ABC’s of Writing: I for Imagery

Posted by on Mar 10, 2015 in Uncategorized | 1 comment

William S. Burroughs said of writing, “Cheat your landlord if you can and must, Mandy & Me Outbut do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.” In the way that frozen meat pales in comparison to grass-fed beef, writing lacking in imagery can’t compete with writing full of lush detail and description. While it may seem obvious, imagery, scene setting, and sensory details are areas where most amateur writers reveal their neophyte status. [1] As an author, it is your job to invent the world of your novel (or short story) for your reader as clearly as you’ve invented it in your head. Consider yourself a safari tour guide to a blind man; he will only see the world you describe. What’s more desirable, a guide who describes only surface level details of the wildlife and animals, or an oral wizard who summons a vibrant ecosystem with lush verbal brushstrokes? It’s obvious. Not to mention, readers can’t truly feel like a part of the story if the scene isn’t brought to life for them. If reading is a journey, “plot” might be the map, but “imagery” is the legend that guides you. Without further ado, let’s talk about imagery and how it aids the quality of writing. [2]

According to the Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms by Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray, imagery is defined as, “[…] the language used to convey a visual picture (or, most critics would add, to represent any sensory experience); and […] figurative language, often to express abstract ideas in a vivid and innovative way, [such as] simile [and] personification.” Whichever sense is being aided by the writing—sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound—imagery is what’s being managed. With imagery comes abstraction—or, what Sharon Hamilton in Essential Literary Terms: A Brief Norton Guide with Exercises points out is “the extent to which [language] deals with general concepts”—and concreteness—which deals with the physical, as opposed to the abstract. Murfin and Ray point out that, “’love,’ ‘patriotism,’ and ‘beauty’ are abstract terms while ‘lips,’ ‘gun,’ and ‘silky gown’ are concrete. Hamilton says atmosphere is “the predominant mood or tone in [the literary work], which [may] be joyous, tranquil, melancholy, eerie, tense, or ominous. Atmosphere could deal with the plot as a whole, a character or characters, but most often, atmosphere indicates how the setting interacts with the characters and affects the story. Characters, plot, and dialogue are the elements that receive the most attention, but they are rendered useless without quality imagery and atmosphere. A few examples? (Spoiler alert!)

In my favorite novel, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the intrigue of Gatsby comes from the atmosphere that’s created about him (and his wealth) before he ever makes an appearance. Our (famously unreliable) narrator Nick Carraway’s first favorable mention of Gatsby comes directly after he speaks on his disdain for his time out “East,” thus thrusting Gatsby into the limelight:

If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. [It] was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. [What] foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men. (2)

Before we meet Gatsby, we see how he affects our narrator. The narrator’s voice has tremendous weight as it is, so when Nick compares Gatsby to a machine that registers earthquakes (and possesses a “romantic readiness” unlike any other he’s encountered) Gatsby has already taken on a larger-than-life quality. In the same vein of creating a weighty, almost immortal, reputation about a character through another character’s comments/view comes The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. The Art of Fielding, a book about a college baseball team, deals with a wunderkind shortstop from South Dakota. The shortstop, Henry Skrimshander (a wink to Moby Dick fans, Melville a running theme throughout Fielding), is a beanstalk of a kid who surprises Westish College catcher Mike Schwartz, prompting him to demand Henry come to his college.

Though his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off his fingertips, to gather speed as it crossed the diamond. It smacked the pocket of the first baseman’s glove with the sound of a gun going off. The coach hit another, a bit harder: same easy grace, same gunshot report. Schwartz, intrigued, sat up. [The] first baseman caught each throw at sternum height, never needing to move his glove. [Henry] had some foreknowledge of where the ball was headed. Or as if time slowed down for him alone. [Where] the kid’s thought were—whether he was having any thoughts at all—[Schwartz] couldn’t say. He remembered a line from Professor Eglantine’s poetry class: Expressionless, expresses God. (5)

Gatsby and Henry are superhuman in our minds early on—characters we can really see before they truly arrive—and it’s thanks to the way Nick Carraway and Mike Schwartz feel about them, regarding them as gargantuan forces. This creation of atmosphere through imagery is what Fitzgerald and Harbach wanted: characters whose visages are ethereal, almost ghostly, an effective technique, considering each of their tragic downfalls.

Then there’s imagery pertaining to the brooding nature of the homes or dwellings where the (often mysterious) action occurs. This type of ominous, prophetic imagery elicits an underlying feeling of dread from the reader, and two of the best examples I’ve seen are in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Poe’s opening paragraph goes: “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone [through] a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.” In those first few lines alone, the words “dull,” “dark,” “soundless,” “clouds hung oppressively low,” “dreary,” “shades,” and “melancholy” invoke such terror. Rebecca begins: “[I] went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me, [a] padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.” Given what occurs in the rest of these pieces, the action wouldn’t be nearly as effective if the imagery hadn’t been laid out early.

Other pieces of atmosphere-immersing imagery can be brief, but cuttingly effective, like Ray Bradbury’s classic first two sentences in Fahrenheit 451: “It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed” (3). In a book where the protagonist, Guy Montag—a dystopian firefighter who doesn’t fight fires, but burns books—first revels in the almighty power of flame, and then discovers that everything he knows is a lie. Guy is just that, “blackened and changed’; truthfully, Guy embodies change.

I enjoy Richard Matheson’s beginning to I Am Legend—the famed 1954 vampire novel—where he introduces main character Robert Neville, and juxtaposes specific apocalyptic details about the antagonists with the pronouns “them” and “they” (the word vampire isn’t mentioned until later). Matheson gradually reveals details about who the “them” and “they” are.

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back. [He] walked around the house in the dull gray of afternoon, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, trailing threadlike smoke over his shoulder. [After] violent attacks, the planks were often split or partially pried off, and he had to replace them completely. [He’d] put garlic there instead. Garlic always worked. [The] bright blue of his eyes [now] moved over the charred ruins of the houses on each side of his. He’d burned them down to prevent them from jumping on his roof from the adjacent ones. (13-14)

Just through Matheson’s imagery, “them” and “they” have become snarling monsters before our eyes. Though it’s one of the more renowned horror novels of the 20th century, Matheson’s I Am Legend is a character-driven masterpiece, ripe with vivid imagery—in essence—literary fiction masquerading as genre fiction.

And lastly there is metaphor as imagery—and as foreshadowing—in Ron Rash’s The Cove. In The Cove, a woman named Laurel is ostracized from the people in her town due to a large birthmark, and she’s called a witch. Rash juxtaposes Laurel and a parakeet: “Laurel remembered the long tail and thick beak, how the green and red and yellow were so bright they seemed to glow. Most of all she remembered how light the bird felt inside the handkerchief’s cool silk, as if even in death retaining the weightlessness of flight.” Laurel’s presence becomes synonymous with the bird’s throughout the novel: a beacon of light in the darkness.

When I was starting my novel, I had little knowledge of the finer details of literature. I had a cool idea and I wanted to get it down on paper, ASAP. When I started studying the craft and annotating novels I was reading, I noticed that I wasn’t doing the things that makes reading enjoyable. You could have the coolest premise in existence, but without setting the scene and describing the action/characters vividly, it’s a misfire. Here’s my advice to anyone who wants to pursue creative writing: If you want to build a skyscraper, it will crumble beneath itself without a solid foundation. Imagery, to writers, is that foundation. Get building, folks.


[1] As an aside, the embarrassment over the label “amateur” is misplaced. Every legendary writer, artist, athlete, or musician—from F. Scott Fitzgerald, to Van Gogh, to Michael Jordan, to Mozart—was once as new to their craft as you are to writing. Embrace the areas in which you don’t excel, study the craft, write and edit constantly, and with practice will come a comfort in articulating your thoughts via the written word.

[2] I will almost exclusively be discussing stories’ and books’ beginnings, just because I feel that each selected piece sets the atmosphere from the get-go.

Dan Hajducky has worked at the Connecticut Post, New Haven Register,  and ESPN The Magazine. He currently works as an Assistant Editor for Fairfield Living and Westport magazines. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University and attended Fordham University and Southern Connecticut State University as an undergraduate student, receiving his BA in Professional Writing and Media Studies from SCSU. He also played on the men’s soccer team at both Fordham and SCSU. Dan is currently at work on his first novel.

1 Comment

  1. Dan,

    Most interesting and excellent advice. I have never aspired to the heights of creative story telling. I’m afraid I’m doomed to be an essayist, and often too literal. Still, you have reminded me how important it is to create image or atmosphere in any writing.

    Can’t wait to read your next instructive installment

    Best regards,


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