Saturday, 22 February 2014
This is a subject that I often get asked about by writers who want to understand the concept of imagery and why it’s important in fiction writing, but more importantly they want to know how they can use it effectively.
Imagery is about description, but it is the kind of description that brings depth to otherwise flat depiction. It brings the narrative to life. It is designed to enhance sensory experiences.
To use it effectively, writers need to understand the functionality of imagery.
Imagery in fiction isn’t just about describing actions or telling the reader what is happening. Instead the use of imagery allows the reader to identify with the story, the characters and the themes by making the reader see everything in their mind, just like a picture or a movie.
Good use of imagery allows the reader access to ‘see’ into the story on a different level.
How does it become effective?
It’s done through various techniques. Writers have so many tools at their disposal, but rarely use them to full effect. Visual prompts, senses, sounds, colours, metaphors and similes all help enhance description.
The idea is to convey the image in small brush strokes that results in something vivid.
The most often used imagery is visual, the direct heightening of basic description, and it encompasses so many elements within the narrative. This is the reader’s direct way of seeing the action and characters within the story through the writer’s use of enhanced description.
For example: “Moon glare poked through ruffled clouds” or something like “waves heaved and folded against the hull, beckoning the rush of the storm”.
Colours play an important part of creating the right visual imagery. Edgar Allen Poe is a master of imagery, for instance, “…black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled luster by the dwelling” is a simple but effective use of colours to evoke the imagery.
The senses play an important role in fiction writing because while the reader may be able to read and absorb the story, without senses to act upon, the narrative would remain featureless. Adding senses to description allows the reader to imagine them, too. And of course, where possible, use the character’s senses, their point of view.
Auditory imagery use sounds to enhance the narrative. For example, “a sound of broken shells underfoot”, “her voice sounded like a clanking chain” or “breezes whispered through trees like a chorus”. These create the kind of sensory images that help the reader build up a picture of the scene.
Olfactory imagery can also be suggestive because, if done correctly, it creates a sense of smell with the reader. With a bit of thought, they can become easy to construct.
For example, “The scent of roiled earth lingered on his fingertips” or “A heavy hint of dank moss and rotted flowers…”
Tactile imagery is about the sense of touch. Describing it is sometimes more difficult than the other senses, but the clever choice of words will help writers overcome this.
For example, “Grandpa’s skin felt like grains of sand between my fingers”, “Her lips pressed against mine, soft as velvety rose petals”. You get the idea.
Gustatory imagery refers of the sense of taste. This kind of imagery is quite easy to create, again with the right word choice, to make the description vivid. Something could taste sweet or sour, but rather than simply telling the reader, you could show it through imagery. For example:
“He winced as the vinegary liquid bristled against his tongue before sloping down his throat and leaving a brackish aftertaste…”
Kinesthetic imagery is all about conveying a sense of movement, whether it is physical, like an action made by a character, movements by objects etc, or non-physical, such as the passing of time.
The often quoted, “Tossing their heads in sprightly dance” is a great example of kinesthetic imagery from Wordsworth’s poem Daffodils.
Writers can also use metaphors and similes to create the right imagery as a way to imply comparisons for the right dramatic effect. For instance, “She drowned in her own tears”, “He lived in a gilded cage”, or ‘Living is easy; death is the burden.”
I love this example by Cynthia Ozick, from Rosa: “The streets were a furnace, the sun an executioner."
A simile is recognised by the use of ‘like’ or ‘as’. For instance, ‘Her eyes were like a waterfall,’ or ‘He was a hot as hell’.
Imagery doesn’t work if the writer forgets to add some of these elements. The descriptions end up flat and lacklustre. It also doesn’t work if writers over use imagery. Instead, lightly pepper your description, but don’t overdo it with great chunks, otherwise it will become ‘overwriting’.
If writers want to fully understand the beauty of imagery, then they should read as many novels as possible. There if never any shortage of examples.
This excellent excerpt is from one of my favourite novels, To Kill a Mockingbird. “Her face was the color of a dirty pillowcase, and the corners of her mouth glistened with wet, which inched like a glacier down the deep grooves enclosing her chin...”
It simply oozes imagery, from the ‘dirty pillowcase’ colour, the mouth ‘glistened with wet’ and ‘inched like a glacier’.
Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn also exudes imagery. “The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o'clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist.”
‘Backing wind’, ‘Granite sky’, ‘mizzling rain’ coupled with ‘pallor of winter’ and ‘cloaking them in mist’ evokes so many images, which heightens the description to great effect.
The idea with imagery is to find the right words, to create something intense and rich, something the reader will remember and enjoy. In other words, be different, be creative, be visceral. Above all, be imaginative.
Next week: How to avoid author intrusion.
Saturday, 15 February 2014
Redundancy in fiction writing is something all writers do. It comes about via repetition of certain words or phrases, characteristics or narrative. Writers don’t always realise they repeat certain word structures, or phrases, because the mind unconsciously blots out these anomalies while focused on writing. It’s not until the writer looks back at the work that some of these repetitions jump off the page.
That’s when some snippets of what you have written become redundant.
Thankfully, the editing stage will help writers weed out such instances, but sometimes even the most advanced writers can miss them, so it’s important to be self-aware of them.
Repeated Word structures
It’s surprising how easily we repeat the same noun or verb or adjective in one paragraph or scene and thus end up making the sentence structure weak. The reason why writers miss them is because they are subtle and not as overt as repeated words that might stand out more from the narrative.
John stared at the darkness outside, unsure of the shifting shadows peering at him. A strange blackness glared back, distorting his reflection in the window, leaving him with the feeling of being watched.
To the untrained eye, it is not too noticeable, but the sentences in this example use various redundant words which all mean the same thing: ‘Stared’, ‘peering’, ‘glared’ and ‘watched’. The sentence structure is weakened by these, and although this is an extreme example, it shows just how easily we can miss them when we’re busy getting that first draft down.
By replacing or removing the redundant words, it is possible to tighten the sentence structure, as follows:
John stared at the darkness outside, unsure of the shifting shadows in the corner of his eye. A strange blackness pressed against the window pane, distorting his reflection and leaving him with the feeling of being watched.
This example shows that with better editing, redundant word structures can be tidied up or eliminated.
Phrases are something that sometimes unconsciously slips into the narrative, simply because writers are so focused on the writing that they’ve forgotten that they may have used the same phrase earlier in chapter 7, for instance, and now they are repeating it in chapter 25. This especially true if it’s a particularly good phrase.
Sometimes phrases are innocuous, such as ‘the clouds curtained the moon’ and so writers sometimes repeat them in their narrative without realising. Other phrases structures can be a little deeper, the kind that stay in the memory because of their impact, for instance ‘…she drowned beneath a veil of red’.
But of course, editing usually weeds these from the narrative. That way, we don’t end up using the same phrases multiple times throughout the story.
Even if you, the writer, don’t spot these, your reader inevitably will.
Repeated Character Traits
It is surprising how many times writers have multiple characters sharing the same traits, such playing with their hair, rubbing the chin, fiddling with their spectacles etc. It’s easy to project these characteristics onto all of our characters, again, without realising.
But the truth is, each character should be individual, so that not only are they three dimensional and believable, but the reader can identify them easily, just by their habits and idiosyncrasies. Character traits should be a personal thing rather than shared characteristic.
Make sure at the editing stage that your characters are individual in the sense that they have their own personal foibles, habits and qualities. Make them distinguishable. If you find they share similar traits, then change them.
Editing is a wonderful thing. It allows writers to correct mistakes, tighten the narrative and tidy up necessary threads.
The idea is to be aware of these things while you write, to minimise the editing you have to do. If you don’t learn to pick up these kinds of errors, the narrative will end up littered with repeated usage of word structures, phrases, character traits, even specific words…and the reader will quickly grow tired of them.
Think carefully about your sentence structures and the words you use. Think about the phrases you have used and try not to repeat them. And think about the little things that make your characters – make them individual.
But don’t writers use repetition all the time?
Repetition can be very effective, if used correctly, for the right reason.
Deliberate word repetition is sometimes used by writers. They are known ‘trigger’ words, because they trigger certain feelings and responses with the reader.
Think about nursery rhymes. Many have a repetitive strand. That’s how we remember them. As writers, we can manipulate the reader in the same manner, by repeating certain trigger or key words.
Certain phrases are also repeated deliberately, but they must be engineered carefully and must be in context.
In one of my stories I used the phrase ‘red snow’ as a vivid metaphor. I did this a couple of times in order to generate an auto-response in the reader. That’s because they had read and understood what that phrase meant from when it was first mentioned, and so when it was repeated, it immediately generated an emotional response.
Repetition for effect is fine, but most repetition is a natural occurrence during writing, and thus it becomes redundant. Always try to be aware of your writing – it’s the difference between meaningful fiction and redundant narrative.
Next week: How to use imagery effectively
Saturday, 8 February 2014
Themes are not always foremost in a writer’s mind when writing, but every good book needs a theme, or two.
So what exactly are themes?
The theme of a novel or short story is about the core topics or principles covered in the story, the things readers don’t always first realise. They are the lessons the story wishes to teach and the deeper meanings it wants readers to uncover. Essentially theme is about the meaning of the story.
Themes can happen naturally during the course of writing, or they can be pre-planned by the author, who might have definitive issues he or she may want to explore.
What is their function?
Firstly, themes should not be confused with plot. They are very different things and both have very different functions. Plot represents what your story is about. Themes represent the meanings within the story.
Themes embody the different subjects that might surface during writing. Stories need them in order to help the reader understand the concept of the story. Themes often take a backseat to the main plot, but their function shouldn’t be underestimated.
For instance, what if you had a story about two characters that are fighting in a war on opposing sides, but they are thrown together during the conflict? That’s the main plot, but the themes that might underpin the story are interesting to explore, such as a theme of hatred of each other and what each represents. Or what about the theme of conflict and the terrible repercussions that accompany it? What about the theme of tolerance and understanding? Perhaps there is room for a theme of forgiveness.
You could incorporate all of these themes, or different ones, because they relate directly to the plot.
The thing to understand with theme is that you don’t have to stick to just one theme. Many novels have several themes running through the story. There are no rules here; writers can have as many or as few themes as they wish. The best advice here is not to overload the narrative, so three or four important themes are more than ample.
Are they necessary in fiction?
Often themes emerge without the writer even noticing. A simple love story could carry several themes. The obvious ones would be love and lust, but it might also involve betrayal or deceit. These are valid themes for this kind of story.
A crime novel might have darker themes running through it – deceit, vengeance, hate. A sci-fi might explore themes of discovery, knowledge or humanity.
I recently wrote a short horror story, Bait and Chase, about two gamblers who, through their greed, ended up fighting each other to the death for the pleasure of others. The main theme was about greed, what it does to people and the consequences it brings. Other themes covered irrational fears, the kind we all have, and the feelings of remorse. The story also covered the primitive urge of flight or fight – the need to stay alive, no matter what.
These themes ran through the entire story, they’re not overt, but instead subtle, in the background, where they gave the story relevance, detail and the deeper meanings that readers always appreciate.
The list of genres and themes are endless, but it gives you an idea of how they interact with the main plot.
So, to answer the question, themes are necessary in fiction if you want to give your reader more than just a standard plot. Themes help us explore what is happening around us, it helps us to understand humanity – why we do the things we do, what makes us all tick. And writing is primarily the exploration of why people do what they do, for whatever reasons. Humanity has always tried to provide answers to everything. Writers are no different. Even the simplest story needs explanation, and themes help writers to get their message across to the reader.
Don’t be too worried when you start writing that you haven’t any main themes and you think have to arrange or force themes into the story. Don’t force them. They will emerge naturally as you characterise, plot and write.
More advanced or methodical writers, however, may wish to plan the kind of themes required for their specific genre/plot, and will study the subjects closely in order to get a feel for what they want.
As already stated, there are no written rules. Writers choose whatever method suits. But the main thing is to have those themes in order to help your readers understand the story, the characters and the message you want to get across.
Next week: Redundancy in fiction writing
©Bait and Chase, 2013, Thirteen O’clock Publications
Monday, 3 February 2014
Rather like the adage, ‘show, don’t tell’, tempt, tease and tantalise should be a mantra for all writers to remember, simply because it embodies many of the ideals that writers should aim for within their writing.
The premise of these three elements is pretty self explanatory, but the basic idea is to tempt the reader, to draw them in to begin with, then to tease them with what the story might be, what might happen, what it offers, and then, ultimately, to tantalise them with the developing story right up until the dénouement.
Tempt your Reader
Right from the opening sentence, your story must grab the reader’s attention.
Your job as a writer is to lure the reader into reading more than the obligatory opening sentence; you have to entice and persuade them to read beyond that first page, then the second page and the third page and so on, always maintaining that level of interest. Make it difficult for them to leave it alone.
But why bother? Well, there is a very good reason. If you fail to engage the readers from the outset, they won’t bother reading past the first few paragraphs. It’s the difference between someone wanting to read the story or leaving alone. It’s a stark fact. Make no mistake; readers are very discerning. The first few lines really do sell the whole concept.
Of course, grabbing the reader’s attention doesn’t mean that you have to employ fireworks and explosions, or open with a definitive bang in order to grab the reader’s interest. Openings can be subtle yet intriguing. As long as the opening paragraph engages them, then you’ve managed to tempt them.
Tease your Reader
Once you’ve sufficiently engaged your reader and lured them into wanting to know more about your story and characters, then it’s time to tickle their interest further. It’s hard enough to grab them in the first place, but it’s just as hard to keep them reading until the end of the story. Writers do this by constantly teasing readers in order to maintain their attention.
But how do writers do it?
Teasing readers entails many elements at the writer’s disposal, some obvious, some not so obvious.
The most obvious teasers are things like interesting sub plots, forcing the reader to concentrate on several strands of the story rather than one main strand. Writers also plant many red herrings, making the reader believe they know what might happen, but often it means they’ve been cleverly fooled by the end of the story.
Teasing also means the writer poses questions within the narrative, just for the reader to figure out for themselves. They also deliberately wrong foot the reader by making make them guess at certain outcomes, but those outcomes are quite different at the final reveal.
The less obvious ways to tease the reader are to plant clues throughout the narrative for the reader to surmise, or to reveal snippets of information at key moments to keep the reader’s juices flowing, to keep them thinking, to keep them guessing, to keep them imagining.
Tantalise the reader
To tantalise and tease are pretty much the same, but it’s how a writer executes the way he or she tantalises the reader that counts. Tempting them to invest in your story is one thing, and then teasing them just adds to the thrill of it all. But never miss the opportunity to tantalise, too.
But what exactly does that mean?
If you have certain scenes within your novel that demand more than a straightforward tease, then a generous dose of excitement, danger, trepidation, emotion or fear always gets their juices flowing. This is where the narrative becomes tantalising.
The injection of emotion creates the right atmosphere for the story. Characters will always become embroiled in myriad emotions. Characters will always get into trouble or find the going tough. They will face danger. They will face their fears. They will undoubtedly feel excitement or trepidation (and a multitude of other emotions; whichever you decide).
This kind of thing will force readers to ask, ‘what will happen to them?’, ‘how will they get out of that situation?’ or ‘will they make it?’
Tantalising the reader involves writers openly flirting with their reader’s emotions all the way through the story, and right up to the end. At times it can be a merciless flirtation. Remember, every turn of the page must hold your reader’s interest.
Tempt, tease and tantalise from start to finish. Grab your reader, keep them interested and push them all the way to the conclusion.
Of course, the greatest tease is always, ‘how will the story end?’
How indeed. That all depends on how well the writer can tease, tempt and tantalise.
Next week: Themes – What are they and how are they used?