Tuesday, October 4, 2011

On Imagery

I've actually been asked for an imagery post, so here it goes. My thoughts. As always your mileage may vary, but this is what I think and what tends to work for me.

The most important thing, I think, to remember about imagery is that no word you ever use is a discreet entity whole and perfect unto itself. Let's take the word "cat". Because we're fluent speakers, we understand this particular aggregation of sounds (or in the written form letters) to mean a small furry domesticated predator, with sharp claws and whiskers and a reputation for gracefulness and good landings, sleeping 14 hours of every day, playing sadistically with its food, self-cleaning, arching its back defensively, purring when contented, maintaining an independent ambivalence it its owners if it has any, among other things. We also understand the word to refer to the groups of characteristics the house cats above share with the rest of the felis genus. We also, more distantly, understand it as slang for carousing (catting around) or a sort of beatnik cool gentleman or related to slang for female genitalia (also related to this relation: the phrase "cat house"). We know it can be subdivided into toms and strays and tabbies and calicoes and Siamese and kittens among others. We know its synonyms and related words include feline, pussy, kitten, etc; and even if we don't specifically know it's a term that came to us through germanic roots, but we know it's not a fancy french/latin term like feline. We may think of witches and cat ladies. Visions of yarn and litter boxes and mice dance in our heads. If we've had our own cats, we may think of them, or we may be thinking of some platonic ideal of a cat, or we may be thinking of the horrible smell of cat spray, the feel of shed hair on carpets and furniture. The grand American cultural lexicon gives us Garfield and Lolcats and the eponymous musical.

All of this and more is attached to the word "cat" to varying degrees, and each word used above has its own web of associations that include but are not limited to "cat". When you say "like a cat" you have the freedom to mean any of these things, and the hazard of all the things you're not trying to say. I think being really good at imagery is being able to draw out the threads of connotation around an individual word or concept and tie the ones you want to your subject.

(If you're interested in it academically, there's a whole psycho-cultural-linguistic school of thought called structuralism which examines our cultural foundations and our ability to perceive the world through the lens of our language and where we draw both connections and distinctions between the words that form the building materials of our thoughts. There's also a post-structuralist/deconstructionist vein of thought that is principally about examining how the intrinsic biases of culturally shaped language constrain and warp our ability to perceive. For the later you'll probably want to start the term semiotics and branch out from there)


  [see-mee-ot-iks, sem-ee-, see-mahy-] Show IPA
noun used with a singular verb )
the study of signs and symbols as elements ofcommunicative behavior; the analysis of systems ofcommunication, as languagegestures, or clothing.
a general theory of signs and symbolism, usually divided intothe branches of pragmatics, semantics, and syntactics.)

Anyway, that got a little more lecture-y than I meant it to, but basically the point I want to get across is that imagery is artfully bringing to bear some or all of the connotations of an unrelated concept in order to describe a thing or create a mood or motif that influences the tone of the larger piece.

I admit, personally, a lot of the time I use imagery just because it's fun and that's the style of writing I enjoy both producing and consuming (I go for baroque). There is definitely something to be said for crisp, uncluttered, Hemingway-esque prose. It's absolutely beautiful for understating action and making it stand out more because it's casually presented. It's clean, it reads fast, it conveys information, and done well it evokes just as much reader involvement because it doesn't overburden the reader with the author's opinions or observations. Imagery-heavy prose, by contrast, can at its best make sure the reader is bringing a life full of memory, culture, and sensation to bear on what might be an otherwise plain scene. It's good for developing the internality of a character- how they see the world and what associations they make. It can paint a neutral scene dark or bright, forlorn or tense, by the way you chose to describe things.

So. One of the points I would like to make is that imagery is certainly not just going "her X was like Y". Sometimes it's just a pretty image and you do it because it's a darling little phrase you want to birth into the world, but every time you tie one thing to another it stays with us. You can't describe the armchair in which your father sits in terms of an electric chair for one line and expect that not to leave smears of doom and criminality (or unjust punishment) all over the father character, and a lingering sense of fear attached to that chair for the rest of your story (assuming it reappears, you may just be trying to describe the father obliquely). If you read a lot of horror stories, you'll notice a pattern especially that things are not white like clouds and daisies, they're white like bones and maggots, because the horror writer is trying to subtly unsettle you the whole way through, to recreate that feeling of being alone in a too-big house, jumping at shadows and seeing murderous intruders when all that's there is your grandfather clock. Likewise, you're probably not going to see maggot white in a love story, because the author is trying to craft a gestalt of want, of desire, of appreciating beauty, sometimes of feeling safe, sometimes of feeling dangerously excited (to the latter end they might describe something like the rush of standing at the edge of a tall cliff and feeling the wind whip against them). Images are great for giving cues, for provoking emotional reaction, or even just for conveying something that language does not have a single adequate word for. (Seriously, just as an exercise, try to describe the feeling of being smiled at by someone you love in a way that lets you know they love you too, and tell me if "good", "relieved", or "happy" really sum it up.)

Any word choice has the potential to nurture a little imagery (I was going to use a different example, but see "nurture" in that sentence? It's not strictly an accurate word. Neither word has volition or needs, but I can animate the sentence by the analogy of word choice gently feeding and caring for imagery so that imagery can grow up big and strong). One good not-strictly-accurate verb is a beautiful microcosm for a larger analogy, and sometimes that's all you really need. You don't have to tell me the salesman was reptilian and predatory toward his customers, if you can just tell me he slithered. Sometimes the lightest touch is absolutely best.

As for giving imagery punch, the biggest thing is just not to use common analogies unless you're really going to push them through to the other side of boring. It's really unimpressive to hear your heroine's eyes shine like diamonds or are as blue as the deep blue sea- unless you're going to carry that analogy further, from blandly pretty (or blandly horrible) into something novel and interesting. "Her eyes were like the deep blue sea; he knew below the surface they were full of sharks". Reversals on standard analogies are actually one of my favorite things to do. We have a lot of stock images that are associated with being wholly good or evil, positive or negative, masculine or feminine, active or passive. How many times have you heard golden used to describe something ugly? How often have you seen snakes used to describe something good? When you use an analogy we expect to conform to one category to describe something pertaining to another, there's an inherent tension that makes the sentence memorable. "His movements were clean, alive, and graceful as a snake new-burst from its skin." This works especially well when the analogy is something that's got a lot whole lot of force and expectation behind it (eg. mother, priest, sex, criminal, money, heroin, infant, lynch mob)

I guess the only other big theory I've got about it is that the analogies you make, whether explicit or implied are kind of a bridge between two things, and the farther those things are apart, the more tense and interesting that comparison is (though the farther apart they are, the more you have to shore them up to keep them from falling apart.) "The strawberries were like raspberries" is not a terribly interesting statement (in fact it's kind of a confusing thing to say because it's close enough it hardly seems like imagery at all), especially not next to "the strawberries were like red dirigibles" or "the strawberries were like can-can dancers" (the latter example is one that needs shoring. Left at that, I'm really not sure what you mean, but if you give me a bit about them being, teasing and succulent, or lined up on top of the white platform of a cake, the bridge is strong enough to carry a reader across, if a little self-indulgent (honestly, possibly enough so to put a number of readers off, but that's a matter of taste.))

Imagery's like spice in your cooking. It's entirely possible to overdo it and spoil the whole thing, but it's worth bearing in mind that some people love plain potatoes and grilled chicken breast, and some of us really dig a steaming bowl of super-hot curry. My advice is play, do what you love, figure out the mechanisms, and understand that there's no absolute way to do it right (though there are numerous ways to do it very wrong). 

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