Friday: Imagery Exercise—Selection, selection, selection

Everything is an image. If you don’t believe me, read Stephen King’s article, “Imagery and the Third Eye,” about how his writing is all about imagery—

…it is the imagery that makes the book “stand out” somehow; to come alive; to glow with its own light.” —Stephen King

As writers, we are taught to think of stories as character, plot, dialogue, setting, etc. These are, of course, essential, but at its deepest and simplest level, a great story is nothing more than a series of images, and what is a movie but a series of images, yes?  Stories with great emotional appeal happen when the writer can…

 focus the reader’s attention upon a specific image or part of an image.

It’s a magic act.  “Watch where I ask you to watch, so I can amaze you with my sleight-of-hand.” It is our job, as writers, to select where our reader is focused, and through creating that focus, we seize the emotions of our readers.   The most unforgettable series of images for me comes from the West Wing episode, In Excelsis Deo.  The images?

  • A homeless Korean War vet, curled up on a park bench, dead
  • A business card, left in Toby’s donated-to-Goodwill coat
  • Toby, Mrs. Landingham (who had just confided that she had lost her sons in Vietnam on Christmas Eve), and the homeless vet’s also-homeless brother at the cemetery for the burial
  • Their startled reaction when the first volley of the 21-gun salute was fired.

Throughout the episode, there was this image of Toby—walking energetically, alive with purpose—wearing this beautiful, tan, full-length coat. The contrast between his new coat (worn with energy and purpose) and the old coat (wrapped around a dead Korean War vet) was emotional for me. The writers of this episode, Aaron Sorkin and Rick Cleveland, were highly selective about each image in each scene, and the culmination of these images was an incredibly emotional experience for viewers.

So it’s all about imagery, but more than that: it’s about SELECTION of imagery.

Imagery is about selection!

It’s your job, as a writer, to provide selection, so the reader’s focus is always under your control.  We’ve all heard the “less is more” adage when it comes to many things—cooking and writing come immediately to mind. When there is too much detail, the reader’s mind is confused: What’s important? What should I remember for the duration of this story?

In his article, Stephen King said, “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.” [My emphasis]

So yes, selection, selection, selection.

Today’s exercise is about selection.  The image below is a complex one, a photograph by a dear friend with a great eye for beauty in the smallest places: David Coyote. Your task is to evaluate the entire image, then decide what you wish to describe—that which feels significant to you, that one piece of the photograph you wish to convey to your reader, and allow them to imagine the rest.

Write your description and post it in the comments section.

Write your description to give an impression of the whole, but a focus on a part.

Truly lovely photograph, isn’t it?  Now think of your character standing at this pond, looking down at this image. What would your character focus on?

Fun questions, aren’t they! I’m looking forward to seeing what you select and how you present the image in words!






To view all “Imagery Friday” exercises, click HERE.

  • Gary

    It never mattered much what others called him. “Debauched”, “Debased”, “Sensualist” – the only difference he could tell was that he’d always been alive to all the ravishments the wide world offered him – and they were not.

    The way the demitasse displaced the ocean fog of night, the rouged cheeks of heaven as the world awoke. He breathed it in, and it exhilarated him.

    He stopped. The Artist fed his hungry eye, seducing him again! A palm tree, reflected in a public pond where Lilly pads were floating. A menorah with a single lilac candle rising from the whole.

    That single candle flickered in the sea breeze – and although he could not name it, he knew it was a snapshot of a flame he held as well, identical in glory – and fragility. Worship, tired word that it was to him, was yet the only word he had available that morning as the empire of night collapsed and seagulls called.

    • This is ravishing, Gary! Something to luxuriate in, for sure. (The poet in you!) You gave the full image in the sentence, “A palm tree, reflected in a public pond where Lilly pads were floating.” Excellent and brief; a brush stroke of the entire canvas. Then you gave the focal point, the single lilac “candle” rising from the whole, pointing out the lone lily flower, yes?

      For the exercise, I would delete the first paragraph. It would actually work better with the previous week’s exercise of the old man’s face.

      A few phrases I loved: “empire of night collapsed” and “snapshot of flame he held as well.”

      There is a feel of a larger story to this, so it entices the reader to say, “Hey, where’s the rest?”

      Great stuff!

  • Would a touch shatter the stillness forever? Would the ensuing ripples over the smoky water caress the lilies with a gentle faith? or rip them from the reflection of the feathered palm tree that anchored them?

    It’s interesting to see which element of this photo writers select as their focal point. For Gary, it was the purple lily flower; for me, it was the reflection of the palm tree that seemed to anchor the lilies in place.

    Next week: The Christmas Factor!