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Create Powerful Imagery in Your Writing

Categories: Craft & Technique, Excerpts, How to Improve Writing Skills, Literary Fiction Writing, There Are No Rules Blog by the Editors of Writer's Digest, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy, Writing Your First Draft Tags: craft/technique, fiction writing, write better.

We’ve heard the old montage “Show, don’t tell” so many times that it’s become stale–and what does it mean, anyway? It’s an easy phrase to utter, but how do you achieve resonant, meaningful description that will make your words come alive? This simple checklist, from The Writer’s Little Helper by James V. Smith, Jr., is a concise list of best practices for creating rich imagery that will have your readers clamoring for more.

  • Paint the image in small bites. Never stop your story to describe. Keep it going, incorporating vivid images, enlarging the action, and putting the dialogue in context.

A sponge carpet of pine needles covered the trail. It cushioned their soles and absorbed the sounds of their footsteps.
Rhonda stopped short and whispered, “Something’s coming. There. To the right. A bear?”

  • Incorporate images into action. Suppose I had written:

A million years of discarded pine needles lay on the forest floor, carpeting the trail.

That’s description. Static. The author’s talking. Can you hear him reading from an encyclopedia? The difference in the first version is tying their walking to soundless footsteps. This clears the way for Rhonda to hear and see.

She pointed at a looming hulk, for all the good that pointing would do in the ink of night.
Bill grasped her arm. “No. It couldn’t be.”
But the crashing of brush told them it could.
“Yes. Get up a tree.”

  • See through the character’s eyes. Hear through her ears. When you can, use the character’s senses instead of the author’s. It’s called character point of view.

She felt her pulse both in her throat and under the grip of that hand of his crushing her forearm. His breath. She heard it in short, chattering bursts. She smelled it, too. Fear stunk.

  • Use the tiny but telling detail.

She tore free of his grip and leaped off the trail. A spider’s web tugged at her face. Any other time she would have screamed. She ran into a tree, a rough pine bough slapped her breasts, and needles stabbed at her eyes. Any other time she would have cursed.

The spider’s web. Ever ran into one?

  • Choose action-bearing verbs. Cushioned, absorbed, stopped, whispered, pointed, grasped, tore, leaped, tugged, screamed, ran, slapped, stabbed, cursed. These words do so much more than say what is. They indicate first fear, then panic.
  • Choose action-bearing non-verbs. Looming is a verb form used as an adjective. Crashing is used as a noun.
  • Invent fresh viewpoints.

She climbed blindly. And so quickly. Like a ladder. That was scary. If she could scale this pine so easily, couldn’t the bear climb it, too?
She drove her head into a branch. But the sound of crying wasn’t hers.
“Help. It’s got me.”
Bill. Oh, God, Bill.
The bear had him. Still she climbed, seeing nothing but sparklers of pain in her head.
He shrieked at her from the dark below.
She did not—could not—respond.

This is the viewpoint of a woman in panic and pain. When she looks into the darkness, she sees only sparklers. Clearly, she’s so frightened, she’s only trying to save herself.

  • Create an image without saying so.

The pine limbs now bent like those of a Christmas tree. A fresh breeze chilled her skin.
“Bill,” she whispered. “Speak to me, for God’s sake, speak to me, Bill.”
But he did not. All she could hear was snorting and thrashing. She put a hand to her mouth. She thought she might scream but nothing came out of her mouth. Fear of attracting the bear kept her quiet. The pitch on her hand glued her lips shut.
And, yes, the shame. That silenced her, too.
The thin limbs bending and the fresh breeze tells us Rhonda has climbed high into the tree. The chill tells us she’s been sweating. And the pitch, though she and we didn’t notice it in the climbing, is there on her hands and face.

The Writer’s Little Helper is filled with dynamic fiction-writing advice. It’s packed with big ideas, time-saving tips, and revision-made-easy charts–everything you need to know in order to create memorable characters, maintain a compelling pace, craft believable dialogue, and much more!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now let’s have some fun. In the comments, rewrite the following sentence into a more imagery-rich one using one or more the techniques described above.

The ancient floorboards creaked beneath her cold, bare feet as she paced the room apprehensively.


Rachel’s Pick of the Week

The Daily Writer: 366 Meditations to Cultivate a Productive and Meaningful Writing Life by Fred White

Everyone needs a dose of writing inspiration now and then, and this book contains an entire year’s worth: tidbits, excerpts, reflections, and advice to inspire the novice or seasoned writer. I love how each day’s entry comes with an exercise, so you can enhance your writing skills as you seek out inspiration.


 

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42 Responses to Create Powerful Imagery in Your Writing

  1. Rachael Murray says:

    Excellent and enjoyable article! I gave the prompt a shot, which was a lot of fun!

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    History spoke in breaths of dust and rotted wood, announcing the attic’s intruder as surely as a shout. But she did not intrude to prod or mettle, only to collect the thoughts that splintered as surely as the board beneath her exposed toes.

    “Why would–” and she stopped, speaking and creaking across the floor, while her head-attic brightened. “Of course. Of course she would.”

    The pacing resumed with tightened fists and quickened steps.

  2. QuilToKeyboard says:

    She was worried. She was always worried but this time it was different. As she usually did when worry became too intense, she found herself pacing a floor, ancient floorboards creaking beneath, distracting her as she paced. Gradually she became aware that her feet were cold. They always got cold when she was scared.

  3. Volatile says:

    I gave it a go:

    He stood up, dusting off the dirt from his shirt and jeans. Looking ahead he could see that the forest was denser than it appeared, no light penetrated the canopy, blocked out by the dead, twisted branches of the old oak trees. Perhaps this was why it was so colorless here, looking down he noticed the grass beneath his feet was dead, in fact it all was, nothing more than tufts of wilted, brown threads.

  4. mykejeffers says:

    Pacing the black darken room in an apprehensive panic her wide open eyes were shifting frantically trying to make out what was in the shadows not pierced by the window glow; the creaking ancient floorboards forced her to come to a halt for fear of giving away her presence.

  5. Nowun IP says:

    She paced the room with her fists clenched for several minutes. The old creaking floorboards were cold under her bare feet. Bill . . . She never found him. She didn’t really try. But what now? What would she tell the others?

  6. tuckery says:

    Her toes icy, her ears bright red, she quietly tiptoed towards the room. The dusty barren floorboards creaked with every movement she made, and sent splinters flying into her foot. She had to make it to the room though. She knew she could make it, unless she was caught again. Just the thought sent shivers up her back.”No, there’s no way. It’s gone. This is over.” she mumbled. Just as her hopes lifted, a piercing scream echoed through the empty house. A dark shadow emerged from the closet and hovered over her, lifted it’s head up to scream again. It came so fast, she didn’t have time to say anything as the shadow plunged into her. The deafening crack was the last thing she heard, as she fell into darkness.

    Thanks! It was good practice for my writing:)

  7. ronistone says:

    Her right foot felt small against the groaning pine planks all shot through with drying knots. Knots now hollowed out with age and splintered around the rims. Her left felt smaller yet as she placed it carefully in front of the right. She worried that they would grow too small if she walked further, so small that she would fall through the knotty holes. That she would disappear. Like Alice.

    • tuckery says:

      She quietly tiptoed toward the room, while the musky floor beds creaked and groaned with her every step. Her toes were icy, her ears cold, and a shiver rolled up her back. “There’s no way. It’s gone, this is finally over.” she muttered, but she wasn’t temped to believe it. Suddenly, a piercing scram echoed through the entire house as a dark shadow emerged from the closet. She didn’t have any time, even to scream as the shadow plunged into her and the floor beds cracked, as she fell into darkness.

  8. Elmlick says:

    Each cold step brought another moan from the dust coated floorboard beneath her. Perhaps it wished to speak of all that it had witnessed, or to tell her she didn’t belong and should leave. Another moan rose as she stepped away from the door she’d been working her way towards. “No, no I can’t” she said softly. “I – I must wait. They’ll come. I know they’ll come – they promised. I have to wait.” Another moan, dust collecting between her clamy toes. Only the pale light of the far off moon revealed the shillouettes of the rooms contents. A bed, sunken to the floor where a leg once had been with sheets and pillows a mess and covered as much dust as the floor. She could see her lonley footprints disturbing the serenity of the dust, a poorly swept patch revealing faded oak like dry bones through frail skin. The thought peirced her and she abruptly began rubbing the chill from her arms. “They said they’d come back. I have to trust them.”

  9. patrick1139 says:

    Thickened skin, pale and cold on the ball of her foot, touched down with agony as the floorboards pressed back against her hollow weight. Her muscles taught and nervous, propelled her as if walking high upon a wire. And in this too was a dangerous feat. For any sound may have traveled far and fast in the dark silence, and the walls at night seemed to her but paper.

  10. Allen-Michael says:

    She slowly crossed the room trying not wake her mother. She placed her foot down gingerly testing the floorboards. As she placed weight on her foot it started to squeak a little louder than it should have.

  11. MatthewTM says:

    She weaved a path like an insect seeking the crack in which it flew. Anxiety and the chill compelled her toward dusty corners and through the gaps between the furniture. A question from that evening consumed her: why tomorrow? Her preoccupation was interrupted by the groan of a floorboard as it sank beneath a pale foot. She froze. Lifting her heel first, she eased her weight from one side of her body to the other. The dry wood bent back into shape with a loud creak. Her breath tightened across her chest as she listened for a movement or a murmur – anything that might indicate the sound had penetrated the next room and woken him. He couldn’t find her like this. She returned to his bed and spent the rest of the night with her body rigid and her eyes wide open.

  12. Cardinal says:

    The creaks and croaks of the boards echoed her mumbling. And they would crick, crick, creak when she pressed down on the floor. On her toes, the planks would dip and dent under her weight. Stepping around the room was leaving little meteors for the ground to take for her troubles.
    She had that habit, you see. Some people bite nails or pull their hairs, but little Angelica would sway from the dresser to window and back to the bed. But she would always, always steer away from the vase on the ground. Her toes were comets and she, as a whole, was orbiting the vase like a planet, just as slowly and surely as a planet would. ‘Orbiting’ never means approaching the object, just circling it.
    And when she did, the trees outside shook as much as she did, maybe less. The ground outside and the floor inside were the same today – wet and cold. Angelica curled her toes in near the puddle by the plant.

  13. MicheleB says:

    The dried, time-worn floorboards groaned under her frail weight as she edged, shaking, towards the window and then back, her toes stabbed by the icy cold.

  14. S.E.Barry says:

    The floorboard bucks up under weighty gait. Not hers.
    “It’s him.”
    Her feet lose purchase in the scramble, red raw, splinter-laced, but all she can feel is the throbbing thaw bite. The door slams shut
    “Oh God no…..he’s in the lounge too….I’m trapped.”

    Dialogue is supposed to be italic and internal dialogue.

  15. NNNEEEOOO11 says:

    She closed her eyes. The world was shaking. When she opened her eyes, her arms went numb and the world was falling. Then she hit the ground. Crucified by blood-soaked needles, she did not move. When the sun finally shined, it saw only a corpse of a woman and a trail of blood.

  16. sjay says:

    A hardening chill filled underneath her naked foot with each step she was taking. Her ears were perking up from the creaking sound she heard from the old cracks of the floorboard that cried out long held secrets in this 100 year old mansion. Her legs trembled and a jittery, sweaty palm held the lantern which provided the only light on this dark evening.

  17. JackStride says:

    Floorboards. Nothing ever felt so familiar as this old, worn wooden room. The fresh glow of dawn lighting an aura on her pale face, she did not feel the joy that had often come when staring at the early morning sky.

    If anything, she felt dread. The days were gone when she felt the warm embrace of someone close to her, and the time was over when she had someone at her side to help.

    Her short, ragged breath drew gasps of the faintly cold, crisp air. Death was like a lily, and there was nothing here for her. The nectar sweet she longed to drink; the fragile folds of the flickering flower beckoned her with more longing every day.

    For she was a dead woman, in a living body. A soul trapped in chains and cobwebs, wilting evermore.

    Her rough feet paced; she felt his warm arms, briefly, like a ghost, wrap around her. She turned apprehensively. Nothing. Nothing but the dust in the air. How bitter she felt, when all around her the world woke.

    When she heard the twittering of the birds she was reminded of a sweeter time; the croaking frogs the trumpet blare of heaven. She longed for it, and tasted it, but lo, she had not yet arrived, in the land where there is no shadow, and the lilies bloom forever.

  18. mcuellar1213 says:

    Staggering across the floor, she could not tell if the creaking came from the decrepit floorboards or her withered joints. She just couldn’t sit still knowing It was coming for her.

  19. Kamryn says:

    The familiar, worn oak floorboards groaned beneath her small feet, drowning out the small rustling sound of the blanket being dragged along behind her. Her breath came in little sobs, and she pushed open the door to her parents’ room, plopping herself down on the carpet.

    The nightmares couldn’t get her here.

  20. william teague says:

    Sadie stabbed at the few remaining embers in the pot-belly stove then dropped the black iron poker to the floor. With a thud, it then rolled a quarter turn, like the second hand on a clock; away from her cold bare feet. The December chill now took over this humble ole house. Draped in a frayed quilt, her mangy dress peeked out anxiously as she paced back and forth; glancing out of the window on every pass. The warped floorboard’s croaked and whinnied beneath her heavy footsteps. “My Pa grew up ‘ere,” she grumbled – “I wer’d born ‘ere.” She took a long draw off her corn-cob pipe, opened the door and screamed out at the workmen in the bulldozer, “My great grand pappy built dis house”. The blasts in the distance rang in a new era for the Blue Ridge Mountains.

  21. FizzyL25 says:

    She placed her freezing bare feet carefully onto the worn floorboards that squeaked and creaked under her weight. They would know she was here by now, she thought as she paced around the room, buried in her dark thoughts; her quick, short steps powered by fear, barely noticing the splinters inching their way into her feet.

  22. Stepping into the old run down house, with broken and splintered floorboards cracking beneath her cold, calloused bare feet, she paced the room with a slight limp, inching carefully so not to fall.

    Looking to her left she noticed the window frames with shards of glass protruding from them.
    The broken staircase where underneath was hidden a dismantled old wooden rocking chair.

    Stepping ever so carefully away, the rocker began to move making the floorboards creek.
    Knowing it was the ghost of her mother, she was not afraid.

  23. Stepping into the old run down house, with broken and splintered floorboards cracking beneath her cold, calloused bare feet, she paced the room with a slight limp, inching carefully so not to fall.

    Looking to her left she noticed the window frames with shards of glass protruding from them.
    The broken staircase where underneath was hidden a dismantled old wooden rocking chair.

    Stepping ever so carefully away, the rocker began to move making the floorboards creek.
    Knowing it was only the ghost of her mother, she was not afraid.

  24. spacedollirst says:

    This place smelled like dust and death, and the floorboards creaked more than they used to. She paced through the night, disgusted by the sights around her. The house she’d once called her home was now nothing but broken, wooden bones.

  25. TezfromOz says:

    She clasped her hands in front of her face as she walked to the window. She hesitated without looking out, then retraced her steps to the chair. She couldn’t sit. Back at the window she scanned the room but saw nothing. As she returned to the chair she didn’t hear the creaking of the ancient boards, nor feel the cold on her bare feet. She swivelled to start the sequence again.

  26. Peachy_Sweet says:

    Splinters on the soles of her feet nagged at her as she paced the cold and dusty wooden floor. She jumped at the sounds of groaning floorboards and her own battered breathing as she repeatedly thought, Where am I?

    Couldn’t use italics, so I just left the thought the way it is. I liked the little exercise! I really need all the help I can get! :)

  27. Davalynn Spencer says:

    She paced. The old boards creaked against her bare feet, arguing with her feverish thoughts.

  28. Geets says:

    She paced the room, apprehension thick in the air as if it had lain waiting, like the ancient floor boards.

    The squeak was soft, just barely audible, meant to be heard only by cold soles of the feet, and felt in the stealthy vibration.

  29. Huprich says:

    A splinter from the ancient wooden floor stabbed into her bare foot making her involuntarily cry out as she neared the broken window hoping the lightning flashes would illuminate the darkness enough for her to see if the man holding the long knife was still standing in the drving rain in front of the once-beautiful Victorian house.

  30. JessJo says:

    Even under light steps, the floorboards creaked, repeating a rhythm that matched her pacing. She focused on the chill on her heels and toes, and the scrape of another rough spot against the sole of her foot. Anything to keep her heart rate from ascending into the danger zone.

  31. lwillis1 says:

    Warped floorboards, splintered and dirty, spoke of a different age. The cold seeped through the cracks and enveloped her feet like slippers of ice. “Where are they?” she whispered, as she strode from window to window. Her heart pulsed with the ghostly skreetching of the boards beneath her weight.

  32. Judith says:

    She cautiously placed first one bare foot and then the other on the plank floor grown rough with age; and, yes, there was the squeak and then another as she rose from the bed.

  33. KikiP says:

    Her lungs ached from lack of oxygen. Her mind raced along with her heart slamming against her rib cage. She hadn’t even realized she was holding her breath. How the hell had her sister roped her into this fiasco. Never again, she promised herself. If I ever get out of this alive. Without moving her head her eyes scanned down the lifeless body laying next to her. He was breathing thank god, the rise and fall of his chest proved she hadn’t given him too much of the drug. Guilt racked her entire being. She had to get out of his bed. Slowly, with the movements of a sloth, she eased her way to the end of the bed. She was careful not to cause too much of a disturbance to the slumbering manwhore. Hopefully, he wouldn’t rouse for awhile. She needed to text Shana now. Where was her damn phone, her eyes glanced to the dresser across the room. Finding what she was looking for she eased her left foot down from the bed. When her foot came in contact with the distressed pine floor she bit back a curse. Damn, this old log cabin was as cold as a mausoleum. Fitting thought, since her sister wanted this man dead or just humiliated enough that he wished he was dead. Standing up the old floor groaned its compaint to her. Shut up, she thought. She held her stance, waiting………..good, no reaction from the manwhore. A small amount of relief leaked into her gut. She crossed the room to her destination wishing she had more clothes on, at least some socks. A chill ran from her toes up the back of her legs, was that from the ice rink floor or her nerves, probably both she thought. She needed to get out of here so Shana could take over, and that required a text. Grabbing her phone from the dresser her chilled fingers brought up her contact list. Icy fingers punched in the messege and then she hit “send”. Waiting and watching the little dots of her android race across the screen had her hyperventalating. She hadn’t even realized she had made a full circuit of the room and was standing next to the drafty, wintery window. Shuddering, she glanced down at the screen again, to her mortification NO SIGNAL flashed across the screen. She felt the dizzy feeling of blood rushing from her head. And then her worst nightmare as an incoherent mumble sounded from across the room.

  34. EVANGEE says:

    She placed her bare feet carefully on the rough and scarred plank flooring, counting each step, one, two, three, squeak. Cold air from the basement blew goosebumps up her legs.

  35. mike91848 says:

    Her bare feet caused the old, oddly stained floorboards to creak like old joints as she paced back and forth; she waited, not knowing where she was.

  36. Karababy50 says:

    She felt a numbing chill assault the soles of her feet from the uneven, creaky old floor as she marched haphazardly around the confines of her bedroom. Giving the pink, fuzzy slippers across the room a fleeting look, her eyes were then drawn to the lone window sill covered with frost and she briskly rubbed her goose pimpled arms. The winter wind howled and raged, matching the swirling unease of her mind. She unwhittingly bit her bottom lip until the coppery taste of blood flowed across the tip of her tongue. She barely registered the pain as she continued to pace.

    *******

    lol I believe I went a tad overboard, but that was a fun exercise anyway. Thank you! :)

  37. ELJ says:

    Her presence was announced through the ages-old oak floorboards, as she paced in cold fear.

  38. charles6263 says:

    She placed her feet gently on floorboards worn smooth until a wooden squeak betrayed her presence.

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