Tips for Writers

The Science in Writing Imagery

Posted by on March 9, 2016 at 2:45 PM


Writers employ imagery in their work so their written worlds become vivid in readers' minds. A well-crafted image enriches a text as it helps readers visualize an otherwise abstract space. Regardless of the written medium—poetry or prose, academic or trending—how an author invites readers into the visual space the text inhabits will influence its lasting effects. Consider all the texts you find most memorable. Were there visual elements or interesting juxtapositions that still stand out in your memory? Chances are you just nodded your head. While writers write for many reasons, writers share their writing to inspire reactions from readers. These many reactions include connection, empathy, insight, curiosity, exposure, outrage, support, enjoyment, conversation, celebration, activism, and so forth. This said: when we as writers develop work to share with audiences, we infuse it with illustrations and examples designed to aid readers in better envisioning and understanding our presented ideas.

          Writing memorable imagery is a science or sorts. The science in writing imagery is as intricate as it is disparate, which leaves many ways it can be approached. Such vastness also means there will be many reactions to one unchanging image. Imagine a landscape with several footpaths that all lead to the same destination and you can begin to appreciate where I hope to take you. Since each path enters the target point from a different place, each perspective view will differ. Every traveler sees from his unique vantage point and may even notice things others do not—whether in his sight line or not. The same is true for each reader’s experience with a text. How readers experience the course and ultimate entrance to the text’s landscape may differ due to vantages, perceptions, biases, views, and values. So how do writers get an audience of diverse readers on the same page? Is the point even to deliver one universal reaction? Or is the point to evoke an experience in readers’ imaginations that they will make what they will of it? Like any worthy exploration, let’s dissect a tried and tested way I have approached imagery with wonderful results.

           From birth, the average child is read to or told stories on a regular basis. We are conditioned from this early age to imagine landscapes and worlds along with their contents and value systems. Whether grounded in realism or symbolism, the details in these stories are usually vivid and often metaphorically encoded, likening one thing to another in interesting ways. We learn to write and express ourselves on the page by mirroring these childhood storytelling strategies. Then, somewhere in our educational years, many of us are taught to put away our childish thinking and write using our words—not our images and illustrations. This being my own experience and that of many of my college students got me thinking. Aren’t the most memorable texts those that master using words with images and illustrated examples as backup?

           Of course, the answer is there is room for both literal words and the illustrations that make the text vivid and imaginable. Readers really do need to be shown in many instances to comprehend what’s going on. So it’s no wonder Show, don’t tell is a lesson writers learn and re-learn through their careers. There are many strategies writers can employ to develop wonderful imagery. For the remainder of this post, I will focus on one approach I find to be rewarding for writers and their readers. An exercise I do with students to help them develop interesting imagery is to literally bring science into it. Take an idea and/or image and explore its scientific information. Then find interesting ways to bring these details into your text. The ways are limitless. For instance, consider the hermit crab. When I was developing my poem, “Pushing Paper,”—a piece about my tendency to withdraw into a self-made shell when relationships begin to simmer—I thought about hermit crabs. Not knowing all their facts, I looked them up and began to note their habits, life-cycles, and character. I took all my notes on the crabs and mined them for details I could use in my writing. My idea about withdrawing into my shell like a hermit crab quickly shaped into something more profound, more vivid, more meaningful. The lines about the crabs now read

I never noticed the hermit crabs before. / They spend entire days assessing vacant shells / & assigning the gathered crabs their new homes. / Whoever said size doesn’t matter hasn’t factored // in the rewards of shell surfing. Abandoned shells / become growth charts—memorials that measure // one’s loss as another’s gain. [The dynamics / of vacancy chains in motion].

What is additionally interesting about my discoveries regarding the hermit crabs is how I learned something about myself, and in the process, realized a new way of viewing life situations. I also discovered vivid ways to infuse the text with visual aids I was also able to build on later in the piece. These visual aids acted as unifying elements that allowed me to create metaphoric meaning. In the final section of the poem, I take on the identity of a hermit crab as follows:

I wake one morning as one does in a dream. / The cloudscape’s distorted,its dialect unfamiliar. / It’s clear I’ve entered a foreign landscape.

This new development works to set up my final moment in the piece, where

Neither [person] notices me in my circumscribed shell.

          While my hermit crab tendencies started as a simple act of hiding in my shell—the queen cliché—my exploration led me to a renewed way to express the idea and a more meaningful conclusion. The beauty here is that I could not have arrived at these details without researching the science. I couldn’t even get beyond the abstract idea without exploring what it meant to inhabit the hermit crab’s identity. And that’s the magic for us writers during the writing process: finding our way through the abstract in order to discover the concrete. Readers sense these developments and it’s what keeps them there with us throughout the text.

           Whether readers can or cannot relate to a writer’s ideas or images is not the point. Making said ideas or images tangible is key. Finding a balance between explaining, demonstrating, and illustrating is a worthwhile challenge. What science can you bring to your writing that will make it more vivid, more interactive, and more memorable? Pick an idea, concept, or physical item and research it. What do you discover that you can bring to your text? What do you discover about your current text or yourself or our shared world while spending time with the science? How have you incorporated these findings into your work? If you care to share your discoveries or own tricks, comment below. I look forward to experiencing the magic crafted into your images.

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