It’s All About Image

I don’t remember ever planning on just being, much less being in Chengdu or even being a writer.  Yet here I am.  As an American in China I have hard time reconciling the fact that I had to come all the way to China in order to find freedom and success in the way H.D. Thoreau wrote about in Walden:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined [emphasis mine], he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.

Coming to China was my experiment in living.  And I’m still dabbling and tinkering in this laboratory called life.  I may be on the verge of discovering an elixir of life or the philosopher’s stone; or on a precipice overlooking a maelstrom.  Only time will tell.  But when I first came here three years ago, I imagined that this would be the perfect place to begin my writing career.  It seems playing “Let’s Pretend!” has paid off, at least in the short run.

I now teach reading and writing for “Super A” sophomore non-English majors at Sichuan University, host a creative writing workshop at the Chengdu Bookworm, and help edit Giant Panda.  This latter is a magazine published quarterly by the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.  With all three of these “foreign expert” jobs comes a convergence of coincidences and ideas somewhat related to each other.  Based on tidbits from this week’s work, I’d like to convert my lecture notes, workshop discussions, and experiences editing into a more formal essay on writing.  This “creative writing assignment and advice” essay is on the use of imagery, and striking a balance between “showing and telling” the story.

Though I wrote this essay mostly for myself, I would welcome any reader feedback or even their assignment-related post.

In the months to come this creative writing column will focus on those elements that make for vivid, effective writing across fiction and nonfiction genres.   Issues of style and form will be addressed as needed.  Whether you seek to publish, improve academic composition skills, or prepare for graduate school entrance exams, this column will help you gain the imagination, insight and fresh language that are the hallmarks of good writing.

Assignment: Use imagery to write about non-memories[i]

Maximum words: 300-400 words

Technique: Striking a balance between “Show and Tell”

Write about your non-memories.  Begin with the phrase, “I don’t remember,” and fill up all that white space on the page.  Non-memories could be parts of the past difficult to recall.  They may be what has been absent from your life: “I don’t remember having my own pet dragon.”  Or it could be humorous or sarcastic: “I don’t remember ordering a blizzard for the day I was supposed to fly to Hainan.”

One technique to practice for this assignment is striking a balance between “Show and Tell.”  Showing the story means using imagery, while telling means narration and explanation.

Imagery is words or phrases that help create an image.   This allows the reader to experience whatever you write about.  This is the opposite of telling the reader what to think or feel.  Basically, imagery is sensuous* prose; words or phrases that help us enjoy the text as if we were living, remembering, or experiencing your story like it was virtual reality:

  • Senses (sight, smell, touch, sound, taste, feelings, impressions, movement)
  • Action verbs – use more vivid and energetic action verbs than “to be” verbs
  • Nouns – the kind that are definite, specific and concrete
  • Use similes and metaphors to give your images a nuanced meaning
  • Use adverbs and adjectives sparingly
Imagery devices Examples
Senses His breath reeked of cigarette smoke.His breath reeked of death and smoke.

(Note: Both sentences mean the same thing,  but the second uses metaphor.  They also use an action verb that is more vivid and meaningful the verb smell.)

Action verbs The dog devouredthe bone.(Instead of: The dog ate the bone; this “shows” the dog was starving and eating the bone quickly and completely).
Definite, concrete, and specific nouns 

(Advice and examples from The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White)

Which sentence meets the criteria for noun imagery, 1 or 2?

  1. A period of unfavorable weather set in.
  2. It rained everyday for a week.
  1. He showed satisfaction as he took his well-earned reward.
  2. He grinned as he pocketed the gold coin.

(If you think number two for both sentences, then you’re right.)

Similes & metaphors(examples from Sylvia Plath’s “Superman”) Simile:  Recalling the changing colors of my childhood memories was like gazing into a kaleidoscope.The writer uses simile to compare remembering and the way memories change over time to looking in a kaleidoscope.

Metaphor: The sunset flaunted its pink flag.

Notice how the action verb flaunt shades the meaning of this image.  It is as if the sunset was a person showing off something beautiful for all to admire.

Plath did not just explain what happened: “The sunset had a beautiful pink color and looked like a flag.”  Instead, she uses metaphorical imagery, and trusts the reader to have enough intelligence to figure it all out.

This metaphor also makes use of personification (also called anthropomorphism).

Use these devices sparingly.  You don’t want to machinegun down your reader with a continuous barrage of rapid fire similes and metaphors, one coming right after the other; it could be overwhelming.  What’s more, don’t mix metaphors.  That is, don’t start by calling something a machinegun and end by calling it a tsunami.

Use adverbs and adjectives sparingly In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King gives sage advice, “The road to hell is paved in adverbs.”And he’s right; doing so clutters and weakens the text.  The same goes for adjectives.

Spend them wisely.  As a writer you should miserly horde your extensive trove of adverbs and adjectives.

But there are always exceptions to the general rule.

An adverb or adjective well chosen seldom makes a powerful difference.  When this happens we are surprised with their sublime power, as in these images from Slyvia Plath’s book, “Superman”:

 “the vague twilight”  (adj + sight)

“the broken insects” (adj + sight)

“the perpetual droning” (adv + sound)

“a breathless sense of having tumbled out of the sky like Icarus” (adj + feeling + simile)

 What about colors?

Finally, sometimes you must you use adjectives at some point to color your imagery. Avoiding certain adjectives (e.g. colors) would leave your imagery impoverished.  But this doesn’t mean you should deluge your imagery with every color of the rainbow — unless it is your intent to take the reader on an LSD acid trip to a spectral wonderland abloom with opium poppies.  So color too should be used sparingly and with reason.

*The word, sensuous, should not be confused with the word, sensual.  Although, a sensual scene will probably be written with sensuous prose.

“Telling the story” is used for explanations and background information.  This is when the writer gives information as needed, or just enough information to help the reader enjoy “The Show.”  Usually, we “tell” the story when we need to introduce a moment-by-moment scene packed with imagery.  Sometimes we explain something or add background information in the middle of a scene, in order to update the reader with “need-to-know” information – stuff we didn’t want to burden the reader with during the introduction.

Striking a balance between “show and tell” is an art, not a science.  Writers must use their best judgment on when to narrate and explain, and when to use imagery and show the story.  The more one reads and writes the easier and more instinctive this technique will become.


[i] This writing exercise is adapted from Bonnie Goldberg’s Room to Write (1996).