5 Key Ways To Entice Readers with Imagery

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

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Imagery conveys more than describing a setting. Done right, it can enhance the emotion and pull the reader into your writing in a unique way to them. It’s not merely about “show don’t tell.” Imagery is a skill that embellishes your author voice. Below are my thoughts on imagery and what’s worked for me.

1.) No Description Dumps – Layer your imagery into the scene in delicious morsels. Entice with flashes for the senses. Don’t stop your story to overwhelm the reader with detailed description dumps that will slow the pace and stall the action.

Example: Excerpts below are from The Last Victim (Jordan Dane) – Spears of light filtered through green leaves and daylight dappled the ground in colors that reminded me of light shining through the stained glass of a church. 

2.) Have the imagery enhance the intended emotion of the scene. Description shouldn’t sound like it came from a dictionary or research book.

Stilted Description (Example Only): Over the years, the floor of a forest became thick layers of pine needles that forced me to watch where I stepped.
Improved Version: The forest floor had a thick layer of decaying pine needles and fallen leaves that gave a pungent rich smell to the soil. The path buckled under my weight as if I were treading on a mattress. 

3.) Choose action words or descriptive Words that convey/enhance the senses – Action Words like slash, shiver, jab, or pound, denote the action they describe. Words like skitter, slither, squeeze, or ripple “sound” like the action they describe. So by toiling over each word in a scene (in your draft revisions), you can layer in greater imagery for the reader to “hear” or “feel.”

Example: With half-lidded eyes I relaxed into the moment and dropped my gaze to Justine’s boots as she walked ahead. I listened to the hypnotic sounds of the forest and let the subtle noises close in. A light breeze jostled the treetops and birds flitted in the branches over my head. My boots made soft thuds on the decomposing sod under my feet. Nature had a palpable and soothing rhythm.

4.) Use vivid imagery from your own past experience or pick something relatable and universal to others. For example, we’ve all been scared. Share your own worst fear, but in the context of your scene.

5.) Now, break down that emotion into how the body reacts inch by savory inch. Don’t rush it. Put the reader front and center through their senses. Trigger their own experiences. That’s why it’s important not to overdo the description. Simply hint at imagery that will trigger your reader’s minds. Be selective and pare down the images to the most vital and effective pieces.

1.) In your comments, please share an example of imagery in your current WIP.

2.) And please share what works for you when it comes to writing imagery.

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15 thoughts on “5 Key Ways To Entice Readers with Imagery

  1. I adore imagery, especially similes and metaphors, but I have learned to control the impulse. Once I had three conflicting similes in the same paragraph! Fortunately, someone was kind enough to tell me about it.

    For minor characters, I love using imagery for their descriptions, e.g., despite his expensive suit, he looked like a man who ate too fast and talked with his mouth full.

    What works for me? Sometimes nothing, i.e., no matter how hard I try, I can’t find the right image. When I relax and stop fretting about it, I’m more likely to find something apt and natural, something that doesn’t look like writing.

    I love finding what I call ‘invisible metaphors,’ the ones that most readers don’t even realize are there, e.g., a man grinds a cigarette butt into the ground…in the context, a metaphor for leaving his last bit of human decency behind (perhaps that’s more symbolism than metaphor.)

    I’ll often try to create a picture with character descriptions, e.g., he had more dandruff than hair. Not really imagery in the sense of using a literary technique such as simile or metaphor, but I think the reader can create an image from the description. Anything to get away from describing a character by what they’re weariing or by creating a list of their features, i.e., green eyes, black hair, etc.

    Noah Lukeman, in THE FIRST FIVE PAGES, says that we’re allowed one metaphor every five pages. Of course, he may not mean that literally; it’s simply a warning that writers can tend to use too many, especially if we come from an English Lit background.

    In the final analysis, I think choosing the right words, the words that fit the tone or mood you want to create, means more than getting carried away with imagery. I once read a passage from a novice writer where tall grasses danced in the breeze. Might have been fine in a different context, but the passage was part of a thriller where the good guys were waiting to find the right moment to attack a compound. Didn’t work for obvious reasons.

    • I love all your examples. Thanks for joining in the conversation.

      I read a book where the author went crazy with metaphors. Oh my gosh, it was painful. The overload was like a gnat buzzing at my eyes. (You see what I did there?) Thanks, Sheryl.

  2. 1)
    A lanky man, wearing a black tee shirt and dungarees, jumped onto the stage and strummed a few chords on his guitar. When the crowd quieted, he stopped strumming and introduced himself.

    “I am Pedro Garcia Sanchez,” he said in heavily-accented English. “I am here to sing about my country, Nicaragua, a country of soulful people ravaged by politics, greed, and war. In this month of September, falls the fourth anniversary of the people’s hero: poet and musical composer, Rigoberto López Pérez. I shall begin by humbly performing his poem, “Confesion de un Soldado,” to my own melody.”

    Clapping and loud cheers erupted from the audience with this announcement and followed every song Pedro performed. He sang them all in Spanish with closed eyes and a voice so rich and haunting that Patrick understood his pain, even though he didn’t understand the words.

    2) When writing imagery–whether it’s a scene from memory, or a totally fictional scene like the one above–I try on different sensual characteristics until I find the one(s) that produce a flavor I like.

    • Vivid images. I could smell the cigarette smoke, see faces in the shadows, and hear the tinkle of ice hitting the bottom of a glass. Thanks, TL.

  3. Perfect, Jordan! It seems every time I am about to sit down to write, I read a timely reminder here. In high-school, the writing style encouraged was overblown with descriptive adjectives. It has taken many creative writing courses and constant vigilance to overcome that foundation.

    I like the teasing of the senses in the examples. It mimics how the mind registers the environment as we move and react. Unless we’re just out on a nature walk, we don’t think in great detail about the sights and smells and feel, these sensations twine themselves through our thoughts and actions.

    • Perfectly said, Julie. Memorable moments in imagery make us feel something by triggers, not full on descriptions. Thanks for your insightful comment.

  4. 1. You never really know how much your truck needs a wash or how sensitive your sunburned face is until someone slams them into each other.

    My lips were suction-cupped to my rear passenger window, but I tried to ask, “Excuse me officer, why did you pull me over?” However, it came out more like “Scuz meh sir, y ullll me ver?” My quite reasonable question made an additional knock to the back of my head necessary by today’s police standards. The pressure exchange had the side-effect of detaching my lips, which temporarily realigned my nose and caused my eyes to water, making eyelash mud on the window.

    2. You’re brilliant Jordan! (I love your scene work, by the way, it’s always WOW!)
    I think you found a way to describe why I really hate some descriptive passages and want to skip over them- instead of an “info dump” you get a “description dump”…. I’d not thought of it that way before, but that is IT! Layering description in and having it move the story along is what makes it valuable, descriptive, enhancing, and useful. Of course now that we’ve defined the problem it is one more layer of writing & editing to add in tomthe process.

    • There’s always something to do, isn’t there, Penny.

      When I see weighty long paragraphs ahead and the author’s descriptions aren’t engaging, that is skip time for me. It’s not just describing an action, but about triggering feelings and experiences for the reader. At least that’s what I strive for as I write.

      Your example scene is very vivid, Penny. I could feel the grit on my skin. Ha!

  5. I’m reminded of one high school student who had a metaphor assignment. He was close to getting it: “He was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree.”

  6. Did you know the Washington Post runs a bad metaphor and simile contest? Here’s one of my fave’s from it:

    From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie,
    surreal quality, like when you’re on vacation in another city and
    Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.

    Hey, I know the feeling…

    • Here’s the winner from 2007:
      His fountain pen was so expensive it looked as if someone had grabbed the pope, turned him upside down and started writing with the tip of his big pointy hat.

  7. This scene is from Peril by Ponytail, and it’s based on my actual experience of exploring a copper mine in Arizona. Bringing in the five senses when describing a scene is important to me, as well as staying inside the character’s viewpoint.

    An earthy smell emanated from the rocky enclosure. Her light bounced off the walls, and her nape prickled as they proceeded into a dark tunnel.

    “If this leads into other shafts, we could get lost,” she said. “Shouldn’t we leave some sort of trail?” Old fairy tales came back to haunt her. They didn’t want to lose their sense of direction in a labyrinth.

    “I’m already on it.” Quinn took out a piece of chalk and marked an X on the wall. “We could have used a spool of string, but it might not be long enough. Besides, we won’t be in here too long. I don’t plan on going far.” His voice echoed against the rocks.

    Dusty ore carts stood on a track to their left. When the passage narrowed, they had to navigate the ties. It wasn’t easy, and Marla stumbled more than once. She was glad when the tunnel widened. Now and then, they came across discarded tools or rusty machinery that had long been abandoned. Every few feet, timber supported the walls and roof.

    “Why aren’t these wood beams more frequent?” she asked, sticking close behind Quinn. Dalton had switched places with her so he brought up the rear. She felt safer wedged between the two guys.

    “They reinforce the tunnels as we go along. Normally, a deep shaft is dug in a mine first. At the bottom, a tunnel is started across to where the ore can be found. This ends in an area called a stope. That’s where we worked. We constructed square sets out of timber to bolster the roof and walls and added rocks when we finished excavating in that area.”

    “How did you extract the ore?”

    “With blasting, drills, and pickaxes. We sent the broken ore down a chute into a cart. Once mules started hauling the carts, things got easier.”

    They came to an intersection, where two other tunnels led off into pitch blackness. Quinn drew more X’s on the walls along with arrows and the word, “Exit.” He chose to remain on the straight path. Further ahead, a series of rickety ladders led up and down to other levels. Cool air made Marla shiver.

    As you see, I like to intersperse description/imagery with dialogue and action.

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