Phil Partington-2

I’m thrilled to have another guest blogger return to Dropped Pebbles to share more pearls of wisdom. Today, Phil Partington, author, editor, and blogger sheds light on how to make writing imagery the best it can be.

Understanding Imagery—What Effective Descriptions Look Like

Imagery in novel writing is often a misunderstood art. While most get what it is in principle, that doesn’t mean they understand it in practice. A consistent trap I’ve encountered in my years of editing the works of other aspiring authors is overly vanilla or repetitive imagery in terms of style.  Adjectives are great, but when your descriptions rely too much on them it’s bound to stall the pace of your story.

So what does effective imagery look like? What takes it to the next level to draw the reader into your world, as opposed to making them want to skim pages?

  1. Avoid overusing clichés—if you’ve heard a saying before, there’s a good chance it’s a cliché and hence overused. Common idioms are examples of this; world was turned upside down, the calm before the storm, in the same boat, and never a dull moment are other good examples of this. Understand that clichés can have a place in your novel:  if you’re using them to accentuate the narrative voice specifically or perhaps within your dialogue, then it can work very well. However, if they’re overly relied upon within the narrative to convey the imagery of the setting, they can have an adverse effect on bringing the reader into your world. Your reader will be enticed by uniqueness, not what they see in their everyday life. If your world resembles everyday life, how you present the details of that world is your opportunity to spruce it up and make it more interesting to entice the reader.
  2. Variety – Don’t settle on just one method of conveying your imagery. If your entire novel consists only of adjective-laden descriptions, it’s bound to put the reader to sleep.
  3. Be more specific, not less.  Sometimes imagery that is written beautifully and with great flow and lyricism isn’t necessarily the most effective. If it’s too vague or subjective in how it can be interpreted, you risk losing the reader. Choose specific and clear words to effectively convey the image. This also means that you need to fully understand the meaning and context of those words. Remember, creating effective imagery is about creating a sense of realism and adding depth to your world, not being pretty with your words.
  4. Don’t forget the senses. This one leads into #6 really well, but it’s essentially a reminder that we are a species that depend on more than just what we see to make up our experiences. I’m way too lazy to look it up, but there’s loads of scientific research out there contending that music helps memory, smells evoke associations (such as, we may think of our grandmothers when we smell apple pie) and touch stirs emotions. Different readers will respond more promptly to different types of sensory—it’s just the way it is—so don’t disregard the ones you might deem less important. There are five basic senses:  sight, sound, taste, touch and smell…
  5. …and there’s a sixth sense when writing imagery. That sixth sense is intuitive thought. What your main character is thinking can be a great way to convey the setting of your scene if done with innovation. Direct thought by a character is often written in italics and many times labeled with “he thought/she thought” kind of tags. However you decide to format your character’s direct thought, remember that it can be an effective tool for enabling your character to interact with the setting. For instance, “This town reminds me of the ol’ west,” Billy thought, and his eyes glistened with wonder at the batwing doors of a tavern that he likened to something out of a John Wayne movie.”  Note that both the italicized “direct thought” of the character and the descriptive part (“likened to something out of a John Wayne movie”) are part of the “intuitive thought” family. One is more direct, while the other narrates what the character is thinking. At the same time, the reader gets a sense of what kind of town this is, while not bringing the scene’s pace to a halt.  
  6. Action, action, action—the most effective imagery is often delivered through the action of the characters. This creates interaction between the characters and their world which, in turn, is what pulls the reader in because the author doesn’t have to stall the story in order to tell the imagery. When I speak of action, I don’t necessarily mean explosion, fight scenes, chase scenes or anything that pumps up the reader’s adrenaline, per se. Action, in this case, merely refers to the movements of the characters or—in better terms—how your characters interact with the world around them.

Let’s focus on #6 because, really, I think it’s the most important (and most disregarded) points in that list. Note the difference in the two example passages below.

Passage 1

The room was the smallest of the old house. It was mostly empty, save for a brown leather couch on the far wall and a gray metal desk on the wall adjacent. The walls were blue and held a massive window that showed the front yard.

Billy was fuming, and he paced the room several times over as he glared at Jenna. “How could you do this to me?” he asked.

Jenna lowered her eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think…”

But Billy interrupted her by hurling his coffee mug at the wall, which caused it to shatter and stain the wall.

Passage 2

Billy was fuming, and he paced the room several times over as he glared at Jenna. “How could you do this to me?” he asked.

Jenna lowered her eyes to the leather couch she sat upon. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think…”

But Billy interrupted her by hurling his coffee mug. The ceramic cup shattered and stained the blue wall with a coat of brown liquid. The noise of it must have carried to the outside, for a young couple on an afternoon walk stopped momentarily to peek inside the room’s large window.

See the difference? In passage one, the scene is halted to detail what the setting looks like. Sometimes, this is okay to do—heck, there are times when it’s the best approach, such as when you want to relay details quickly where it doesn’t warrant a full scene, or when you want to convey the passing of time without putting too much emphasis on the happenings of that time span. However, this scene bears more weight than that; something significant is occurring between these two characters. Therefore, bringing its pace to a standstill in order to convey the setting around them is probably not the most effective way to tell their story. In this context, the reader should be most interested in knowing what happens next with the characters, not whether the walls are blue. As the author, you should still have a mind to bring them into the scene by way of imagery, but in doing so you want to be careful not to lose momentum by redirecting their focus away from the action of these characters.

For this reason, Passage #2 is most effective because it delivers all the same bit of information about the setting (the walls are blue, there is a leather couch and a large window to the outside) but in a way that presents it in an interactive way with the action of the story. Billy chucks the mug at the wall, staining it with coffee…and this is when we learn that the walls are painted blue; Jenna lowers her eyes to the leather couch…which is how we learn there’s a leather couch; and outside passersby hear the shattering of the mug which compels them to peek into the large window…and this is how we learn about the window.

I’d wager that most aspiring authors have heard the mantras:  don’t TELL when you should SHOW; bring your readers into your story’s world; don’t create a flat, vanilla setting. I don’t get the sense, however, that most understand what they all mean. If you want to be passionate about the craft of writing literary fiction and if you want to reach out to your readers in a way that speaks to them on a more personal level, striving to master this concept should always be a central goal. And really, I can’t imagine an end to this lesson, as there isn’t really an end to the variety of ways imagery can be presented to a reader. Keeping the aforementioned principles in mind, however, can be a good start.

Check out more of Phil’s writing tips, or peruse the rest of his website for more fun, free reads and other writing tools.

About Phil Partington

Author, editor and blogger Phil Partington
Author, editor and blogger Phil Partington

Phil Partington is a writing enthusiast of many years. Having written numerous articles for online and print trade publication on a national level, he has spent the last five or so years turning his attention to fiction writing. The Siren’s Lyric is his first novel and is near completion.

Phil has always been drawn whatever allows him to be creative, from art, graphic design to playing guitar and writing songs for the heck of it. Loving husband and father of two young boys, he hails from the great State of Washington. He also happens to be a great dancer, but only in front of his dog and cat. Oh and he can be a little off his rocker, which is why people tend to follow him…mostly out of curiosity.



4 thoughts on “Phil Partington-2

  1. I never thought of intuitive thought as a sixth sense in writing, but now that I think back on it, yeah, I can see it. Interesting. This’ll give me something to think over for awhile!

    Great post, Phil and Dyane!

    Liked by 2 people

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