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A Note on Imagery
By Keith Gray
Books are incredible pieces of technology. Whether they are novels, short story collections or poetry anthologies, books are Virtual Reality in its purest form, helping readers to observe and be part of brand new experiences in never-visited places. The best novels must be those we forget we’re reading. We’ve climbed inside the story and don’t even notice the physical act of flipping the pages – we don’t feel the dry paper between our finger and thumb, we don’t hear the whisper of one page rustling against another, we don’t notice the blurry movement of our eyes flicking from South-East to North-West.
Books are at their best when we’re no longer seeing the words on the page, simply experiencing them. You’ve been there, right? The writer is talented enough to make the thought process of reciting words in our own minds appear to be the same as physical sounds and smells and tastes and textures. So perhaps books have always been better than even our most current technological capabilities with Virtual Reality. And if that’s true, it’s probably because writers use imagery rather than pixels.
What is Imagery?
A Dictionary’s Definition
Imagery is language used by poets, novelists and other writers to create images in the mind of the reader. Imagery includes figurative and metaphorical language to improve the reader’s experience through their senses.
A Writer’s Definition
Personally, I prefer to think of writing as a form of telepathy (rather than strictly VR technology). The imagined sights and sounds I have in my mind as the writer somehow need to travel through time and space to arrive in the mind of the reader.
I need my reader to imagine them as vividly as I imagine them (and as viscerally as my characters experience them). There will unfortunately be a certain level of fade and distortion as my thoughts are transferred. I have to be sure my images are clear, sharp, relatable, believable to begin with in my own mind, to help my reader receive them with the least amount of fuzziness. This doesn’t mean I have to write down every single, itty-bitty, shopping-list detail of what I’m trying to describe and what I want the reader to experience. Shopping lists are rarely exciting. I only need to mind-transfer the most telling details, the most compelling images.
Look at this lamp on my desk. It has a circular black metal base approximately 10cm in diameter with a shaft made from polished wood, kind of reminiscent of an axe handle, and it stands 40 cm tall. The bulb is 40 watt and I bought it from the Spar supermarket on Penzinger Straße last October 5th. It was a Tuesday and it was raining. But I was wearing my favourite coat which is green. The woman at the checkout was also wearing green but neither of us mentioned it and the bulb came in a packet of 2 which cost me €8.99. The shade of my lamp gives off a rusty pink glow and is made from my brother’s skin.
Let’s be honest, there’s only one (maybe two) important images in the above description. Everyone knows what a desk lamp looks like, and who cares about the bulb or how much it cost? As readers we want to know more about the shade. And perhaps the wooden shaft a little later on…
Description is the opposite of accounting: you only need to mention the important bits. Less can be more because you don’t want the story’s pace to stagnate, or the list of details to clog up the reader’s imagination with dollops of verbosity. Use your imagery as if it were a big pointy finger, pointing the reader’s imagination at exactly what you want them to notice and remember (which may indeed be a ‘red herring’ in the case of a mystery story).
As writers we like to be in control. And we are. We are gods of our wordy world. But we have to cede some intellectual and imaginary control to our reader. We have to decide what they need to know for the imagery to make sense, the plot to keep moving and the emotion to feel real. The rest can be for the reader to make up in their own stretchy imaginations.
Trust your reader. After all, if they’re an avid reader, they’re going to have been honing their own super powers of telepathy over many, many books, stories and poems too.
Sunday Writers' Club Team Member and Author
Keith is an author from the UK best known for his award-winning novels for children and teenagers. He’s published over 20 books which have been translated into a dozen languages and has edited 2 anthologies of short stories for Young Adult readers. His novel ‘Ostrich Boys’ was adapted for the stage and played to sell-out audiences in such far-flung places as Birmingham, Seoul and Mumbai. He’s traveled to book festivals all over the world promoting reading, writing and literature to teachers, teenagers, parents, librarians and anybody else who’d listen. You can find out more about Keith on the Sunday Writers’ Club “About” page here.