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Monday, March 12, 2018

Back to Basics--Imagery


Back when I took my first ever creative writing class in 8th grade, I learned about imagery. Ironically, I actually don't hear people use that term very often, most people seem to simply refer to it as "appealing to the senses."

I usually don't spend a lot of time talking about the basics on my blog. I figure people can learn about them in plenty of other resources. Besides, I've brought up imagery a few times in other articles. But I wanted to revisit it today because there are reasons why the basics are the basics. You need to master them before you can accomplish much else. Once you get more advanced, it's easy to sort of brush them aside as obvious or unimportant, but even for masters it's helpful to revisit them again and again and again. Besides, I do have at least a few things to add.

And then I'm going to tell you about how revisiting the basics saved my butt a couple of years ago when I was trying to write a scene that was one of the most difficult scenes I've ever written.

When you take a creative writing class, one of the first and most important things you learn is imagery, a.k.a. appealing to the senses. These are:

1. Sight

2. Sound

3. Touch

4. Taste

5. Smell

If you want to get more advanced, there are writers who will add others to the list, like a sense of time, a sense of self, or the sixth sense.

But when you learn the basics, it's those five.

Someone somewhere along on your writing journey (or maybe it's me now) told you that in order to write a story well, you need to appeal to those senses throughout.

You need to describe what that ocean sunset looks like.

You need to mention the fresh, sharp smell of an orange being peeled.

You need to have a line about how soft and warm a thick blanket is.

This is because naturally, beginning writers tend to write in abstract ways, focusing on feelings, ideas, and thoughts, instead of rendering the concrete.

The reason we have that tendency, is because as writers, we usually are already experiencing the feeling of our character or whatever it is we want to get on the page. So, we try to label and describe that feeling perfectly instead of writing in a way that evokes or creates that feeling in the audience. Logically, we mistakenly think that if we can just really nail describing that feeling, the audience will feel it powerfully too--they will feel exactly what we are feeling, because we described it so well.

You may indeed describe that feeling perfectly well, but chances are, if you take that approach, the audience will never feel it to the same degree you do.

This is because they are being told about the feeling, instead of experiencing what leads to those feelings. I've talked about this before.

Instead of focusing on describing the feeling, it's more effective to render well what causes those feelings, so that the audience can experience them for themselves.

This works in other areas too. Because the writer imagines perfectly what a park looks like, they don't feel the need to actually describe the park. But the reader could be imagining a park that looks completely different.

Imagery is one of the most important things to learn as a new writer because it teaches how the concrete needs to be on the page in order for the audience to become immersed in your character's story.

When you are first learning how to incorporate imagery, like many writing skills, it can sometimes feel mechanical: "Okay, now I need to put in an appeal to smell . . ." "And it's been two pages since I described a sense of touch anywhere." "I need to take a sentence and describe what this actually looks like . . ."

But through the process it becomes more natural and you eventually learn how to describe things. Some descriptions are better than other descriptions. For example, almost always, the more specific you can be, the better. The more interesting details you can select, the better. If you can expand, deepen, or put in motions those descriptions, it'll be better. If you know how or when to use or not use adverbs and adjectives, it'll be better.

One of the most important principles you are learning here is to incorporate concrete, specific lines rather than to rely on the abstract to write more effectively and ultimately more powerfully.

But it's easy with all the information and components of a good story to forget this basic. I see it every so often in editing. A writer is trying to render an emotional moment very powerfully, but they completely forget to include the concrete elements. There are moments where the abstract is beautiful and powerful in and of itself, by itself--but that's almost always after the audience has been prepped with the concrete. The one case where this may not be true is if the abstract passage is a truly original perspective, in which case, it appeals to the audience's intellect because of the new concepts in it. But when you are trying to appeal powerfully to emotions and feelings, you virtually always need to somehow attach it to the concrete.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but it's the truth.

Here's the thing. A few years ago, I was working on a scene that I knew I needed to nail in order for the audience to experience this part of the story powerfully. The scene related to a magic system of sorts that largely incorporates the abstract, the intangible. It could even be considered a spiritual experience for my character.

I worked and wrote and rewrote and sweated and cried and bled--but the most important paragraphs of the whole scene, the key paragraphs where the audience was meant to feel the most power, weren't working. They worked for me. They perfectly described what I felt the experience would be like for this character. Heck, I even drew from my own experiences that would be most similar. But for readers, they weren't enough. And as I read and read and reworked and reworked, I knew it.

But I was in a bit of a jam. See, this magic system largely works off the abstract--and the fact it does is sort of one of the points of that element. In other places in the story, that isn't that big of a problem. The magic system itself is usually not a major focal point. But here it was. I had to figure this out. I used all the methods I knew of. It really was one of the hardest things I've ever tried to write--but I also felt it was one of the most significant I needed to get right.

My dad has a motto that when things get confusing or seem out of control, you go back to the basics.

That's what you focus on.

The basics weren't going to work though, because I was dealing with an abstract magic system, and the basics I'd already tried to incorporate still weren't enough.

Here's the thing, I could have just written those key paragraphs and called it good. But I didn't. Because when it got down to it, I couldn't. I couldn't get over the fact that they really needed to be as emotionally powerfully charged for the audience as possible.

So utterly frustrated, desperate, and downhearted, I reluctantly went back to the basics.

I mean waaaaay back--back to one of the first things I'd ever learned: appealing to the senses.

Even though my character's experience was utterly abstract, I just sat down and just starting writing paragraphs that my character had experienced in his lifetime that appealed to a particular sense.

I literally sat down and wrote Sight: and then made up a few lines about something specific my character had once seen in a past moment that had an impact on him. Touch was one of the first ones I looked at, because I think it can be powerful. So I wrote a few lines about his first ever kiss (which wasn't really even important to the story).

I wasn't convinced that this was going to help me in this particular situation.

But I kept going.

I was going back to the basics.

I went through all five senses, sometimes coming up with more than one moment for each. Just a few sentences about his past experiences. And believe it or not, as I worked and more ideas came, I suddenly realized I was onto something.

I won't say everything, but I will say that doing that exercise led me to write what I believe to be some of the best, if not the best, material I've ever written.

(And it ended up being highly relevant to my magic system--more so than anything else I'd been coming up with)

It's easy now to read all this in a blog post, boiled down, with hindsight, and feel like that was an obvious and simple solution--but let me tell you, the struggle lasted for two months, and given the story circumstances, it was not obvious and it definitely was not easy. It was the hardest few paragraphs I've ever written!

But here's my point: When I was so sure the basics couldn't help me, let alone the barest of the basics, for something so abstract, they did.

It didn't mean that what I ultimately wrote was simplistic or easy. It wasn't.

But the basics gave me the tools to build the effect I had been searching weeks for. I've never been more pleased with the outcome of a passage I've written.

That's the thing about the basics. There is a reason they are the first things you learn. There is a reason they are the basics. Because you build off them to reach higher ground.

Without them, you have no access to that. Without them, I'd never have been able to reach the high-emotional impact I was searching for.

Never underestimate the power of the basics.

Using them doesn't naturally make you the next great American author.

But you'll never get there without them.


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