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Create Powerful Imagery in Your Writing

We've heard the old montage "Show, don't tell" so many times that it's become stale--and what does it mean, anyway? It's an easy phrase to utter, but how do you achieve resonant, meaningful description that will make your words come alive? This simple checklist, from The Writer's Little Helperby James V. Smith, Jr., is a concise list of best practices for creating rich imagery that will have your readers clamoring for more.

  • Paint the image in small bites. Never stop your story to describe. Keep it going, incorporating vivid images, enlarging the action, and putting the dialogue in context.

A sponge carpet of pine needles covered the trail. It cushioned their soles and absorbed the sounds of their footsteps.
Rhonda stopped short and whispered, “Something’s coming. There. To the right. A bear?”

  • Incorporate images into action. Suppose I had written:

A million years of discarded pine needles lay on the forest floor, carpeting the trail.

That’s description. Static. The author’s talking. Can you hear him reading from an encyclopedia? The difference in the first version is tying their walking to soundless footsteps. This clears the way for Rhonda to hear and see.

She pointed at a looming hulk, for all the good that pointing would do in the ink of night.
Bill grasped her arm. “No. It couldn’t be.”
But the crashing of brush told them it could.
“Yes. Get up a tree.”

  • See through the character’s eyes. Hear through her ears. When you can, use the character’s senses instead of the author’s. It’s called character point of view.

She felt her pulse both in her throat and under the grip of that hand of his crushing her forearm. His breath. She heard it in short, chattering bursts. She smelled it, too. Fear stunk.

  • Use the tiny but telling detail.

She tore free of his grip and leaped off the trail. A spider’s web tugged at her face. Any other time she would have screamed. She ran into a tree, a rough pine bough slapped her breasts, and needles stabbed at her eyes. Any other time she would have cursed.

The spider’s web. Ever ran into one?

  • Choose action-bearing verbs. Cushioned, absorbed, stopped, whispered, pointed, grasped, tore, leaped, tugged, screamed, ran, slapped, stabbed, cursed. These words do so much more than say what is. They indicate first fear, then panic.
  • Choose action-bearing non-verbs. Looming is a verb form used as an adjective. Crashing is used as a noun.
  • Invent fresh viewpoints.

She climbed blindly. And so quickly. Like a ladder. That was scary. If she could scale this pine so easily, couldn’t the bear climb it, too?
She drove her head into a branch. But the sound of crying wasn’t hers.
“Help. It’s got me.”
Bill. Oh, God, Bill.
The bear had him. Still she climbed, seeing nothing but sparklers of pain in her head.
He shrieked at her from the dark below.
She did not—could not—respond.

This is the viewpoint of a woman in panic and pain. When she looks into the darkness, she sees only sparklers. Clearly, she’s so frightened, she’s only trying to save herself.

  • Create an image without saying so.

The pine limbs now bent like those of a Christmas tree. A fresh breeze chilled her skin.
“Bill,” she whispered. “Speak to me, for God’s sake, speak to me, Bill.”
But he did not. All she could hear was snorting and thrashing. She put a hand to her mouth. She thought she might scream but nothing came out of her mouth. Fear of attracting the bear kept her quiet. The pitch on her hand glued her lips shut.
And, yes, the shame. That silenced her, too.
The thin limbs bending and the fresh breeze tells us Rhonda has climbed high into the tree. The chill tells us she’s been sweating. And the pitch, though she and we didn’t notice it in the climbing, is there on her hands and face.

The Writer's Little Helper is filled with dynamic fiction-writing advice. It's packed with big ideas, time-saving tips, and revision-made-easy charts--everything you need to know in order to create memorable characters, maintain a compelling pace, craft believable dialogue, and much more!

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Now let's have some fun. In the comments, rewrite the following sentence into a more imagery-rich one using one or more the techniques described above.

The ancient floorboards creaked beneath her cold, bare feet as she paced the room apprehensively.

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