Drawing powerful verbal images is a real skill and is often a key ability that defines ‘natural writers’.
Here are five things to think about when you write with respect to using the power of the pen to draw images.
1) Be aware of visual imagery
The first step is heightening your awareness of verbal imagery and how it works. When you read a new book or write, take note.
We think of words as words – in black on a white page. But they are more: they paint colorful pictures from the action, people, and settings of a story world. Check it out for yourself. Take a paragraph from any book you are reading and do an ‘image density test’. Count all the images that form in your mind as you read along. Is it a large and diverse number?
It depends on what you are reading, but in many books, it’ll be each sentence, or even each phrase i.e. “He turned his head and looked out the window at the windmill on the lake.” That had four – a man turning his head, a window, a windmill and a lake scene.
Here’s the opening sentence of Ransom Riggs’ ‘Library of Souls’:
“The monster stood not a tongue’s length away, eyes fixed on our throats, shrivelled brain crowded with fantasies of murder.”
How many images do you get from that? Almost every word is a new one. How does the ‘image density’ of your writing compare?
2) Actively write in images
Many authors say they see events unfold in their own minds and then they write them down. This is a great way to get visual writing. You can heighten this by purposefully engineering memorable images into your work.
Whether or not you remember the details of any of the Godzilla movies, you well know what Godzilla looks like. What’s the single most memorable image from the Jurassic Park franchise? Is it the T. rex sniffing out the kids in the car?
Often, it’s a useful technique to render an abstract idea into symbolic imagery to give it punch, make it easily understood and memorable. The scar on Harry Potter’s forehead is a brilliant example. It represents his past, his link with Voldemort and his fate. Harry just has to show it or touch it in pain for readers to know something big is about to happen.
3) Edit keeping the quality of your visual imagery in mind
If you can’t form an image about what is being described, likelihood is you probably don’t know exactly what is going on. So how would a reader know?
How do you go about editing? We all have different methods, but have you ever tried editing expressly for visual content? Doing so can bring surprising rewards. You might find new ways to express abstract ideas. You might clean up some fluffy or confusing text. You might be inspired to add creative details.
If you read a phrase or sentence and fail to clock an image, you might find that it wasn’t fully imagined. Editing to improve visual interest is often about making abstract things more concrete. This is ubiquitously thought of as a good thing in terms of writing advice. Why say ‘his car got keyed’, when you can say ‘his 2017 black Porsche got keyed?’ The second one is not only a stronger image, you wince harder. Why say ‘I fell in love’ when you can give a few examples of blushing, tripping because you are distracted and sitting with your head in your hands daydreaming and get your ‘show don’t tell’ out of the way too?
Great writing is about giving a reader enough detail to let them see the world you are presenting – without overdoing it. At best, they need some wiggle room to see your story world as they want to.
4) Understand why key types of information work better as a picture
Some things just work better visually. This is because they depend on having all the knowledge at once, on some form of complex structure in space or time, or the linkages between entities. Such ‘information clusters’ are hard to render in words – no matter how many you use or how artfully you arrange them on the page.
Think about a map or a family tree. These are common images printed in books – words just can’t do them justice – or fit into equal space.
If you do need to describe difficult images, it’s about getting out the most important information first – the structure and the types of connection. Then come the relevant details, which a reader can now map onto a visual framework they are holding in their head.
On a map, it’s about how features are related to each other in space that matters. A mountain pass leads to a valley with a river that flows to the sea upon which sites a city A – and it is far away from the desert city of B with which there is an ongoing war. Same with dynastic or familial relationships, mother and father beget child, and why and where any characters appear in the timeline is critical to the story.
Either leave such things out, express them in a different way that does work in terms of verbal imagery, put in an actual image, or hone your ability to describe complex images.
5) Use imagery to your best advantage
We all know the saying ‘a picture is worth a 1000 words’. The trick of images is that they present all their information simultaneously. You might want to linger over the Mono Lisa to take in her finer details and soak in the mood, but it’s all there as you lay eyes on her.
Plus, imagine many words it would take to describe the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile to give an amount of detail equivalent to seeing her in person – it’s likely not possible no matter how meticulously you picked your words, how artfully you ordered them, or how many you allowed yourself.
So, flip this and use the power of visual imagery to your advantage. Humans have a huge range of cultural images. Save 1000 words every time you use an apt image. Think of a man who builds his wife somewhere to live. If you say, he built her a Taj Mahal have an image that cost only two words and you’ll know loads about their lifestyle and tastes — opulent and privileged and over the top. It’s 1000 words of worth for only two – using an image. She smiled as enigmatically as the Mona Lisa, is another example.
Purposefully packing your writing with attention-grabbing visuals. Your writing will be memorable. There won’t be any incompletely formed ideas or passages full of filler text. It will be more fully realized and accessible to the reader to ‘upload’.
Humans are highly visual creatures and this holds true when we are reading. We don’t see the images in the book, we make them in our minds. Many people say they ‘see’ stories play out in their minds like watching a movie on the big screen. Pack in brilliant imagery and they will enjoy and remember your book as well.
Dawn Field loves to read fiction and non-fiction, especially in draft form, and to try to understand what makes great writing and how writers tick. She can be contacted at her gmail account ‘fiedawn’.