The term ‘imagery’ brings to mind, of course, images – verbal pictures that allow us to peer into the world that the author has dreamed up. Imagery sometimes implies page after page describing every detail of the setting – in which case you might risk having the reader fall asleep and start dreaming up his own world. But a story without enough visual detail leaves the characters moving in a unsubstantial shadow land. How do you include imagery without overloading the reader with unnecessary detail?
Imagery should includes more than what you see in your mind’s eye. It also needs to bring to life the sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of the world you have created. One of the appealing aspects of writing is that you do not have to stick with the conventional. Music can be brilliant ultramarine blue or a person’s scent can be rough and sandpapery. Using these metaphors which cross the senses is often called synesthesia, but this term actually refers to a neurological condition in which senses in one pathway involuntarily leads to another. A person with synesthesia may see the number 5, and feel it invokes the smell of cinnamon.
But beyond the senses, imagery should reflect the interior mood of the characters. The characters are not omniscient (for the most part) and do not pay attention everything. They regard what they find worthwhile out of love, fear, ambition etc. The writers has to get inside the characters head to see, smell and hear the world as they do. The sound of rain may be the dance of water sprites, or the dull thudding of depression, depending on your character’s personality. This should not be so difficult. Right? After all you, the writer, created them. But it feels a bit like self-inducing schizophrenia to have so many different people living in your head.
If you find yourself dangling too close to the edge of sanity trying to come up with stellar imagery, you can always lean on what past writers have done. You can make allusions to their work. The art of allusion (to relatively well known past works) gives the readers already developed imagery that they can attach to your work, allowing you to move on more quickly in descriptions and not go quite so crazy.
Artwork – detail from The Shadows that Follow Me by S.L. Listman