When creating your story’s setting or explaining what your characters are doing, you’ll need to use imagery. Imagery is necessary to move along the plot and to establish tone.
When describing a landscape, character or action, you’ll need to appeal to one or more of the senses that people use to perceive the world. There are five senses:
• Sight – What we can see with our eyes, as in Nevar examined the black hole ahead. It had the diameter of a mere asteroid. X-rays shot from the white-hot disc at its center, each ring farther out as darkening from white to blue.
• Sound – What we can hear, like As Nevar quietly assisted, her brother tapped here and there.
• Smell – The scent of something, as in The smell of sweat trickling down her temple overtook the faint whiff of ozone permeating the cockpit.
• Touch – What we can feel when things come into contact with our bodies (or they can be a description of the body’s sensation of touch), as in Nevar’s back ached.
• Taste – The flavor of something when it comes into contact with the tongue, as in Her mouth grew dry.
Using as many of the senses as possible makes a scene more real. In everyday life, we experience all of these five senses at all times. Sitting in a coffee shop writing this entry, I see the barista racing to and fro as filling an order, hear the hushed voices of the couple sitting behind me as they try to keep their disagreement from bursting into a public scene, taste the bitter coffee, catch a whiff of the pear-scented perfume of a woman passing my table on her way to the counter, shiver at the cold breeze from the air conditioner that is working on overdrive. In fiction, the key is to make these different senses work with one another to create tone.
When writing imagery, follow these guidelines:
• Make sure it serves a purpose – Any description should move along the plot and help develop characters and dramatic tension. If it’s solely being used to establish the location of the story or to indicate a background character’s actions, keep the description quick and simple.
• Avoid flowery prose simply for the sake of waxing poetic – Purple prose only makes the story campy.
• Remain cautious about offering lengthy descriptions – Descriptions in novels obviously can be longer than those in short stories. Still, the longer the description, the greater the chance that it will cause the reader to forget what’s going on in the story.
• Capture the “essence” of a place/moment/character through description – If a landscape is supposed to be inviting, then describe it as such by noting the ferns hanging over the waterfall, the bubbling brook, and the shade from a green willow. An inviting environment would not be excessively hot with the sun beating down.
• Use sensory details rather than internalized ones – Sensory details (blue, sour, loud, smooth) are specific rather than general. Internalized details (angry, pleased, innocent, civilized) amount to using fuzzy words and give no real impression of what is being described.
My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.