One of my all-time favorite books ever is Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart. I watched the movie first and then devoured the book. Funke’s way of painting settings with words (even translated from German!) light my imagination UP! Every flower, every tree, every castle; Funke had a way of describing without describing, showing without telling that deeply inspired me as a young reader! Think back to the first book you read that did that for you. Do you have it? Good. Channel that.
How do I use imagery in fiction writing?
The goal of imagery is to teleport the reader to the place of your choice, so you need to use imagery to immerse your reader into your story. By using sensory details, metaphors, similes, hyperbole, and personification, you can put great imagery into your work. Imagery is a bit different from ambiance. Ambiance is how you make your audience feel when you’re writing, and imagery is how you go about writing that ambiance. Showing your readers environments is fine, but by taking a little time and sitting down to polish your words, you can create the most beautiful prose anyone’s ever read. By taking care of your work and really learning the following tools, your writing can sparkle like a polished diamond.
What are the different imagery tools?
There are several tools in your tool belt you can use as a writer to make the best imagery possible. Utilize these to develop your art style. Be careful, though! Using these too much can make your work too flowery and depending on your reading level your work may become too hard for your reader to read.
This is the most basic way to include imagery in your work. By picking out who your main character is (or who is in control of the scene at the moment), you can figure out whose senses to tap into for these descriptions. Once you’ve figured out which character you’re tapping into, describe what they notice with their senses. Each character is different. Uncle Rolo from my Braidy von Althuis books, for example, is dead and cannot feel pain (or anything else, rather), so feeling is not something he will notice. On the other hand, Aunt Liz, his sister, is perceptive, so she notices visual cues before audible and olfactory cues.
By thinking about your character and what they see, you can have a lot of fun writing scenes. Having characters that have advanced abilities makes this even better. Fawn from my book The Little Brother and Sister takes an illegal street drug that enhances his smell, taste, and eyesight, but only when he is on the drug. Off the drug, he suffers deeply from withdrawals, which does the exact opposite. By taking this into consideration, the audience can really feel what the character is feeling in your work.
BEWARE of TELLING VS SHOWING. By using the senses, it is easy to create sentences like, “Braidy von Althuis sat in his father’s itchy, floral-patterned chair in the front room of his house.” This is a terrible sentence if only because you’re telling the reader what’s happening rather than explaining it through action or characterization. I would write the sentence instead as, “As Braidy von Althuis shifted in his father’s favorite chair, the scratchy, floral-patterned fabric scraped against the back of his legs. Sunlight drifted through the cold window at the front of the house, and he wished with all of his heart that his father would come home.”
Not only does this give you more words, but the scene described is much more interesting.
Metaphors connect two seemingly unrelated things and state that one thing is something else entirely. This is a complex way to add imagery. Instead of being literal, you will force your reader to search for meaning in your work. Some popular metaphors include:
- Life is a highway.
- They are two peas in a pod.
- Time is money.
Be careful about using metaphors too much. These are powerful sentences and using them too much can diminish their meaning. Using them sparingly can make your audience get goosebumps when one is particularly well used. I see fewer metaphors, if none at all, in Middle Grade writing, but you can use them all you want in Young Adult and Adult writing.
These are the baby sibling to metaphors. They compare two things using the words “like” or “as” and are less absolute than metaphors. Figurative language is delightful to read and can elicit explicit emotions and sensory imagery when you use them. Here are some examples:
- Her voice boomed like thunder.
- Passing through the ghost was like passing through pudding.
- The rain drizzled down and tapped like thousands of little drummers against the roof.
We can use this type of imagery for all reading levels and is a delight to write. I love using similes, and they fit well into my writing style. Be careful when considering your main character with this tool. Going back to Fawn from The Little Brother and Sister, he would rarely use similes. He’s a very literal person and describes things as they are, no flowers and no fluff. Because The Little Brother and Sister is a first-person novel, in order to get the character’s voice across, similes are omitted. My narrative voice for everything else includes lots of similes. Find what works best for you!
Hyperbole brings the perfect amount of “extra” to your work. I find hyperbole works best in character dialogue, but it can also work in narrative description. Hyperbole often stems from the main character’s opinion of someone or something, but it can be the author’s opinion as well. Here are some examples:
- The dresser must have weight a ton.
- She stood as thin as a reed.
- He must have been working for days.
This tool, in particular, is great because you can use it to induce irony. Normally hyperbole is an exaggeration, but when used ironically it can bring a lot of humor to your work. Uncle Rolo is dead, and so when he says something like, “I would miss family dinner even if I were six feet under,” this hyperbole is humorous. When Braidy describes his grandmother, he could say, “She’s older than all the trees in the world.” This, too, is ironic because Braidy’s grandmother is an ancient fairy. This statement, while it seems exaggerated, is actually true.
This is probably one of my favorite tools to use. By using personification, you as the writer give inanimate objects, feelings, or anything else nonhuman human traits. By doing this often, you can give a magical feeling to your worlds by making everything seem alive. For example:
- The door groaned when he opened it.
- The light danced through the stained glass window.
- The metal chair screamed as she dragged it across the concrete floor.
Personification can be combined with simile to really make a statement and is an effective way of describing the sound without literally describing the sound. This makes your writing a lot more interesting and can also force stronger emotional reactions onto your reader.
Imagery is something that takes a lot of time. Don’t worry about putting it into your first draft because your first draft is just about getting your story down in its basic structure. As Neil Gaiman says, “The process of doing your second draft is a process of making it look like you knew what you were doing all along.” When you go through your work again, look for places you can smuggle in loads of delicious detail without overloading your readers with Telling vs Showing. You’ve spent so long developing your world, so use these tools to inform your readers without shoving those details down their throats.
If you take the time to implement these tools, your prose will be the most vivid it’s ever been. You’ll read your own work and say, “Wow, that’s brilliant.” That’s exactly what you want. You want to give yourself goosebumps as much as you give them to your readers. When you’re done, you’ll be super proud of your work!
To get a jump start on implementing this, do some small exercises! Find a writing prompt from Tumblr or anywhere else on the great, big, beautiful internet, and write a short story. It can be less than 3000 words, but make it the best 3000 words you’ve ever written in your life. So, go on! Get to it! When you’re done with your work, you can send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org! I would LOVE to read your beautiful prose!