When we think about the writing craft, it’s easy to focus on imagery writing. After all, finding fun, creative, or beautiful comparisons is a huge part of a writer’s job. Right? Well, sure. But not all images are created equal.
Obvious Imagery and Clichés
Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. – C.S. Lewis
Perhaps the first consideration of any image you use should be: Does this image enhance a reader’s understanding of the moment?
A lot of images fail this test right away. For example:
He glowed like the sun.
Her tone was sharp, like barbed wire.
Not only are both of these clichés, and telling, but the bigger issue is: They just aren’t needed. “Glowed” does the work of suggesting light and warmth. That’s what the sun does, too. So you don’t need it. “Sharp” is already describing the character’s tone, so an image of barbed wire (also sharp!) is redundant.
The best imagery adds to our appreciation of what’s happening, and maybe introduces a surprising or unexpected idea. Take, for example:
He extended the coffee. Such a simple exchange, but in that moment, it looked like a rope that could drag me back into the real world.
Here, it’s a coffee. Easy peasy. Then the reader might be surprised to learn that it’s more than just a coffee to the character, it’s a lifeline of sorts. The image doesn’t just describe what’s happening or offer another, similar idea. It adds a new idea that changes the original action or context and gives it layers.
The takeaway is that images have to work. They have to do new work, not redo work you’ve already done. They have to enhance. You have to ask yourself, is an image even necessary here? Does this moment even require an image to really make it clear (a lot of moments don’t, yet are piled with imagery anyway)? Sometimes, you can leave well enough alone. Sometimes, imagery can be overkill.
Per a previous article, I’d like to remind you that heavy-handed imagery is not your friend. In the same vein as the above, it’s very easy to overdo imagery. Not just in terms of redundancy. But in terms of meaning, too.
Great images add or deepen meaning, but it’s possible to use this power of theirs for evil. In other words, it’s possible to get too deep and too meaningful.
Let me rewrite the example from above:
He extended the coffee. Such a simple exchange, but in that moment, it became my lifeline, a life preserver in stormy water that made all the difference between me floating and drowning.
The first example may not be incredibly deft because I hate writing examples, but this revision hits the ground like a lead balloon. Clunk. So heavy, so obvious.
Your images are not the time nor the place to preach your themes. As with cliché images or unnecessary images, remember that less is often more. If you can make an image appropriately profound, without hitting your reader over the head, absolutely do so.
If you find yourself working hard to get your message out, realize that you are probably working too hard. And it will show. This is good writing advice in general, and I give it probably once or twice a day: Stop working so hard, trust that you’re getting across, and trust that your readers are following. It applies twofold to images, where “trying too hard” is glaringly obvious.
You want to make sure that your imagery writing matches the mood and content of your scene. I wish I could show you some examples from work I’ve read, but out of respect for writer privacy, I cannot share. You may look at the two sentences below and think, No way are people writing images that are this weird. But they are. Every day. You may have even written some yourself. It is not as uncommon as it seems! Take, for example:
She relaxed into his wonderful embrace, warm like an attic that hadn’t been opened for years.
He drove the ball into the end zone, glowing like a languid sunrise over the prairie.
Huh? The first sentence conveys warmth and a happy mood. But a stuffy attic, while warm, is not happy. Just because the temperature fits doesn’t mean it’s a similar type of warmth. Same for the second image. We’re in the middle of an intense sports scene. The peaceful, slow sunrise over amber waves of grain has no place in a loud, frantic moment.
So what are the key bullet points with imagery?
- Don’t use too much. Not everything needs writerly frosting.
- Only use them when they will deepen and enhance understanding. Focus on emotional moments for your character, for example.
- But not too deep! Avoid the temptation to Be Profound because Images Make You a Writer With a Capital W. They don’t. Often, they get in the way and show your nervous writer sweat.
- If you’re going to use an image, pick one that fits. An awkward image is going to raise eyebrows and pull the reader out of scene.
Is your writing hitting the right balance of beauty and substance? I’ll be your novel editor and steer you toward your authentic writing voice.