Vivid Images: Sensory Details

Create Vivid Images to Bring a Novel to Life

“Vivid imagery makes a story world come alive,” says Stacy Whitman, Associate Editor at Wizards of the Coast (Update March, 2010: Whitman is now editorial director of the Tu Books imprint at Lee & Low.) Everyone agrees that a writer’s ability to create an image in a reader’s head through their words is integral to fiction and effective novels. When writers and editors push toward imagery vivid enough to transport readers to new worlds, there are many options.
Vivid Imagery Brings Your Novel to Life: Here's How. |
A book Whitman has edited is In the Serpent’s Coils: Hallomere (Wizards of the Coast, 2007), by Tiffany Trent, the first of a ten-book dark-fantasy novel series called Hallomere. (Update: Wizards of the Coast is no longer publishing stand alone fantasy novels and this series is out of print, only available from used book sources.) The series features six girls from around the world who are drawn together to rescue their missing schoolmates and prevent catastrophe in an epic battle between dark fey (or supernatural) worlds and the mortal world.

Vivid nature imagery sets mood. Whitman describes this short scene as having vivid nature imagery that sets a dreamy, magical tone for the novel, while emphasizing the Fey’s connection to nature:

hallomereBut then she saw a dark shimmer by the hemlocks again. The tall man turned, as though he felt her gaze. He wore shadows deeper than twilight, and, as before, she couldn’t see his face. But she felt his gaze, felt it through the swift gasp of her heart, the seizure in her knees. The Captain raised his hand to her, and she saw, despite the dusk, that his hand was shiny and scarlet, as though wet with blood.

Stark, direct description sets mood. Alan Gratz creates a different sort of mood in his award winning book, The Samurai Shortshop (Dial Books, 2006), through what he describes as stark and direct description. In one of the most emotional openings of a story in young adult literature, Toyo helps his Uncle Koji perform the Japanese ritual suicide, seppuku.

samuraiNow Toyo sat in the damp grass outside the shrine as his uncle moved to the center of the mats. Uncle Koji’s face was a mask of calm. He wore a ceremonial white kimono with brilliant red wings–the wings he usually wore only into battle. He was clean-shaven and recently bathed, and he wore his hair in a tight topknot like the samurai of old. Uncle Koji knelt on the tatami mats keeping his hands on his hips and his arms akimbo.

Both Gratz and Trent are paying particular attention to the sensory details used in creating distinct images. Sensory details are those things that a character sees, hears, feels (temperature, texture & kinesthetics), tastes, and smells. As human beings, we understand our world through these senses and including them in a story created the Show-Don’t-Tell imagery that makes a world come alive. Beginning writers often focus on visual details, but it’s essential to provide a variety of sensory details. While Gratz’s visual details are clear and precise, he also gives us the damp grass and the kinesthetics of how Uncle Koji holds his body.

Non-Fiction Vivid Imagery

Even in non-fiction writing, it’s essential to pay attention to sensory details. Carla McClafferty’s award winning book, Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium (FSG, 2006), pays careful attention to these details. As she researches a topic, McClafferty says, “I don’t want the information I share to be dry and boring as if it came out of an encyclopedia. I want it to be alive with details so the reader can visualize what is happening.”

Research vivid details for nonfiction. While researching Marie’s story, she paid attention to any details that could help create vivid imagery: At Marie’s Polish school, officials rang a bell to warn teachers when Russian inspectors came to make sure that only Russian history and language were being taught–no Polish. The bell adds imagery to the opening:

curieTwo long rings, two short–the dreaded warning bell cut through the classroom noise. Four schoolgirls launched into action. Forbidden Polish books and papers were gathered with speed and precision into aprons and hidden. The girls slipped silently back into their seats just before the door opened to reveal the enemy.

Approach Imagery Through Choosing the Right Details

What do authors focus on as they try to create vivid imagery? The traditional answer might be to select great adjectives and metaphors. But Gratz and McClafferty offer different advice.

Simplify. Gratz says his first drafts are overwritten and he concentrates on simplifying: “Since seppuku is already a startlingly graphic thing, I knew that to overplay it would ruin it. I used the occasional metaphor (‘his body deflated like a torn rice sack’) but for the most part I presented the ritual steps in almost a clinical fashion. I wanted to show the suicide in the simplest most direct means possible.”

He revised numerous times, always with this mantra: simplify, simplify, simplify.

This extended even to the dialogue between the father and son that ends the ritual suicide chapter; Gratz simplified until only five lines, 23-words remained:

“Did you watch carefully?” his father asked.
“Hai,” Toyo said.
“You observed precisely how it was done?”
“Hai, Father.”
“Good,” Sotaro Shimada said to his son. “Soon you will do the same for me.”

Choose details carefully. Strong verbs and specific nouns are the core of the writing; adjectives, adverbs and metaphors are only added as needed. McClafferty says, “It’s like cooking with cayenne pepper–you want to give it some spice–but you don’t want to overpower the whole thing.”

In other words, these authors are making choices, selecting the right details. Whitman says, “Improving imagery doesn’t just mean becoming more and more observant of the sensory world around you. It also means knowing how to express that imagery. . . An author can even use too much imagery, muddying the intended effect.”

Focus. The key is to select, choose, simplify, focus. Whitman says, “Get to the core of the scene.” In the Hallowmere selection above, the first draft focused on the main character’s point of view, what she was seeing. “It pulled the reader away from WHAT Corrine saw, and too much was happening. The core of the scene, the man with the red hand lurking in the shadows, was lost. The revision picked a smaller number of images to narrow in on, allowing those images the strength they need to evoke the mood.”

Study this original version to see how the selection above is more focused:

She could see the very edge of the hawthorn if she leaned out far enough. Ghostly light from the hedge flashed in response to the sky above. In one of the flashes, she saw a tall figure standing in front of the hawthorn, and although it was man-shaped, she had the distinct feeling that it wasn’t entirely human. She also was quite sure it was looking at her. The being raised its hand towards her. It’s outstretched palm glistened in the uncertain light.

guineapig Simplifying a scene through careful selection of details can be accomplished by paying attention to other things, as well. Mel Boring, author, with Leslie Dendy, of Guinea Pig Scientists (Henry Holt, 2005) and several non-fiction titles from Northword Press, says, “For me, it’s how the scene affects the reader, and how s/he interacts with the scene. I try to dissolve any barrier between the reader and the scene being described. I want the reader to feel as if they are acting a part in the story.” He chooses sensory details for the purpose of putting the reader in the character’s shoes.

Approach Imagery Through Character

Character driven author has to remember to add details. Not all authors add imagery automatically; they come to it through a different route. Candie Moonshower, author of The Legend of Zoey (Delacorte Press 2006), says she is a character-driven kind of writer. “I have to remind myself to not forget sensory details. My first draft is always a huge info dump–I write fast and furious, spelling out the plot for myself, a bare-bones plot, often, but at least I have the story from which to hang the details. I then go back through and cut all the unnecessary verbiage. On the third draft is when I start asking questions about sensory details and also the psychology of the scene and character.”

Moonshower wants to put the reader into the mind and emotions of her character. In this excerpt, Zoey is looking for her mule, King George. Moonshower says, “I focus on showing how the mule’s appearance let Zoey know that he’d been through a lot to make it back to her, so I used details such as his ribs showing, his mangy coat and his stinky smell. I also wanted to evoke Zoey’s real emotion at seeing her mule-friend again–how every much it means to her that in the midst of her topsy-turvy flight into a chaotic and frightening past, King George the Mule can be counted on.”

zoeyI took off my shoes and stepped into the creek. The water was frigid, but that didn’t stop me. I desperately wanted to catch King George before he ran away again. He still wore his bridle with the reins dangling in front, though his packs had disappeared. . .
In answer, the mule nudged me, hard. I threw my arms around his broad chest and cried into his mangy coat. He was skinny and he stank a bit, but no animal had ever looked as dear to me as King George.

Details reveal character. notJennifer Wingertzahn, Editor at Clarion Books (Update: Wingertzahn is no longer an editor.) agrees that vivid writing can open up a scene and reveal character. “By showing us a scene–fleshing it out with dialogue, perspective, voice, and language–it opens those characters up and lets the readers see them interact firsthand. Suddenly these characters feel more real because we can hear their voice and see the drama between them for ourselves.” She points to Deborah Davis’s YA novel, Not Like You (Clarion, 2007) as an author who uses vivid writing to peel back the layers of characters.

Approach Imagery Through Common Human Experiences

As a nonfiction writer, McClafferty takes a different route toward imagery, too. “Some things are common to all people. For example, everyone knows what it feels like to be hot, cold, afraid or hungry. So as a writer you can take what is common human experience and use it to flesh out the scene. You can’t make up any ‘facts’ in nonfiction, but you can add details that make it read like fiction. In the opening scene of Something Out of Nothing, I knew that the Russian inspector was fat. But I don’t say that. I mentioned his gold-rimmed glasses perched on his round face and that he squeezed into a chair. That gives you a visual of him without saying he was overweight. In my research I didn’t see a sentence that said he squeezed into a chair, but I know he was overweight, and I know what kind of chairs usually fill classrooms, especially a classroom for young girls. And I’ve seen overweight men sit down in a chair in a child’s classroom and noticed how they seem to sort of squeeze down in them, and then have trouble getting up from them. I felt it safe to say this overweight man squeezed into the chair, because it’s a common human experience. You get the information about this man, but in a way that seems natural to the story.”

Nonfiction still requires vivid imagery, but often writers must infer from given facts what it would feel like for a person to be in a particular situation.

Approach Imagery with Strong Word Choices

farmerAnother route into vivid imagery is for those writing magazine articles, where the limited word count controls many of the decisions about a story. Katy Duffield, author of Farmer McPeepers and His Missing Milk Cows (Rising Moon, 2003) and magazine articles in Highlights for Children, AppleSeeds and Clubhouse, says, “One strong verb can replace several weak words. I concentrate on fun, action words kids will enjoy. It may sound boring, but a neat exercise is to take an old manuscript and change every verb. Often, the tone changes dramatically, making the story more vivid, more accurate, and especially, more fun.”

Narration and Imagery

eragon Imagery makes scenes come alive; but fiction is created by interweaving narration and scenes that evoke specific imagery. The narration ties together the scenes with information that interprets the events; or, it can function as transitions between scenes. Boring says, “The images must not overbear the narrative, so that the images become ‘sidetrips’ away from the narrative.” He points to the Eragon series , by Christopher Paolini as an example of vivid images. “Not only are his images sharply vivid, but the narrative transports you to a fantasy setting with scene touches and descriptions that dissolve any barrier to being transported to that fantasy.”

Whitman reinforces this idea: “Vivid images are at the service of narration.” She offers these examples:

  • Clunky narration: Corrine felt rough hands at the back of her smock tying the laces.
    Smoother: Rough hands turned Corrine and tied the laces at the back of her smock.
  • Clunky narration: Corrine felt that Mara eyed all of them, especially her, with a piercing
    Smoother: Mara eyed all of them, especially Corrine, with a piercing disregard.

Moonshower sums it up: “I’m a big fan of purity and simplicity. If I can write imagery in such a way that it speaks to some experience a child has had–whatever that experience might be, and it could be different for each child–and that imagery is intrinsic to the scene and the characters, then I feel I’ve done my job. When I first started writing for children, I tried to write beautifully and lyrically, but when it is forced, it is often a lot of beautiful lyricism that says nothing to the child reader. Now I try and say it in a way that speaks to the child in me, and I hope that it speaks to other children, too.”

Whether you overwrite or underwrite your first draft doesn’t matter: it only matters that between the first draft and the last draft you remember to bring the scene to life, to open it up, with vivid imagery.

This article first appeared in the Children’s Writer’s Guide to 2008, Writer’s Institute.

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