Why is this exercise important?
One of the things I admire most is when writers find the perfect image to deepen a key moment in their story. When writing an emotional scene, it’s easy to reach for a cliché, but the problem with clichés is that they wash right over our readers: they’ve heard the words so often that they’ve become numb to them and so fail to be moved.
The right image can be subtle. In fact, the law of inverse proportions rules here – more often than not, the more emotional the scene, the more subtle the image should be. Understatement can jolt us to tears in a way that melodrama never can.
The image can be playful too.
Or sidesplittingly funny.
But it must always be fresh, coined by you, the author, and it must reveal a truth about the character or the scene you are writing. If it’s just there to be pretty, cut it and tell the scene straight.
One of the most moving images I’ve come across in my recent reading is at the end of The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence. It’s a book I love for it’s quirkiness and it’s contemporary relevance – if you haven’t, I urge you to read it, it’s wonderful.
I won’t spoil the ending but at the most moving and emotionally charged moment in the novel, the young protagonist, Alex, states the following:
I sat and watched a couple of sparrows through the patio doors as they darted back and forth between the slender saplings of the back garden, their shadows flittering below them like dark puppets.
So, now, over to you.
Timing: 10 minutes
1. Identify a section in your story or novel (or, if you haven’t written one yet, think of a scene you could write) which holds emotional charge for you main character. Things have come to a head. A shock has just jolted her into a whole new way of seeing the world; she needs to make a life-changing decision; she must confront or is in the process of confronting a fear; she realises something that shifts her understanding of the world, herself, someone she loves; life as she knows it has just fallen apart…you get the idea.
2. Think about something concrete in your character’s world at that moment. Something your character can see (as with Alex above), something through a window or in the same room, or another sense: a sound, a smell, something she touches or hears. Make it as specific as possible – and indeed ordinary.
3. Make sure that the thing you’ve chosen has a gentle symbolic resonance to what is happening in your character’s life. Make sure this isn’t another cliche though, just make sure the tone is right.
4. Now look at that ordinary, concrete ‘thing’ askance: image you had never seen it before or didn’t know what it was. You might like to think of it from the point of view of a child or a foreigner – or even an alien. Brainstorm a few ideas – you’ll know when you’ve hit on the right one. Again, don’t force it, if it’s not working, just tell the scene straight.
Ground your image in your character’s world
A trick I’ve found to keeping images fresh is ground them in the world of the character’s whose viewpoint you are writing from. So, when I wrote from Milo’s point of view in What Milo Saw and I coined an image that resonated with his situation in a particular scene, I made sure that it was something he (rather than ‘writerly me’) would have come up with. So, he may make a comment about something he’s learnt from Hamlet and how it relates to Gran – no one but Milo would compare his grandmother to a pig, but we go with it, are moved by it, because it’s true to his world.
5. Write the image in a few lines, as with Gavin Extence’s example above.
7. Ask yourself, honestly, whether it ‘sings’, whether it works, whether it will move the reader, whether it adds truth to your character and her situation.
- Revisit the image after a few days and see whether you are still happy with it or whether you want to tweak it or ditch it. When I come back to images I’ve written my responses vary hugely: sometimes my heart sings and I wonder how I could possibly have written it; at other times I wonder, ‘what were you thinking?’ and quickly delete it hoping that no one has noticed.
- As with all muscles, your imagery muscle will get stronger the more you use it. Get into the habit of finding fresh, original images when you’re out and about in the world and whenever you’re writing. Choose another scene from your story or novel and try doing the exercise again.
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