I’ve been doing a lot of editing recently and have noticed a quirk regarding the practice of writing images that I’m totally guilty of. Instead of using imagery 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.
Writing Images: When It’s Too Much
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, I’m using imagery excessively: 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). Naturally, you want to stay away from vague writing — but you also want to stay away from writing images that pile up. (Even more thoughts on imagery writing here.)
Pick One Strong, Specific Image
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. (There’s a lot to say about writing descriptions. Click for more!)
So when you’re writing images, pick one strong, specific detail with potential emotional or characterizing undertones to it. Your aim isn’t using imagery 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, when you’re writing images, piling imagery onto one idea actually dilutes the effect instead of concentrating it.
If you find yourself piling imagery into your work, hire me as your novel editor. I’ll help you trim what’s unnecessary so that your imagery sparkles.