Good writing provides the reader with an experience. The words on the page translate into a world that envelopes him. He can see this world, smell this world, taste this world, touch this world. Through the sorcery of imagery, his senses are tapped. The writer has him spellbound.
Life is multi-sensory. Everything we know we experienced through sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Imagery, then, involves more than creating mental pictures to represent persons, places, actions, object, or ideas. Imagery depicts the likenesses of things, and the likeness of things is more than the appearance of things. Through figurative language that eschews lengthy passages of exposition, imagery represents the tangibility of its subject.
Sue Monk Kidd writes in The Mermaid Chair—
The night seemed paler now, as if the wind had blown some of the darkness out of it.
In this sentence, we see a graying of sky. We also feel a futility or lack of control, as the wind assumes power beyond its nature.
In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad—
But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. And as I looked at the map of it in a shop window, it fascinated me as a snake would a bird—a silly little bird. Then I remembered there was a big concern, a Company for trade on that river. Dash it all! I thought to myself, they can’t trade without using some kind of craft on that lot of fresh water—steamboats! Why shouldn’t I try to get charge of one. I went on along Fleet Street, but could not shake off the idea. The snake had charmed me.
That’s vivid. We see the river. And through its imagery, we feel its lure.
From Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone—
He wakes from sleep, wakes in terror, unable to breathe, as if he is about to die, as if the next breath will trigger the explosion. Though he is awake, the tentacles of dream and nightmare won’t let go. A terrifying spatial distortion is the hallmark of this state. His bedroom in his quarters begins to shrink. His pen, the doorknob, his pillow—ordinary objects that normally do not merit a second glance—balloon in size. They become colossal and threaten to impale him, to suffocate him. He has no control over this state. He cannot turn it off by sitting up or moving around. He becomes neither child nor man, does not know where he is, or what scene he is reliving, but he is terrified. Alcohol is not the antidote. It does not break the spell, yet it dulls the terror. It comes with a price: instead of straddling the line between wakefulness and nightmare, he crosses over. He roams in a world of familiar objects turned into symbols; he traipses through scenes of his childhood and through hell’s portals. He hears a nonstop dialogue, like cricket commentary on the radio. That is the backdrop to these night terrors. The commentator’s voice is indistinct—sometimes it sounds like his own voice. As he drinks, he loses his fear but not his sorrow. He who has no tears in his waking now weeps like a child.
…as if the next breath will trigger an explosion… the tentacles of a dream …quarters begins to shrink… balloon in size …a nonstop dialogue, like a cricket commentary. Verghese’s imagery conveys more than meaning, more than images even. His carefully chosen phrases imbue tone and heighten the effect of language.
In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon gives us a snapshot of a character—
She was a large, boneless woman who draped herself like an old blanket over the chairs of the apartment, staring for hours with her gray eyes at ghosts, figments, recollections, and dust caught in oblique sunbeams, her arms streaked and pocked like relief maps of vast planets, her massive calves stuffed like forcemeat into lung-colored support hose.”
We not only see the woman’s bulbous legs, we know her to an extent. We have an idea of her disposition, that much of her day is spent draped over a chair.
It’s been said before—Show, Don’t Tell. Readers respond to the sensate, that which can be perceived by the senses. Imagery helps us decode the abstract, the vague, the amorphous into the experiential world of the senses. By working with images that life has implanted in our readers’ memories, we resurrect associations and cause a stream of sensations to cascade into his awareness.
|TELLING THE ABSTRACT||SHOWING THROUGH IMAGERY|
|I felt apprehensive.||A sensation not unlike a finger drew itself from the center of my skull down to the top of my spine.|
|Anyone could see he was nervous.||His hand lay in his lap, grasping at nothing—raking in a nonexistent poker pot.|
|I couldn’t get it out of my mind.||It was like a seed stuck in my teeth; I couldn’t stop returning to it, prodding it.|
|He needed time to think.||His thoughts came at him, yapping and growling like a pack of dingoes.|
|I had a premonition.||There was something invisible rising, resounding like the feeling in the air before lightning, something bigger than the sky overshadowed everything. To watch his face was like watching a darkening sky before a clap of thunder, shade upon shade imperceptibly coming on, the doom growing mysteriously intense in the calm of maturing violence|
|His anger was intimidating.||To see his face was like watching a darkening sky before a clap of thunder, shade upon shade imperceptibly coming on, the doom growing intense in the calm of maturing violence. I tell you that laugh was down in my stomach, like bad beef; it meant to come out.|
|I couldn’t keep myself from laughing.||I tell you that laugh was down in my stomach, like bad beef; it meant to come out.|
Be creative. Use one sense to depict another:
- He felt the pain like a flash of color, like white-hot metal burning red at the edges.
- Not having bathed or changed clothes in days, he gave off a musty yellow smell.
- The a sour, metallic taste in my mouth I have come to know. It is the taste of cowardice.
- Samuel snores so loudly that his water glass rattles on the bedside cabinet and his cufflinks fall off the dressing table. On a bad night, I swear that the furniture moves. The dog starts barking, thinking the end of the world is nigh, and the horses run about, shaking their heads and snorting—and they are two fields away.
- That’s ridiculous,” she said, looking like she’d just sniffed bad cottage cheese.
EXAMPLES OF SOUND IMAGERY (Or imagery to depict sound):
- Voices drifted in the dark, disembodied and muffled, as if she lay submerged in the bathtub.
- She clucked her tongue at this, a series of exclamation points.
- The screen door opened with a harmonica-like whine.
- The flames crackled like bunched cellophane.
- “…choo-k-choo-k-choo-k-choo-k-choo-k—the metronomic rhythm of an Amtrak train rolling down the line to California, a sound that called to mind an old camera reel moving frames of images along a linear track, telling a story.” (Andy Isaacson, “Riding the Rails.” The New York Times, March 8, 2009)
- The sound of voice was as monotonous as a running toilet.
- He spoke like one of those preachers who spliced the word Jesus so that it shot through the air like a flung pair of scissors. “Gee!—Zussss.”
- “Emim-mim-mim—harrrruuunk.” Most of his snores began like an electric lawn mower, then shifted to a jumbo jet at take off, and reverted back to the lawn mower. “Emim-mim-mim.”
- He spoke without punctuation, his words careening into one another, leaving the hearer lying on the side of the road, a victim of hit and run.
- There wasn’t an end to his sentence. It just stopped, a grenade that’d been thrown but never exploded.
EXAMPLES OF IMAGERY DEPICTING SMELLS:
- It basement had a peculiar aroma, like gravy dinners.
- The city gave off her old-lady smell, nine different styles of jasmine and a squirt of he-cat.
- His anger smelled of burning bone, like when the dentist drills for a filling.
- An astonishing stink of dead fish rose from the man’s skin like smoke off a green fire.
- Body warmth was hanging in the air, faint smells of Bea’s Kiss of Bliss perfume, and something bathroomy, something old-persony.
- The air of the town tasted like old coins.
- Yet the day did have a taste, an excited buzz in the lining of the brain, a nearness of tears in the eyes and the tickle of a shout in the back of the throat.
- He felt a surge of dislike rising unbidden like the taste of bile.
Figures of Speech
PERSONIFICATION is the attribution of human characteristics to anything other than a human being.
- Unable to give voice to a grief that sat on his chest and clutched him by the throat.
- Drowsiness climbed his torso and coiled about him.
- “Only the champion daisy trees were serene. After all, they were part of a rain forest already two thousand years old and scheduled for eternity, so they ignored the men and continued to rock the diamondbacks that slept in their arms. It took the river to persuade them that indeed the world was altered.” —Toni Morrison, Tar Baby
ALLUSIONS refers to an object or circumstance that has occurred or existed in an external context.
- He raised his eyebrows in a crazed, Jack Nicholson way.
- He spoke with a gilded, James Spader tongue.
- He was a moral Mighty Mouse.
- He strolled across the room in that Prince Charles way with his hands clasped behind his back.
- With a smile like Tricky Dicky you didn’t put too much stock in what he said.
- She held the dress to her and twirled the hills are alive.
- Up until now her life had been a Mary Tyler Moore hat toss.
- His boss was a disciple of Howard Wolowitz’s mother—you never saw him, but you sure as well heard him.
ANALOGIES compare two similar things for the purpose of conveying a concept, illustrating a point, function or definition.
- “Memory is to love what the saucer is to the cup.” —Elizabeth Bowen, The House in Paris
- Google is like a woman because it offers up suggestions before you can finish a sentence.
- Love is like war: easy to start, difficult to finish, and impossible to forget.
- Life is like a box of chocolates, it doesn’t last as long for fat people.
- Hip hop is like scissors, it always loses to Rock. (also an example of word play)