing shark, dripping into his veins like acid. He stormed off…
This might look like obvious redundancy to you, but it’s something I see all the time. Once a writer has decided that an occasional calls for imagery, they might decide that “more is more!” That’s actually not true.
Picking one specific and powerful image is going to focus your reader’s attention. Picking multiple related images to try and evoke the same emotional response will actually be counterproductive. Once you’ve identified an occasion that would benefit from imagery in description, pick one image and stick to it.
If you’ve gotten the feedback that your writing can sometimes slant toward cliché, really think about it and maybe pick the third or fourth image that comes to mind. You want to make sure you’re being evocative and fresh. That’s how you’re going to develop your writer’s voice.
On a lighter note, I hope that I never have to write the ridiculous word “promposal” ever again! 🙂
Struggling with voice, description, and imagery? I’m happy to help troubleshoot your manuscript in regards to these important concepts. Hire me as your novel editor, and we’ll dive in together!