If you have been reading my previous articles from these past few weeks, you may have noticed that I’m getting really into over-personification and using inter-sensory imagery to describe things or ideas that are otherwise self explanatory. This week, I’m going to write about why.
Imagery is an unbelievably powerful tool. It can take a piece of writing from forgettable to internationally acclaimed.
While it has great potential for good, it can also be done very poorly. There are few things more cringe-inducing than badly placed alliteration (I once saw a death in a story described as ‘the corpse cascaded into the capacious cavern with a crisp cervical crunch’), and cliche metaphors can kill an otherwise good story faster than a bullet to the temple.
There is a strangely large percentage of people who are remarkably bad at using imagery in their writing (often including myself), but I think I know why.
I remember learning figurative language in different little boxes; simile, metaphor, alliteration, hyperbole, etc. Each of these little boxes was paired with their definition, and we were taught to identify them, drawing little lines in our books to write in their names. I remember having to write passages that included every ‘type’ of figurative language as practice. Imagery was just one of those boxes.
The problem is, that’s not how imagery works.
Imagery is, above all else, a sensory experience. Trying too hard to rationalize it only serves to squash out all of it’s pure, organic abstraction. While it may be useful to use definitions of different techniques as examples, figurative language isn’t meant to be categorized.
Worse still is forcing students to use it on command. What makes imagery interesting and effective is its ability to incite a sensory response in the human body. A reader should be able to smell, feel, taste, hear or see what the author is describing. That only happens when the author themselves can communicate in words a certain smell, feeling, taste, sound or sight in their mind.
Imagery is something that everyone is capable of to some extent, but it’s not something that can be taught beyond a simple explanation. It should come to writers through their nerve endings. Forcing aspiring writers to regurgitate it on command does more damage than good.
Another issue I have with the current state of imagery is its overreliance on sight.
The human body has five senses as we all know, but four of them are often largely ignored in writing!
It may be that of all of our sensory organs and appendages, sight is our most developed, but that doesn’t mean we should neglect the rest.
Imagine I’m trying to describe a really beautiful girl to you.
I could tell you that she’s pretty. I could be more descriptive and tell you her hair is the colour of the sunset if you looked at it through a jar of raw honey or something.
Or, I could encompass more senses. I could tell you that she smells like moonlight filtering through maple leaves on a cool night, or that her skin feels like the warm glass of a pitcher of sun tea.
Or, I could go so far as to cross senses with each other and tell you that the way she moves is like the sound of ash falling from the sky.
You get the point. Use your other senses! Hell, use them all at the same time!
Imagery is bizarre, and the fact that we have the mental facilities to perform it is remarkable in and of itself. As long as we can, we should keep using it, but we should be creative about it, and most importantly, never force it!