Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Vibrant Imagery or Mashed Potatoes With The Gravy

“The warm sun is failing, the bleak wind is wailing,
The bare boughs are sighing, the pale flowers are dying,”

Taken from the poem Autumn: A Dirge written by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I find the imagery in Shelley’s poem Autumn: A Dirge very compelling. I am by no means an authority on Percy Bysshe Shelley or poetry. I only became familiar with Shelley after watching a documentary on Mary Shelley, his second wife and the author of Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. So I did a little research, found this poem and enjoyed it for the striking imagery (and because I was able to understand it, which doesn’t always happen when I read poetry).

I think it’s safe to say poets and writers use the same literary devices to create imagery and produce mental images for their readers. Imagery paints pictures of characters and scenes, which allows the reader to experience place and time. It appeals to and involves the five senses (touch, sight, taste, smell, and sound).

But how do I make it happen? How do I go about painting a picture in words? Let’s look at some of the literary devices used to create dynamic imagery. Of course there are many one could employ but I think I’ll start with understanding the following three.

Metaphor: a comparison in which one thing is said to be another.
You’re all familiar with this example. ‘All the world’s a stage,’ – From As You Like It by William Shakespeare

Simile: figure of speech involving a comparison between unlike things using like or as.
This exchange from the movie Shrek gives an example of a simile and an explanation.
Shrek: Ogres are like onions. Donkey: They stink? Shrek: Yes. No. Donkey: Oh, they make you cry. Shrek: No. Donkey: Oh, you leave ‘em out in the sun, they get all brown, start sproutin' little white hairs. Shrek: NO. Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers. [sighs] Donkey: Oh, you both have layers. Oh. You know, not everybody like onions.

Personification: a figure of speech that gives human actions or sensibilities to inanimate objects or ideas.
Example: ‘Google is my friend.’ Line from last week’s post.

Chances are you’ve used these devices without bothering to name them. I mean, you don’t start typing away then suddenly stop and decide you need to insert a simile or a metaphor or decide you need to add some personification or symbolism. I think it’s more a mindset thing. You know you need a certain amount of imagery to create a dynamic story. So put a name to your tools, be familiar with how they can enhance your work. That way they’re be rolling around in your head waiting to show up in your manuscript when you need them.

Apparently one of the top ten errors new fiction writers are guilty of is dull writing. I say, Moi? A dull writer? Am I in imminent danger of becoming mashed potatoes without the gravy as Billy Bob Thornton would say? My pages like a forest barren of any greenery. (See how I inserted that not-so-clever simile. No, wait. Yep, a simile.)

I found three suggestions on how to start using imagery.

Be specific. Don’t say it “tasted good”. Tell us what it tasted like, use a simile or something.

Use animal words. I read this suggestion and I was like, huh? Then I took the bull by the horns, stopped horsing around and with a cat like grace began pecking out sentences. Oh yeah, beware of overused clichés.

Use electrifying images. Think stimulating and bursting emotion.

I’ll leave you with this final example.

"And they came in waves. Streams of animals pouring like some liquid over the hilltops, expanding, contracting, spreading across ridge crests and passes. We followed for as long as we could each day, were overtaken when we camped for the night, and dragged our leaden limbs out of frosted sleeping bags in the mornings, to start a day of trying to keep up, all over again." -Karsten Heuer from first weeks "Being Caribou"


Do you have a favorite literary device? Want to share the name of an author or poet you feel masters imagery? Want to try your hand at one of the three devices I mentioned and share?


Erika said...

"Parfaits. Everybody likes parfaits." I love that movie.

I don't have any good imagery to contribute right off the top of my head and as far as poets go, I'm going to suggest someone familiar to anyone who went to high school...Robert Frost.

Molli said...

Ahh, imagery. Easy to see in my head, tough to capture in words, at least for me, so I don't have any words of wisdom. Or any favourites in the way of poets (don't follow any, Philistine that I am) or authors, for that matter.

My biggest problem is avoiding the cliches that spring so readily to my not-so-ruby lips, and fill my prose with prosaic-isms. I do enjoy a good personification, though. I consider them stronger devices than metaphors or simile, like iron is as to wood. Imagery, or the lack of it, can make of the basic ingredients of prose a triumphant feast or a bland pudding. (Okay, have I been cheeky enough now?)

Seriously, you make an excellent point. We need to pay attention to imagery in our stories, and to do that we need to understand how to develop it. You've given us a good reminder of some of our options, Karen. Thanks.

Karen said...

Hi Erika,
I love those movies too. The scene from that movie reminds me that imagery doesn't have to be flowery or wordy to produce a powerful image.

Maybe Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

That one always gives me goosebumps.

Karen said...

Hey Molli. I needed to understand the basics and the best way for me to do that is to blog about it.

Love your examples and your cheek!

Here's a part of Maya Angelou's poem Phenomenal Woman just for you.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees,
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It's the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing of my waist,
And the joy in my feet,
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karen,
So Canadians are mashed potatoes without the gravy? I haven't quite figured out what that means yet or if I should be insulted.

Imagery is great stuff, in the right hands. Someone who is great with a phrase can evoke a vivid picture for the reader. But if it's handled badly it can turn into purple prose pretty quickly. And like Molli, I'm the Queen of the Cliches. I spout off a cliche without even realizing.

Excellent post.


Helena said...

Jana and Mollie make good points. There really is nothing worse than jarring similes that are way over the top, or cliches that are overused. Better to be bland, I say. Well, that's not really the way to go, either.

You make some good points about using detail rather than a general statement, Karen. A slice of roast beef with a touch of horseradish tells you exactly what the person is savouring rather than simply saying the meal tasted good.

I don't find images slipping into my writing very easily. I really have to make an effort to visualise the scene. Even then it seems to get layered in on the second or third draft. One of my instructors said to me once, "Did you describe the wallpaper in the room?" I don't think he meant it's the most important detail, just a reminder that you need detail, and of course it should be relevant.

Thanks for the tips and examples, Karen.

Janet C. said...

Great post, Karen - I think I'm more the mashed potatoes with gravy kind of writer. And when I do go all imagery, well it comes out very purple :)

I'm going to utilize Helena's advice - layer in during the subsequent edits.

Thanks again, Karen :)

Karen said...

I haven't quite figured it out yet either. I just think he's a very self-absorbed man who needs to get over himself.

One of the reasons I wanted to write this blog is because I do not find description, never mind imagery, my forte. I wanted examples and reasons to use it rolling around in my brain and collecting momentum and hopefully spilling over onto the page.

Here's a snippet from a poem called The Ears of an Elephant by Judy Young.

You might hear the snap of butterflies
As they open up their wings,
Like a sail that catches up the wind
On a day when sunshine sings.

Karen said...

Thanks Hazel, and I think layering it in on a second or third draft is a great way to approach it.

(Okay I had to stop using poems in my comments because I suddenly realized that might be a bit of a copyright infringement. Ooops! My apologies!)

Karen said...

Hey Janet. I think Helena offers some very good advice, as usual.

Your welcome, Janet. :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Lovely post Karen, and perfectly timed since I wrote my English lit canon exam today.

I don't think I necessarily have a favourite device I use, but more a favourite style of devices. I like to find unusual or unique comparisons for my images, if something is work elevating.

A favourite poetic line from T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock"

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;

The slow, melancholy tone of the poem comes across in the long lines, and then the jarring contrast in the simile instantly takes the mood out of the generic nature lyric.

For authors, one of my favourites for unique imagery is Peter S. Beagle, best known for The Last Unicorn. He has numerous contrary, whimsical descriptions such as "fat pink fish in the sky" for clouds at sunset, and "fuzzy wine" implying the progression towards drunkenness. Subtle, but very unique, and obviously memorable.

For descriptions that don't matter (as in atmosphere rather than some immensely critical image or moment) I try to find things rather like the Robert Frost poem you posted. Very concise, not excessive or departing from the moment, but vivid enough to be unique rather than cliche.

A poetic example of that would be Yeats' "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" (full is on an old blog post). Crisp, precise little images like :the bee-loud glade" and the dusk full of linnet wings. Beautiful and evocative. They aren't elaborate conceits, but rather unique details that evoke familiarity in others.

Excellent topic. I could talk poets for hours.

Karen said...

I have only a hand full of poetry books and I hadn't really given them much thought in the last couple of years. But yesterday I pulled them out and thoroughly enjoyed reading portions and now they are stacked within easy reach.

Lovely poem and post. Loved this image "...rustle about the house like a gerbil in a teraninium..."

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Karen, they weren't kidding when they said my post echoed yours. Sheesh, I wish I'd seen this on Wed but somehow I missed it. (Anita scratches her head)

I know if I'd seen this, I probably would have still done mine, but I would have used it like an extension of yours. I certainly would've mentioned yours...

I love the way you write. You weave the 3 rhetorical devies into your writing as if you were entertaining us. And you are. That was an excellent post.

I'd give you some carrots to go with your mashed potatoes and gravy but they're overcooked mush. LOL