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Rethinking and Revising Imagery

By Edward C Patterson

Imagery in a novel is essential to lock into the reader’s five senses. When we are vomiting our draft guts out, we sometimes (not sometimes . . . we do it indubitably) over-image or . . . under-image. Finishing imagery for the reader is what we are about as novelists. Without similes or metaphors — without those attacks on the reader’s senses, we are nothing more than court reporters. Now I don't want to demean the reporter’s trade. Dickens began that way and managed to spray his works with the crisp rat-tat-tat of journalistic style that still smacks of genius today. Twain did the same thing. A bit of second person extrapolation can fit into everyone’s work, and should, but effective imagery means tight writing. It also means a palette selection from a defined range of colors. It means reigning in your more spleen-based inclinations to take-off into a self-indulgent peregrination akin to Melville’s devoting a long chapter in Moby Dick to discuss the color White.

With skill, your draft should contain sixty-percent of your imagery before you start revising. With luck, more; and, if fortune has smiled upon you, you’ve captured some bizarre images that you can revise into under-wrought passages that support your overall tonality.

Here’re some tips:

1 – Define the tone of your work and the palette of images to be used. There’s a word pool that will constantly swim past your harpoon. These palletized words are related. Their use is not disruptive. They are second nature to your canvas.

For example:

Matthew was as old as the hills and twice as wise.

Besides the use of a cliché, this image is as flat as a pancake.


Matthew was as tough and tawny as the oak desk that cuffed him.

Don't quote his age, or the hills or his mental state. How can we? An image must be seen and we can see ‘tough and tawny,’ and certainly we can see the desk and its utility.

2 – Cut multiple-choice imagery — imagery that forces the reader to choose. We all do it. We see things two-fold and can’t make up our mind, so we leave it to the reader. This causes redundancy and also flabbiness.


He fought with the spirit of Hercules against the Hydra or Achilles against the tide.

Which is it? Brave like Hercules or resigned like Achilles? Why not leave it up to the reader. NEVER. Make a choice:

He fought like Achilles against the Trojan tide.

Note: By saying with the spirit of you no longer have an image, but a proxy adverb and, if there’s one mantra you must repeat over and over as a writer, it is this: "Adverbs are pernicious weeds that foster flabby, lazy writing." Again now. And again. So, we make it a pure simile and use the word like, and for pace and cadence we add the two-syllable adjective, in this case Trojan. We could have just as effectively used the roaring tide, but the alliterative of the t’s makes for a better image. The word with is also ambiguous bringing into question the object of the fight.

3 – Carry images across whole paragraphs. Here’s an example from my own work (blushing again):

“When souls are islands, life washes the shore with a tide that draws its line on the strand, a fortress to errant gulls and plovers, but when the spirits are connected, the waves take the sands down, the castle melting in the ebb. Rowden watched Rose’s bastion melt with each tiding from Meng Ka-bao’s maw. She expressed no shock that the egg was a true egg, beyond its paragonic substance. She could have surmised as much when she first spied it a Lung-hua. A pretty pink and yellow egg, like the alabaster one I had in our apartment, Rawden. Do you remember? She had seen it for what it was, but had not known that inside its creamy heart grew a crimson critter that was held in stasis by some elemental that changed the natural order of things. Nor was Rowden concerned by Rose’s simple remembrance of the round red stone atop the rock pyramid at Yu-shui-ch’ien’s gat e. In fact, her expression was downright tell me something I don’t know. The irksome response, however, was Rose’s natural inclination to the practicability of fulfilling such warrants.”

Note: In this case, we begin with an image stated in second person, which suspends it over the chapter. What it does is make a statement that sounds a bit biblical, and therefore a stain-glass truth. (You know; like Austen — "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man of good standing etc. etc.") When the characters enter (and the POV shifts to third person, limited), the words bastion and ebb extend the image into an action. Another character has previously provided some information, and referring to that act, we use tiding instead of piece of information, as it further extends the image, albeit a pun. Then we start talking about eggs. These eggs are intrinsic to the plot, but since we have an image concerning sea-birds, we further extend it. One other point is the use of the word paragonic. If you go look up that word, you won’t find it. In the context of this story, there are rocks and minerals that are called the paragons, so when we apply an adjective to the word substance, we draw from within our established palette of colors and invent a word that would have no other meaning beyond the context of this novel.

4 – Test all five senses in every scene. Which ones are important? Which ones are missing? Which ones get in the way? When you revise a section, can you see things, feel things (touch), taste them, and smell them? My own personal style tends to omit smell, so in revision, things get pretty stinky. Characters' perfumes (Ivory soap’s a favorite), onions, cooking, gas (including natural farts — can there be any other kind?).

Touch is important in action sequences:


Thomas thought the blade sharp enough to do real damage.

Note: We can see it, but touch here is an assumption; and if this is an action sequence, we’re moving sidewise with a polemic.


Thomas bristled. He knew that blade. He had felt it before, his hand a witness to its sharp bite.

This is terse. Action packed. It refers to empirical knowledge of this particular blade. It bodes potential damage.


Thomas parried the sword, his wrist scored by the awful blade — a serpent’s bite.

Note: Here we are. Touch! And with the help of our friend the em-dash (—), we have a resulting fragment that attaches to the form a complete image.

Sound is important also. I like to add a sound to a vacuum. Vacuums happen when dialogue ceases and we have drawn the reader into a sightless, odorless place. It is then that I will have something like:

A hawk cawed above the quiet Sycamores.

Sounds corny, but it's as effective as taste during a dinner conversation. So, always ask that question about the five senses and add/delete as needed.

5 – Limit metaphors and similes in action sequences. Action sequences are a special topic and deserve full treatment. (Maybe a later article). There are tense tricks and pacing techniques galore, which many authors miss, because these do not roll naturally from their established style, because action sequences, by definition, ditch our natural style in order to stand out. Still, nothing kills action like passive tone; and metaphors and similes.

Example (time for a rather bad stretch of a seventh revision - my own):

"This is enough, Nick," Rowden said. "We should pack it in." Before anyone could move to secure the bird, however, the flowers began to flutter, their petals appearing to be wings caught at the tips of flashing fingers. Soon, they left their stems, whirling about in colorful little cyclones tinted by the grim green glow.
"Butterflies," Nick said smiling, mesmerized by the little whirls of color buzzing about his head.
"No," Rowden said plucking one from the air and examining it. "Not butterflies." They may have appeared to be swarms of gentle butterflies or cottony moths, but Rowden could see these were flanges rather than wings, little metal rudders to navigate the air and perhaps do critical harm to such things as brick and wall and skin. "These are metal demons, Nick." He turned to the others. "Audrey, Simon, watch out. Griffen, cover your eyes."
Rowden saw hundreds of silver and gold metal buzzers spin about Audrey’s head. This was a dream. It had to be a dream. H is lack of sleep had made him delusional and he was seeing the full complement of Dali’s or perhaps Bruegel’s master works whiz before his eyes. This had to be the result of some bad tofu.

The above is a mess (tofu indeed). It takes place in a garden that comes alive, attacking the characters. I knew what I was writing when I approached it, but my imagery undercut me at every turn. Things appear to be things, instead of being things. Things leave their stems instead of flying. The protagonist examines the attacking petals, instead of feeling the danger. Dialogue tells us what these things are instead of showing us. The protagonist sequels for probable reasons and gives the reader a multiple-choice of artists to chose from in the image – one from column surreal, one from column Dutch allegorist. We end with a mini-joke about tu-fu. If there's any image on the face of the earth that lacks action appeal, it's to-fu. What a mess!!

Revised (more like, rewritten):

Audrey approached a pink camellia, puffed full with wiggling petals. Rowden was drawn to investigate also. A single crimson rose, a mere seven petals that clicked open and shut like castanets. Nervous flowers, straining for freedom, shaking their tethers. Rowden sensed rebellion. Anger even. They tugged until liberated. Airborne. Tops propelled above the pylons like butterflies. Rainbow funnels. Cyclones. Beauty to the eye. Magic to the ear.

Nick raised his hands in near worship, mesmerized as buzzing color swarmed about his head. Audrey templed her hands to her lips. Rowden held his heart. What a show. Compared to this, Pandas were an everyday occurrence. He grinned. His natural empirical impulse led him to pluck a dancing flower from its flight. Sharp pain sliced his hand.

"Not butterflies," he shouted. He closed his hands on his capture. Crimson petals were gone, replaced now with crimson blood — his own blood. He glanced at Audrey and Nick. "Don’t touch them. They are not what they seem." Rowden saw hundreds of buzzers spinning around Audrey’s head. This was a dream. It had to be a dream. Lack of sleep had launched him into some Dalian nightmare. He waved his hands trying to divert these pests from the lady, but they turned on him with absolute malice. They pursued him to the koi pond.

Note: Notice the slow take off and acceleration of imagery using fragments and sensory clues. Notice the imagery is not like a cyclone, but just Cyclone. Notice that when the protagonist examines the flower, it bites him. It ends with a frenzy of internal and external motion, and the only metaphor used (except the cyclone) is the surreal one — Dali won the race. No more tofu.

Imagery is key to a successful work, but too much sends the reader into a cloud of mush, while lack of imagery gives the reader a background of white static and noise. However, it is in revision that we reach the balance. PS: There are times when zero imagery is appropriate as a technique, but it needs a careful hand and an astute eye to lay it down. When done correctly, the absence of imagery becomes a powerful image in itself.

Copyright © Edward C Patterson

Thanks to Ed for his second post to the blog. Please check out his previous post on revising a novel.

Here goes the section History Today

History Today

Honore de Balzac, one of the most celebrated French novelists, was born in 1850. He is regarded as one of the founders of realism in the whole of Europe (fortunately, today’s post from Ed is all about imagery, and it seems very apt to publish it today).

Norwegian writer, Sigrid Undset, who was awarded Nobel prize for literature in 1928, was born in 1882.

Verner von Heidenstam, Swedish writer and Nobel laureate, died in 1940.


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    My Writing Life

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