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Imagery is a very important aspect of fiction writing, one that many beginning writers tend to forgo in favor of heightened dialogue or plot. Imagery is sometimes viewed negatively due to its instant connotation to Shakespearean sonnets or classic novels. Let me assure you that imagery is still very much an essential component to any fiction writing. You just have to know how to use it.

What the heck is imagery, and why should I use it?

Imagery is any description of a place, event, person, or thing. It can be as simple as a one-word adjective, or as complex as a set of sentences. Imagery is important because it makes your fiction more believable to the reader. If the reader can see, smell, taste, hear or touch something in the scene, it places them in the middle of the world you are creating.

Don’t go overboard

Writers who are not part of the anti-imagery camp tend to go in the opposite extreme and overdo the imagery. They painstakingly recreate every building, every passerby, every fleck of dust in the sky. All these details are not necessary to create a realistic scene. More importantly, by the time you finish recounting every hair on every person’s head, you have lost the action of the story, and the attention of your reader. Often, when confronted with a paragraph-long image of something insignificant, readers will gloss over it to move on with the next bit of dialogue or plot development.

Don’t use clichés

There are certain images that readers have come to expect. These are called clichés — expressions that have been used over and over until they have lost all meaning and emphasis. Writers have told us again and again that the snow glistens, or the city buildings loomed like monsters, or that the young heroine’s blue eyes sparkled like pools of water. An important step in your editing process will be to look exclusively for clichés and strike them, no matter how cute or important you think they are. You’d be surprised at how many you will unconsciously write — that’s because these clichés have been burned over the years into the front of our brain, ready to be pulled out at a moment’s notice. Fight the urge. And if you can’t fight the urge in the first draft, then at least rid your work of them in the second draft.

Surprise your reader

Often, the most effective image is one that goes against the expectations of the reader. As I said before, readers have come to expect that the heroine’s blue eyes will sparkle like pools of water, or that her blond hair will glisten like the sun. Surprise your reader. Give her some brown eyes that resemble the color of a rusty faucet, or green eyes that lie flat like freshly cut grass. Shakespeare most famously went against the expected images of a beautiful woman in his sonnet “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun.”

Contrary to your belief, not all images need to be beautiful. Some images are, but others are ugly, or disturbing, or even disgusting. It doesn’t matter as long as they create a realistic scene, and they are fresh descriptions that are exclusively yours.

Okay, so how do I start creating imagery?

Infusing your writing with more imagery is quite simple. Create a five-senses chart. For any particular scene (and please don’t do it for every scene, or you’d be going a tad overboard), sketch out a chart with five columns, one for each sense: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. Fill in the blanks. Remember to make them fresh and new.

Now, go back to your original scene and start adding the senses you filled out in your chart. Space them out, as to not overwhelm your reader with too much detail. Now, go back and read it again. Find what works and what doesn’t, and adjust the images accordingly.

Final thoughts

Descriptive words and phrases are one of the writer’s most powerful tools. Imagery can transform your scenes from straightforward dialogue and plot to an expansive world that captures your reader. And don’t be afraid to get lost in it yourself.