Humans are highly visual creatures, and this holds true when we are reading. We don’t see the images in the book, we form them in our minds. Pack in brilliant verbal imagery and your readers will enjoy and remember your book.
Drawing powerful verbal imagery is a skill that defines natural-born writers, but it can also be learned. Here are five things to think about with respect to using the power of the pen to draw images.
1. Be aware of visual imagery
The first step is heightening your awareness of verbal imagery and how it works. When you read a new book, or write, take note.
We think of words as words – black ink on a white page. But they are more: they paint colorful pictures from the action, people, and settings of a story world. Check it out for yourself. Take a paragraph from any book you are reading and do an image “density test.” Count all the images that form in your mind as you read along. Is it a large and diverse number?
It depends on what you are reading, but in many books, it’ll be each sentence, or even each phrase — e.g. “Silent, he nodded and looked out the window at the windmill by the still lake.” That sentence evokes four images – a man nodding, a window, a windmill, and a lake scene.
Here’s the opening sentence of Ransom Riggs’ Library of Souls:
The monster stood not a tongue’s length away, eyes fixed on our throats, shriveled brain crowded with fantasies of murder.
How many images do you get from that? Almost every word is a new one. How does the image density of your writing compare?
2. Actively write in images
Many authors say they see events unfold in their own minds and then they write them down. This is a great way to get visual writing. You can heighten this by purposefully engineering memorable images into your work.
Whether or not you remember the details of any of the Godzilla movies, you know what Godzilla looks like. What’s the single most memorable image from the Jurassic Park movie franchise? Is it the T. Rex sniffing out the kids in the car?
Often, it’s a useful technique to render an abstract idea into symbolic imagery to give it punch or make it easily understood and memorable. The scar on Harry Potter’s forehead is a brilliant example. It represents his past, his link with Voldemort, and his fate. Harry just has to show it or touch it in pain for readers to know something big is about to happen.
3. Keep the quality of your visual imagery in mind when you edit
If you can’t form an image about what is being described, likelihood is you probably don’t know exactly what is going on. So how would a reader know?
Have you ever tried editing expressly for visual content? Doing so can bring surprising rewards. You might find new ways to express abstract ideas. You might clean up some fluffy or confusing text. You might be inspired to add creative details.
If you read a phrase or sentence and fail to clock an image, you might find that it wasn’t fully imagined. Editing to improve visual interest is often about making abstract things more concrete. This is ubiquitously thought of as a good thing in terms of writing advice. Why say “his car got keyed,” when you can say “his usually pristine black Porsche 911 had an ugly, uneven scar that stretched from the driver’s side mirror to the tail light.” The second one is not only a stronger image, you wince harder. Why say “I fell in love” when you can give a few examples of blushing, tripping because you’re distracted, and sitting with your head in your hands daydreaming and get your “show don’t tell” out of the way too?
Great writing is about giving a reader enough detail to let them see the world you are presenting – without overdoing it. At best, they need some wiggle room to see your story world as they want to.
4. Understand why key types of information work better as a picture
Some things just work better visually. This is because they depend on having all the knowledge at once, on some form of complex structure in space or time, or the linkages between entities. Such information clusters are hard to render in words – no matter how many you use or how artfully you arrange them on the page.
Think about a map or a family tree. These are common images printed in books – words just can’t do them justice – or fit into equal space. If you do need to describe difficult images, it’s about getting out the most important information first – the structure and the types of connection. Then come the relevant details, which a reader can now map onto a visual framework they are holding in their head.
On a map, it’s about how features are related to each other in space that matters. A mountain pass leads to a valley with a river that flows to the sea upon which sits City A, and between that and City B lies a desert. Same with dynastic or familial relationships, and the whys and wheres different characters appear in the timeline can be critical to your story.
5. Use imagery to your best advantage
We all know the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words.” The trick of images is that they present all their information simultaneously. You might want to linger over The Mona Lisa to take in her finer details and soak in the mood, but it’s all there as you lay eyes on her.
Now imagine the many words it would take to describe The Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile to give detail equivalent to seeing her in person. It’s likely not possible, no matter how meticulously you picked your words, how artfully you ordered them, or how many you allowed yourself.
So, flip this and use the power of visual imagery to your advantage. Humans have a huge range of cultural images. Save 1,000 words every time you use an apt image. Think of a man who builds his wife somewhere to live. If you say, “he built her a Taj Mahal,” you have an image that cost only two words and you’ll know loads about their lifestyle and tastes: opulent and privileged and over the top. It’s 1,000 words of worth for only two – using an image. “She smiled as enigmatically as the Mona Lisa.”
Purposefully pack your writing with attention-grabbing visuals and your writing will be memorable. There won’t be any incomplete ideas or passages full of filler. It will be more fully realized and accessible to the reader.
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