In his post-Beatles solo adventure, John Lennon wanted us to imagine, to cast our brains out across the ethereal philosophical planes, to conceptualize a world with no hate or fear or hunger. His aims were admirable. He just wanted us to have some perspective.
But ultimately, aside of the haunting C-major-to-F Steinway piano riff, it wasn’t very effective at getting anyone to imagine anything concrete.
At least not in terms of writing.
It’s odd, because Lennon wants us to “imagine,” or to caveman it down a bit, “think of pretty pictures.” The word imagine (and imagination) contains the word “image” suggesting that to imagine something is to conjure up a relevant image in your mind. What words does he use to tell us how to create the images he’s trying to evoke?
“Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world”
Nice sentiment, but there is nothing in those lyrics for me to picture. How do I picture greed? Maybe a fat king in front of a huge feast, grease from the chicken he’s eating dripping into his brown beard while his people, ribs poking through grey flesh, starve in the streets? Maybe a robber-baron circa 1880 sitting in his plantation-style mansion feeding crisp twenty dollar bills to his perfectly bred English mastiffs?
Greed (and need and hunger and possessions, and the whole song) is an abstract. Lennon wanted us to imagine all these things as he was imagining them, but without the specifics, I’m left having to do all the mental work myself and even worse, may be picturing something completely different than (or unrelated to) his original intentions.
Imagery innervates your writing, takes it beyond yawing generalities and into the visceral, blood-soaked details. It is how, using your words and syntax and imagination, you create the world of your story in your reader’s mind. It engages all of the senses: vibrant, blinding colors; pungent, wafting smells; coarse, sandy textures; plunking, rolling sounds; sweet, buttery tastes.
If you try to tell a story using only generalizations and abstracts, you’re not only making your reader do all the hard (and fun!) work for you, but you’re leaving sperm-whale sized gaps in the mental images of your characters, settings, and scenes. You’re giving your reader nothing to inhale, nothing to shove into his pie-hole, nothing to see or feel or experience. Abstract writing feels very surreal, detached from the reality we know and love and understand.
Let’s go bounce the big red rubber ball of figurative language.
Cliches are old hat
I’m sure everyone has heard the “no cliches!” rule about four hundred and twenty six thousand times by now. It’s a simple one and easy to parrot, too: “Don’t use cliches! Cliches are bad! Ew, you hung out with a cliche? So gross.”
But why? Sure, the language is expected and tired. But is that really why we avoid using them?
“Nope,” says Oliver.
You should avoid cliches because they don’t actually cause your reader to think. Cliches are hollow. If you shoved a screwdriver into the seam of the cliche and cracked it open, you’d find nothing but some sad looking termites and a bit of old straw.
A cliche was born unto this world not-a-cliche. It was once a clever little unheard metaphor, flung wildly from the lips of some mirthful young dandy. But it was so clever that it was adopted into the lexicon of public discourse. The gears of time ground its meaning down to nothing, a nub of mental association, nothing clever or fresh about it.
A cliche, even one packed with specific images, has lost all of its power to spin up the imagine-engine of your mind. When someone says, “he really nailed it!” does anyone ever actually picture a hammer striking the blueish-grey metal head of a pristine nail, driving it into the oak with such force that tiny fragments of wood fly off like tiny forest fairies fleeing for their lives?
Nope. They just think, “Oh, he did that pretty well.”
This is why you can use cliches, if you rewrite them in such a way that makes your reader stop and actually imagine what you’re saying. I do it all the time and will defend to the death my own right to do that thing I want to do because I think it is fun.
I’ll show you how to tell me how to tell me how you’re showing
The piece of advice I’m sure you’ve heard even more times than “Cliche? Run away!” is “Show, don’t tell.” It’s another easy one to regurgitate into the awaiting mouths of nutrient-starved writers, but it is often misunderstood.
The idea is that you need to show an emotion or character trait or some other important facet without just telling your reader explictly what that thing is. It’s the difference between, “Carol fidgeted, her eyes darting towards the door ever few minutes” and “Carol was nervous.”
What makes the first one showing and the second one telling? Images. Imagery. Figurative language. Pictures drawn with words and forcefully placed into the reader’s brain through his eyeballs.
It’s that simple. Showing comes down to using effective imagery in your writing. There are no other magic methods or secret spells or ridiculous riddles. If you’re getting a lot of feedback saying, “show, don’t tell!” with no other qualifications, re-interpret that as, “I couldn’t really picture this correctly, and it gave me pause.”
When you start replacing abstracts and generalizations with concrete images that your reader can easily turn into a video of the action in their head, the problem of showing verses telling suddenly, as if by some divine writing miracle, disappears.
Costumes and props
If you could wander backstage before a Broadway play and pick through the meticulously prepared racks of costumes and props, you’d probably get a good sense of what the play was about well before you sat down in your seat. The style of costumes would probably give you a rough time period and the various props could easily inform what action was going to take place. If you found a bunch of long, tatty jackets, some battle-worn sabers, and some early flint-locks, you’d be bracing for nine straight hours of Les Mis.
Your imagery, out of context, should do the same. If I randomly shoved my hands into your story and pulled out some figurative descriptions, I should be able to construct an idea, or at the very least some kind of tone.
For example, if I find “boisterous spiky-haired New Jersians” I’m going to assume you’re writing a contemporary reality TV pilot. If I find “rain slicked black boots” and “mud and blood caked overalls” I’m going to think you’re writing a rural-murder-mystery (Dallas meets Conan Doyle, perhaps). Your imagery should be appropriate to the context of the story. It should always bring the reader in closer and never cause them to pull back and wonder why that image is in this story.
Your imagery also lugs a ton of context around in its purple Jansport backpack. When I mentioned some props and Les Mis, you probably automatically filled in the beards and hats and booming musical numbers. Our shared human experience fills in a lot of contextual gaps for us. A sword is also violence and power and authority. A cigar is not always just a cigar.
We dwell so deeply in our own minds that sometimes it is easy to forget that your tiny slice of the world as interpreted through your subjective view of the electromagnetic spectrum might be very different from someone else’s. An image you materialize with your power-packed science fingers might not make as much (or any) sense out in the honest, flaw-finding daylight of public view.
It’s good to take chances with your imagery – I encourage you to imagine huge, extreme, absurd – but it’s also good to have a straight-man hiding somewhere who can bring you back down and say, “while ‘the flower petal honed to razors-edge by the sperm-rain of a vengeful Grecian god’ is…interesting…it may not test well in your market.”
Test your images with readers who challenge your ideas and ask you to explain them. If you can’t explain them quickly, or at all, chances are it’s not a good image.
After you’ve wrangled your first draft, after you’ve fixed the glaring typos, after you’ve accepted the death of your favorite character, scrutinize your writing, search every clause for abstracts and non-concrete ideas. Replace them with images – as strong or weak as appropriate for their place in the story – and make your writing delight all your reader’s senses, not just her mind.