Friday: Imagery Exercise — The Christmas Factor

I hope you’ve been enjoying our Imagery Friday exercises. If you’re here for the first time, you might want to read the first post in this Imagery Friday series to gain a perspective on how this highly important exercise enriches our writing.  (The link opens in a new tab or window, so it’s easier for you to return here when you’re done.)

So far, we’ve seen that whatever we are writing, it must bring an image to mind. An image is at the simplest level of a story.  Since all writing is about imagery, great writing focuses on selection of detail. This not only brings the image into vivid focus for the reader, but also guides them into making emotional commitments to your imagery. The trick isn’t to show the image, but to guide the reader into what the image means. We’ve also looked at imagery as a function of emotion, such that familiar emotions can be evoked by unusual images.

Today’s image brought some interesting thoughts to mind.  First, here’s our image for this week:

This is a York street at night during the Christmas holiday season. You’ll be describing this for your exercise today, but let’s talk about “the Christmas Factor” first.

The Christmas Factor and Imagery

There are some happenings so evocative of life (or death), that just by using a few words, you elicit the entire spectrum of emotions. If you set a story in New York City at Christmas, you have a “leg up” on the emotions of your readers—especially those who live in the city. They’ll already have strong feelings, and even if you describe only one or two things, the reader will include in their reading experience what they love about Christmas. The Christmas Factor, however, can be a dual-edged sword: while Christmas might evoke family and lights and laughter for you, there are those for whom Christmas is a negative: it’s sheer grit and depression and disappointment.  All of that reader’s feelings of disappointment and anger are brought forth just by your setting.

Can you think of other Christmas Factor settings?  How about Easter/Passover? a graveside funeral? a ceremony of any sort in which a person is honored for valiance, heroism, distinguished service, etc.? The Christmas Factor applies to any ceremony or occasion in which rituals and expectations are shared by a large segment of the population.

When you use a Christmas Factor in your story, focus becomes even more important. You speak of a table laden with food, the family sitting around salivating to dig in, so what do you focus on? (You can briefly mention certain elements of the scene, but we’re talking about where you FOCUS the reader.)  So what do you focus the reader on? The turkey?  Maybe if part of it looks gnawed on. The family? Maybe if there’s a child’s crayon drawing at an empty chair. Maybe if the toddler in a high chair is missing one shoe, which shows off the toddler’s mismatched socks? Maybe the guinea pig in its rolling ball pinned in place by Uncle Herman, whose expression was one of distaste.  Set enough of the expected image—the table, the family, the music in the background, the aromas—then find the unusual, the different. Find that which means something to your story beyond the Christmas table setting.

In the photo above, I included a large size, because I want you to examine the photo for the details. In a photo like this, it’s easy to see what you expect, rather than what is truly there.  Take a moment to study it, maybe even divide it visually into quarters and inspect each quarter.  Then begin to build your description. Don’t be surprised if this takes you a fair amount of time. If you’re doing it right, you can’t do this one quickly.

What struck me about this photo?  Hmm, is it cheating to tell you now?  Nah, guess not … do you notice the many, many tiny lights along the street, but also notice that the stars in the night sky are missing? It’s as if the stars in the sky that epitomize Christmas have been drowned out by the commercial lights.  No, I’m not a cynic, but that was a forcible impression for me.

How about you?

Write in JOY,




  • Gary

    It was not the decorated streets, but how the upper stories of the buildings looked. It was as if he were a rat inside a cardboard box, and as his gaze ranged ever higher, the unreality of all that concrete became more apparent.

    • Wow! And yes, the image you’ve brought to mind is about the lonely and deserted upper stories of the street.

      In something like this, contrast is especially important to make your point, so rather than rely upon “decorated streets” to bring an image to mind, why not describe the brilliance of a thousand, ten thousand, points of light, hovering just above man-height, but as the gaze moved upwards… etc.

      Also consider, instead of “it was,” something like “he felt.”

      If you have time for a rewrite, I’d love to see it!

      (Guess I should get my paragraph up, hm?)

      Good stuff, Gary! What struck me hardest about your description was “rat inside a cardboard box.” Ouch! (Though I did wonder how a rat inside a cardboard box could have a gaze that ranged ever higher. Wouldn’t his gaze be stopped by the lid?)

      • Ash

        Gary–I posted mine before reading yours. It was intersting to see that you too brought out the “unreality” as well! And yes, the “rat inside a cardboard box” was a line that struck hard!

  • Ash

    Was I really in New York City? It felt more as if I was back in Disneyland or one of the other amusement parks that displayed happy, quaint streets with store fronts of long ago. Surely, the lapis sky above me was painted, a starless blue that protected me from the lonely reality that was really there. A movie set perhaps? Actors laughing and moving about on cue, setting up for the dance number that would be erupting any moment.
    Surely, I was not really in New York City.

    • Love the rhythm of this passage! And the repetition of the first sentence in the last sentence, but changed slightly? Wow!

      To tighten this passage, I’d suggest deleting “or one of the other amusement parks that displayed.” Just say Disneyland’s happy quaint streets with store front… etc.

      Love the “lapis sky above me.” That’s an unusual description, so it stands out nicely without being a forced image! Nicely done!

    • Gary

      your painted sky reminded me of (what is for me) one of the starkest images in the Western poetic Tradition:

      Day after day, day after day,
      We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
      As idle as a painted ship
      Upon a painted ocean

      good job!

  • More than the people, the street was filled with lights. Myriads of lights—in swirls and pendulums and outlines; in tiny points, larger tears, and even lighted stars, but there were no lights above, no heavenly lights in the seeming-flat sky.

    The people were lonely.

    • Gary

      McKenna – this is so powerful (especially the “larger tears”) that the final “The people were lonely” is utterly unnecessary!

      • Thanks, Gary! My point for using “The people were lonely” was to bring the reader back down to earth, but I think you’re right. That’s the difference between the novelist and the poet! 😀

        • Gary

          which brings up an interesting point. as a poet, one of the requirements for maintaining my license is to give my readers space to color in between the lines. how does this work – or does this work – in fiction?

          • “Color in between the lines” in longer fiction is a choice of the writer. If you choose to let the reader have more space for coloring, then you will find a readership with those reader who enjoy that process. If you choose to color in the lines for the reader, then your readership will be those readers who want you to paint the picture.

            A balance between those is, of course, optimal, where some elements — maybe setting — are “less colored in,” but other elements, such as character descriptions are more colored in.

            Partly it’s about what you want to write; partly it’s about the readership you give up by doing or not doing certain things in your fiction.

            I know that sounds like common sense, and it is. The hard part of beginning to write fiction is to recognize that no one novel is for everyone. I mean, I couldn’t get past page 64 of The Da Vinci Code because I found it so badly written, and yet it was all the rage for what? a year?

            The main thing you want to achieve is CLARITY. Is it CLEAR who your character is and what s/he wants? What DRIVES them, OBSESSES them, and what will most likely KILL them?