Writing Good Stories
The Novelization Process
Rethinking and Revising Imagery
Revising the Horror of Stage Directions
and Violating POV
vs. Illogic - Hanging the Lanterns
How to End a Novel
Sound and Sense - Shelley vs Dickens
Leaves in the Wind - Essays on the Interet Experience
and Revising Imagery in Novels
Imagery in a novel
is essential to lock into the reader's five senses. When we are vomiting
our draft guts out, we sometimes (not sometimes . . . we do it indubitably)
over-image or . . . under-image. Finishing imagery for the reader is what
we are about as novelists. Without similes or metaphors - without those
attacks on the reader's senses, we are nothing more than court reporters.
Now I don't want to demean the reporter's trade. Dickens began that way
and managed to spray his works with the crisp rat-tat-tat of journalistic
style that still smacks of genius today. Twain did the same thing. A bit
of second person extrapolation can fit into everyone's work, and should,
but effective imagery means tight writing. It also means a palette selection
from a defined range of colors. It means reigning in your more spleen-based
inclinations to take-off into a self-indulgent peregrination akin to Melville's
devoting a long chapter in Moby Dick to discuss the color White.
With skill, your draft should contain sixty-percent of your imagery before
you start revising. With luck, more; and, if fortune has smiled upon you,
you've captured some bizarre images that you can revise into under-wrought
passages that support your overall tonality.
Here're some tips:
1 - Define the tone of your work and the palette of images to be used.
There's a word pool that will constantly swim past your harpoon. These
palletized words are related. Their use is not disruptive. They are second
nature to your canvas.
Matthew was as old as the hills and twice as wise.
Besides the use of a cliché, this image is as flat as a pancake.
Matthew was as tough and tawny as the oak desk that cuffed him.
Don't quote his age, or the hills or his mental state. How can we? An
image must be seen and we can see 'tough and tawny,' and certainly we
can see the desk and its utility.
2 - Cut multiple-choice imagery - imagery that forces the reader to choose.
We all do it. We see things two-fold and can't make up our mind, so we
leave it to the reader. This causes redundancy and also flabbiness.
He fought with the spirit of Hercules against the Hydra or Achilles against
Which is it? Brave like Hercules or resigned like Achilles? Why not leave
it up to the reader. NEVER. Make a choice:
He fought like Achilles against the Trojan tide.
Note: By saying with the spirit of you no longer have an image, but a
proxy adverb and, if there's one mantra you must repeat over and over
as a writer, it is this: "Adverbs are pernicious weeds that foster
flabby, lazy writing." Again now. And again. So, we make it a pure
simile and use the word like, and for pace and cadence we add the two-syllable
adjective, in this case Trojan. We could have just as effectively used
the roaring tide, but the alliterative of the t's makes for a better image.
The word with is also ambiguous bringing into question the object of the
3 - Carry images across whole paragraphs. Here's an example from my own
work (blushing again):
are islands, life washes the shore with a tide that draws its line on
the strand, a fortress to errant gulls and plovers, but when the spirits
are connected, the waves take the sands down, the castle melting in the
ebb. Rowden watched Rose's bastion melt with each tiding from Meng Ka-bao's
maw. She expressed no shock that the egg was a true egg, beyond its paragonic
substance. She could have surmised as much when she first spied it a Lung-hua.
A pretty pink and yellow egg, like the alabaster one I had in our apartment,
Rawden. Do you remember? She had seen it for what it was, but had not
known that inside its creamy heart grew a crimson critter that was held
in stasis by some elemental that changed the natural order of things.
Nor was Rowden concerned by Rose's simple remembrance of the round red
stone atop the rock pyramid at Yu-shui-ch'ien's gat e. In fact, her expression
was downright tell me something I don't know. The irksome response, however,
was Rose's natural inclination to the practicability of fulfilling such
Note: In this case, we begin with an image stated in second person, which
suspends it over the chapter. What it does is make a statement that sounds
a bit biblical, and therefore a stain-glass truth. (You know; like Austen
- "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man of good standing
etc. etc.") When the characters enter (and the POV shifts to third
person, limited), the words bastion and ebb extend the image into an action.
Another character has previously provided some information, and referring
to that act, we use tiding instead of piece of information, as it further
extends the image, albeit a pun. Then we start talking about eggs. These
eggs are intrinsic to the plot, but since we have an image concerning
sea-birds, we further extend it. One other point is the use of the word
paragonic. If you go look up that word, you won't find it. In the context
of this story, there are rocks and minerals that are called the paragons,
so when we apply an adjective to the word substance, we draw from within
our established palette of colors and invent a word that would have no
other meaning beyond the context of this novel.
4 - Test all five senses in every scene. Which ones are important? Which
ones are missing? Which ones get in the way? When you revise a section,
can you see things, feel things (touch), taste them, and smell them? My
own personal style tends to omit smell, so in revision, things get pretty
stinky. Characters' perfumes (Ivory soap's a favorite), onions, cooking,
gas (including natural farts - can there be any other kind?).
Touch is important in action sequences:
Thomas thought the blade sharp enough to do real damage.
Note: We can see it, but touch here is an assumption; and if this is an
action sequence, we're moving sidewise with a polemic.
Thomas bristled. He knew that blade. He had felt it before, his hand a
witness to its sharp bite.
This is terse. Action packed. It refers to empirical knowledge of this
particular blade. It bodes potential damage.
Thomas parried the sword, his wrist scored by the awful blade - a serpent's
Note: Here we are. Touch! And with the help of our friend the em-dash
(-), we have a resulting fragment that attaches to the form a complete
Sound is important also. I like to add a sound to a vacuum. Vacuums happen
when dialogue ceases and we have drawn the reader into a sightless, odorless
place. It is then that I will have something like:
A hawk cawed above the quiet Sycamores.
Sounds corny, but it's as effective as taste during a dinner conversation.
So, always ask that question about the five senses and add/delete as needed.
5 - Limit metaphors and similes in action sequences. Action sequences
are a special topic and deserve full treatment. (Maybe a later article).
There are tense tricks and pacing techniques galore, which many authors
miss, because these do not roll naturally from their established style,
because action sequences, by definition, ditch our natural style in order
to stand out. Still, nothing kills action like passive tone; and metaphors
Example (time for a rather bad stretch of a seventh revision - my own):
"This is enough, Nick," Rowden said. "We should pack it
in." Before anyone could move to secure the bird, however, the flowers
began to flutter, their petals appearing to be wings caught at the tips
of flashing fingers. Soon, they left their stems, whirling about in colorful
little cyclones tinted by the grim green glow.
"Butterflies," Nick said smiling, mesmerized by the little whirls
of color buzzing about his head.
"No," Rowden said plucking one from the air and examining it.
"Not butterflies." They may have appeared to be swarms of gentle
butterflies or cottony moths, but Rowden could see these were flanges
rather than wings, little metal rudders to navigate the air and perhaps
do critical harm to such things as brick and wall and skin. "These
are metal demons, Nick." He turned to the others. "Audrey, Simon,
watch out. Griffen, cover your eyes."
Rowden saw hundreds of silver and gold metal buzzers spin about Audrey's
head. This was a dream. It had to be a dream. H is lack of sleep had made
him delusional and he was seeing the full complement of Dali's or perhaps
Bruegel's master works whiz before his eyes. This had to be the result
of some bad tofu.
The above is a mess (tofu indeed). It takes place in a garden that comes
alive, attacking the characters. I knew what I was writing when I approached
it, but my imagery undercut me at every turn. Things appear to be things,
instead of being things. Things leave their stems instead of flying. The
protagonist examines the attacking petals, instead of feeling the danger.
Dialogue tells us what these things are instead of showing us. The protagonist
sequels for probable reasons and gives the reader a multiple-choice of
artists to chose from in the image - one from column surreal, one from
column Dutch allegorist. We end with a mini-joke about tu-fu. If there's
any image on the face of the earth that lacks action appeal, it's to-fu.
What a mess!!
Revised (more like, rewritten):
Audrey approached a pink camellia, puffed full with wiggling petals. Rowden
was drawn to investigate also. A single crimson rose, a mere seven petals
that clicked open and shut like castanets. Nervous flowers, straining
for freedom, shaking their tethers. Rowden sensed rebellion. Anger even.
They tugged until liberated. Airborne. Tops propelled above the pylons
like butterflies. Rainbow funnels. Cyclones. Beauty to the eye. Magic
to the ear.
Nick raised his
hands in near worship, mesmerized as buzzing color swarmed about his head.
Audrey templed her hands to her lips. Rowden held his heart. What a show.
Compared to this, Pandas were an everyday occurrence. He grinned. His
natural empirical impulse led him to pluck a dancing flower from its flight.
Sharp pain sliced his hand.
he shouted. He closed his hands on his capture. Crimson petals were gone,
replaced now with crimson blood - his own blood. He glanced at Audrey
and Nick. "Don't touch them. They are not what they seem." Rowden
saw hundreds of buzzers spinning around Audrey's head. This was a dream.
It had to be a dream. Lack of sleep had launched him into some Dalian
nightmare. He waved his hands trying to divert these pests from the lady,
but they turned on him with absolute malice. They pursued him to the koi
Note: Notice the slow take off and acceleration of imagery using fragments
and sensory clues. Notice the imagery is not like a cyclone, but just
Cyclone. Notice that when the protagonist examines the flower, it bites
him. It ends with a frenzy of internal and external motion, and the only
metaphor used (except the cyclone) is the surreal one - Dali won the race.
No more tofu.
Imagery is key to a successful work, but too much sends the reader into
a cloud of mush, while lack of imagery gives the reader a background of
white static and noise. However, it is in revision that we reach the balance.
PS: There are times when zero imagery is appropriate as a technique, but
it needs a careful hand and an astute eye to lay it down. When done correctly,
the absence of imagery becomes a powerful image in itself.