Imagery Writing: Images Are Not All Created Equal

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.

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Thinking about imagery writing? Soon your skills will transform from an ugly duckling into a beautiful…oh, wait. I’ve heard this one.

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.

Heavy-Handed Imagery

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.

Ill-Fitting Imagery

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.

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. 😉

Ditch the Flowery Writing During Your Action Scenes

Writers, here’s a useful piece of advice: ditch the flowery writing during your action scenes. This ties in with a note I give frequently, which is 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.

flowery writing, self indulgent writing
If your protagonist is running from a flesh-eating monster, don’t bog down the action with a detailed description of the night sky.

The Example

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.

In Action Scenes, Flowery Writing Slows the Pace

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!) The high res image — flowery writing — is unnecessary, so it comes across as self indulgent rather than a useful tool to advance the plot.

Sometimes Quick and Dirty Does the Trick

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 — flowery writing — 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. It doesn’t come across as self indulgent writing when the pace is more relaxed. (That doesn’t mean you can lapse in purple prose, though!)

I hope this short but effective reminder helps you ditch the unnecessary flowery writing as you start a new year of writing!

Are you worried that your manuscript is bogged down with flowery writing? Hire my fiction editing services and I’ll help you weed out what’s unnecessary.

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.

Overwriting in Writing Voice and Why It’s a Problem

Often, when I see writing voice from a newer writer or one who has just come out of a fiction class, I flag it for overwriting. What is overwriting? Basically, it’s a sense that the prose (and the writer behind it) is trying too hard to get their point across or impress the reader. It’s a chronic inability to kill your darlings. Sometimes I wonder if people who overwrite are trying to live up to some idea of “fiction writer” that exists in their heads … a scribe who uses $10 words and milks every image and otherwise packs every sentence until it’s dragging and bloated. They want to make sure we get they’re a real writer. Sometimes this process is at the front of their mind, sometimes it happens without them realizing.

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Dramatic scenes, high emotion, and moody setting are main traps for overwrought writing.

There are two types of overwriting that I see the most often.

Overwriting in Images

Lots of overwrought writing lives in the images. Writers often see perfect images in prose — images that work well — and they try their hand at creating something comparable, not knowing that the key to most perfect images is a) simplicity and b) isolation. Or they hear that images are supposed to be an objective correlative (a parallel for emotion). Maybe they know to load images with meaning, so they do their best to create multiple layers with each description. Or they hear that words are supposed to be mimetic of the action they’re describing, so they really bring out the active verbs. These are all fine instincts and great fiction craft tips, but they could easily go awry. For example:

Cold starlight shattered across the inky black-velvet expanse of the searching night. The frozen air sliced the last of the warmth from Cassandra’s lungs as she choked in a sputtering breath.

Wow! Lot’s of tension there. Each verb is razor-sharp and engineered to convey drama: “shattered,” “sliced,” and “choked.” The stars and the night sky are hostile (“cold” and “searching”). Cassandra is obviously in a dark and unfriendly world.

But imagine if every sentence was like this. Or every image worked this hard. It would get downright exhausting to read. Which brings me to the next sign of overwriting…

Hitting the Reader Over the Head

Simplicity is the natural opposite of overwriting (I’m Team Simplicity, or maybe Team Kill Your Darlings,  if anyone is wondering). Just as overwrought description is common in overwriting, it often goes hand in hand with its sister troll: hitting the reader over the head. In the example above, the world was hostile and cold. We got it. Redundancy is another way that a writer can hit their reader over the head.

This often happens when the writer thinks of not just one perfect image (their imagination is mightier than that!) but two or even three. Instead of opting for simplicity and choosing the one perfect image to convey what they mean, they go ahead and cram all three in. Let’s go back to poor Cassandra:

She grasped her cloak like a drowning woman grabbing a slippery lifeline. Her fingers scratched for the moth-worn fabric but it pulled apart like gossamer spiderweb. A tattered seam split down Cassandra’s side as she hugged the coat to herself, the noise like ice crumbling from a glacier, and the gape let in a stab of steel-cold night.

Simplicity in Writing Voice

We get it! It’s still cold and now her jacket’s a broken mess. This writer (me) really wanted the reader to get Cassandra’s desperation, so they introduced us to the image of a drowning woman. Next, I really wanted you to get that the coat is insubstantial … cue spiderweb metaphor. Then, just for fun, I loved the noise of ice separating from the glacier and I wanted to toss it on the heap (plus, this reinforces that — news flash — it’s really cold out there…genius!).

One of these images would’ve been fine. Two is pushing it. Three, and then all the extra cold imagery heaped on top? That’s overwrought writing. Pick one image and make it do the work instead of piling on every single thing you can think of. If you’ll notice, overwriting stops action. We’ve had five sentences and only two (more like one and a half) pieces of information: it’s cold, and Cassandra’s jacket isn’t great, which relates back to the cold. A lot of room to kill your darlings here.

Developing Your Writing Voice

Writers often get bored with the simple. A great example is the word “said.” To show off their chops (and their online thesaurus), they whip out all kinds of fancy “said” synonyms: “chortled,” “shrieked,” “argued.” Well, this is an amateur error because “said” blends in and it simply works. It doesn’t stop the action while the reader notices what a clever word you’re using, it keeps things flowing. Writers often think they’re saying something too simple, so they decide to jazz it up by going out of their way to say it differently.

This is where overwriting always swoops in. I understand it completely. Writers are chomping at the bit to write, to make up a new image, to really get their point across. But sometimes the simplest way of saying something — a way that’s still artful and expressive but also restrained — is the best. When you’re trying to show off in the prose, you lose sight of your real purpose: to tell a tale. When you’re trying to be understood through multiple images and repetition, you’re not giving your reader enough credit. Overwriting is all about trying too hard. Simplicity is all about letting the craft and the story speak for themselves.

Voice can be extremely tricky when learning to write fiction. Hire me to do developmental editing on your writing voice.