Stephen King wrote, “Imagery does not occur on the writer’s page; it occurs in the reader’s mind. To describe everything is to supply a photograph in words; to indicate the points which seem the most vivid and important to you, the writer, is to allow the reader to flesh out your sketch into a portrait.”*
A “photograph in words” encapsulates the meaning of asking a writer to use imagery to show the reader the story instead of telling them. The next time you look at a picture, think about the details — about the colors, textures, background, weather, positioning of people, their expressions — and use these intrinsic details to portray an image using words. As a writer you will discover that the image will come alive; it will appear in your mind and will translate to your reader’s imagination. With the details, the reader will have the tools to fully experience the story being told to them.
Using sensory details helps to create a vivid experience for the reader. When writing, try to view your scene using all of your senses. In your final draft, you may not include a detail from every sense, but your writing will benefit because you have fully felt and fully digested your story. I write from a sensory place. I feel every aspect of my story. I also observe using all of my senses.
A great way to train yourself to pay attention to detail is to people-watch in a populated, diverse environment. Pay attention to the conversations, the tone in the speaker’s voice. Their clothes. Mannerisms. Think about the environment: What do you hear? What do you smell? Taste? How did you feel sitting there? What mood was created? All of these details will make your writing explode. Imagery is the key that unlocks the story for the reader.
Another way to prompt the use of imagery is to take a short story, usually fiction, and to step into the character’s world by drawing what the character sees. Most writers will stop here, a bit confused, and ponder, what is my character seeing? At this point, I want to remind writers that when a person sits down with their piece of writing, there cannot be pictures or links to other content; the reader only has what the writer describes to them. Next, write what you drew, including ALL sensory details. I want a visceral experience; I want to know what the character sees, touches, smells, hears, and tastes.
Stephen King tells his students to “. . . use vivid verbs. Avoid the passive voice. Avoid the cliché. Be specific. Be precise. Be elegant. Omit needless words . . . see everything before you write it.”* Writers use metaphors and similes to compare what they are describing to an image that their reader is already familiar with. This technique assists the reader in making a connection with the real world. Metaphors and similes are strong literary techniques, but new writers tend to fall into comparisons that are overused. Stephen King says to avoid clichés, and I cannot agree more. When making a comparison, be original or avoid the technique all together. This skill requires imagination and has to develop over time, but author Bharti Kirchner reassures the writer that “[i]f [they] keep [their] tool sharp, the path from inspiration to finished work will be less daunting and more likely to end in success.”**
A reader instantly recognizes a writer who uses the rich sensory details of imagination when crafting their story versus one who has not. The imaginative writer engages the reader and propels them into a vivid oasis of detail whereas the non-imaginative writer comes across as mechanical, prescribed, and flat. Writers have to remember these words by Stephen King: “Image leads to story, and story leads to everything else. But also remember that a writer’s greatest pleasure is in seeing, and seeing well.”*
I wonder if the confinement we put on writing in school has affected students’ writing abilities. With this thought in mind, I want to motivate and encourage all writers to let go of the confines that they have experienced while writing technical or academic pieces and to allow their words to paint an image on the page. Bharti Kirchner writes that “[b]oth imagination and inspiration play important roles. Not working from an outline, for example, allowed [her] to discover the story a sentence or two at a time.”** Remember, writers, that a “fresh story idea inspires you first, then challenges you in an unexpected way as you strive to bring it to existence.”**
I have an appeal to make from the perspective of a writer and a teacher: I encourage you to use your imagination every day because your creativeness will indeed bleed over into your writing, and your writing will be better for it. Step away from the ready image in the digital world, and be original. Remember that your story will come alive as you write it; and, as a living creature, it deserves the same intrinsic detail that you aim to capture in a picture. Close your eyes and delve into your scene and into your characters, and give them a life through detail, remembering that “fiction is a moment-by-moment experience for the reader.”** The job of an author is to make sure that the reader has the necessary equipment to fully enjoy the story.
I will leave you with these final words of wisdom: Write with images in mind, and your story will transform into a piece of art where your words resemble brush strokes on a canvas.
*King, Stephen. “Use Imagery to Bring Your Story to Life: Give Readers the Right Descriptive Details So They Can Create a Picture in Their Heads.” The Writer 123.8 (2010).
** Kirchner, Bharti. “Inspiration Plus Craft is the Key.” The Writer 116.11 (2003).