What’s the writer’s tool that elevates a work from story to art form? Imagery, of course. It’s about so much more than mere devices. Imagery is the effortless nuance woven into a story, though it takes time to hand-craft into seamless perfection.
Here are my 6 Tricks to Mastering the Art of Imagery:
1. Paint the Scene Like a Movie
A writer is an artist with words. Our job is to make the canvas come to life. I call it painting the scene. You decide what details to highlight and what to gloss over to achieve the effect you want. Only you can set the tone, mood, and pace of your scenes. But how?
The best advice I’ve received is this: pretend like you’re the director of a movie. Your story is that movie. Where does the scene open? What camera angles will you use? How would you dress the set, direct the actors? Imagine the scene you’re writing as if it’s being filmed. Visualize what you want to happen—then write only those details.
2. Use Devices
For example, if you’re opening with a winter scene the best similes to use are ones about snow, ice, etc. Here’s two examples from my WIP Crossing Nexis, the sequel to my debut YA novel:
“Snowflakes splatted on the windshield as Old Faithful charged up the slushy hill like the little engine that could.”
“…we coasted into his little town, snow-encrusted like a Thomas Kinkade painting.”
3. Choose Your Words Wisely
Words are the scalpel, the finer instruments need to hone in on the message. Consider these 3 concepts when choosing your words for a scene:
1. Active verbs
3. Scene goals
These concepts work in tandem throughout a scene.
In the example above from my WIP, I chose splatted and coasted for my verbs. I could’ve used landed and drove instead, but those verbs are too passive. Verbs need to do double duty in a scene.
Splatted is descriptive, you picture the fat snowflakes on the windshield which enhances the wintry theme. Coasted seems harmless enough, but after the preceding sentence it shows the car going downhill, moving the scene’s pace forward with just one word. It also has a sense of freedom and lightness reinforced by the Thomas Kinkade reference.
The example sentences also fit into what I think the character would say, leading us to the next trick.
4. Be True to Your Character’s Voice
Characterization and voice are key components in choosing what imagery tricks to use, and where to use them. Similes need to evolve from the character’s background. Word choices should stem from the character’s vocabulary.
Quick Trick: Choose some go-to words and phrases for each of your main characters. What slang does the hero use? Is the best friend usually snarky? Having an idea of your characters’ vocabulary can help you develop their attitudes, and keep your characters distinct, but consistent.
5. Sprinkle Your Effects Throughout the Scene
Layering the effects you choose is important for scene building, but use them sparingly. Heavy-handed imagery is the fastest way to muddy a scene. Imagine it as your mission to be invisible. You want your imagery to frost the scene, not send the reader into sugar-overload.
Open with a glimpse of the scene. Reinforce it with active verbs and characterization. Spotlight turning points or pace changes with key words and phrases. Deepen characterization with specific devices hand-picked from your character’s background.
When you use the layering effect to sprinkle your scenes with multiple types of imagery, you’ll achieve the effortless wonder that makes a good story great.
6. My 5-Minute Brainstorming Trick
When I worked full time I utilized my hour-long lunch break to jumpstart my writing. I’d found a 10 minute brainstorming trick in Novel Shortcuts, but I didn’t have that much time. So, I adapted the method to 5 minutes. Try it and see if it works for you.
- Before you start writing, open a separate page. (I have a whole brainstorming document!)
- Stare at the blank space you’re about to fill and set a timer for 5 minutes.
- Start that clock and force yourself to imagine the scene like you’ve been plunked in the middle of a movie set. The director just yelled, “Action!” Where do you, as your character, go from there?
- Choose a starting point. You can start with dialog from the character driving the action. Or try description, dressing the scene as a set decorator. Ground yourself in the moment you choose.
- Then just write.
When the 5 minute timer goes off, I hope you find you’ve written something surprising.
I use this trick for first and second drafts. For second drafts I focus on the imagery I need to portray, which is usually overlooked in first drafts as I hash out the story. This little trick helps me get really focused, really fast.
What are your favorite ways to add imagery into your story?
Stephanie here! Barbara is generously offering an ebook of her debut novel, The Nexis Secret, to one lucky reader! The Nexis Secret is also on sale until the 18th if you're feeling a bit impatient.