Thursday, May 20, 2010

How to Write Imagery

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by C. Patrick Schulze.

Listen to a PODCAST of this article.

Welcome back, everyone. It’s nice to have you here again.

We, as fiction writers, have an obligation to take our readers to unknown and interesting places within worlds they would or could never imagine. And imagery is that tool we use to take them there. How to write imagery? It’s not as difficult as you might think, and today I’ll offer some tips and techniques on how to write imagery that I hope you’ll find useful.

Imagery is defined by in part as, “the formation of mental images.” Imagery is all about painting the proverbial mental picture.

Imagery can be one of the most important aspects of your novel. Let’s look a simple example, shall we? What type of picture do you see when I mention rain? Now think about rain that races sideways, propelled by a howling wind. Both pictures typify rain, but the second is much more powerful, don’t you think? These powerful pictures are what you seek with your imagery, for they will engross your readers in your story.

A common error among aspiring writers is they describe their setting as they might a photograph. The average writer just writes the various things he sees. This method tends to offer a dry, formulaic image, bog down the story and dampen a reader’s enthusiasm.

Instead, an author may attempt to write in a way that incorporates his images into his character’s actions. This next example, typifies how a writer might do this.

"He strode into the stone building and noted the poor quality of the landscape. Once inside, he wondered as to the purpose for the narrow windows which allowed little light to enter the rooms."

Now, here are some general tips on how to write imagery into your novel.

1. Paint your verbal pictures in nibbles more than great gulps of information.

2. A rule of thumb says to put no more than three sentences together when describing your scene.

3. Use your characters’ senses. Here’s your example.

He tiptoed farther in and noticed an odor waft up from beneath the floorboards.

4. Pepper your dialogue with imagery. That is to say you might allow your characters to impart images of things that happen when they speak. “I can’t seem to stop these goose bumps from rising, no matter what I do.”

5. Use strong verbs that convey action. Words such as twirled, jumped, scurried or plotted exemplify mental pictures by their nature.

6. If you can find a way to use ordinary things in other than ordinary ways, your imagery will come alive. What if you wrote about an automobile that pulled a tow truck or a short kid who is able to spike in volleyball? These seeming contradictions will ensure your imagery jumps off the page and into your reader’s memory.

7. Think small. Have your characters take note of the smallest details in your setting. Could you make use of the tiny nubs on the treads of a new tire? When might you point out the indentation at the bottom of a wine bottle? Can you employ the scratches on a cell phone screen in your novel?

8. Similes and metaphors are powerful tools to enhance your imagery. In my current novel, one character has hair as gray as a coming storm.

9. Personification is a useful tool when you create imagery in your novel. That is, give human-like qualities to something nonhuman. Here’s an example. “The breeze whispered through the woods.”

10. Not all of your imagery need be of the beautiful. In fact, readers will often appreciate just the opposite. In my second novel, the character all my female readers liked the most was the tall, chiseled hunk who fell for the dumpy farmer’s daughter. Without variation, they said they liked him for his love of the unattractive woman, not his good looks.

Do any of you have other examples as to how a novel writer might employ more compelling imagery? I’d appreciate your suggestions.

As always, know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be brothers”


  1. These are excellent pieces of advice on weaving in imagery. Nathan Bransford's blog yesterday asked followers to share the fictional setting they would like to be transported to if given the chance. The comments were truly revealing for what books have accomplished using imagery successfully, as it pertains to setting. Thanks for sharing this post!



  2. Great post. Thanks for sharing!

  3. It's my pleasure, Marissa and Anne. I'm glad you're finding the blog useful.

  4. I stumbled upon this blog from WKB. As an aspiring writer, and learner of your language, I find this very useful. I just added some of your advice to my mantra sheet. Thanks, this article is the killer!