May 7, 2019
If you're looking to increase the tension and keep readers turning the pages, become a master of story imagery. We're told to have sensory details, and imagery descriptions to create a well developed setting. But imagery runs the risk of slowing the pacing of a story. Great imagery descriptions do double or even triple duty to not only set the stage, but keep the story moving forward.
Well crafted imagery can make the difference between this:
"I started your novel a few days ago and am enjoying it."
When what you really want is this:
"I stayed up all night reading because I couldn't put the book down. You are the worst—now I'm so tired!"
If you're wanting to up your imagery game, here is part one of a two-part article full of tips and tricks I've pulled from my own work-in-progress (WIP), conferences, and other resources just for you! This article focuses specifically on setting imagery and next week's article will focus on a wider range of story descriptions. Let's get started!
Imagery Reflects the Mood and Increases Tension
Imagery can set the mood. One of the best workshops I ever had on "dread" talked about how an author described a grouping of purple balloons looking like bloated grapes ready to burst. That's an odd description of balloons in a park. Balloons are usually cheerful elements. But the author cleverly used this imagery (along with other techniques) to fill the reader with dread. A feeling of dread naturally increases the tension. That description signaled that something bad was about to happen.
I'm going to be vulnerable and show you a "behind the scenes" critique of my young adult fantasy novel, The Lilac Plague. My USA Today bestselling author friend, Raye Wagner, pulled out her red pen on the first two chapters of my manuscript. She went to town on it. I mean to t-o-w-n. And I was grateful for it. This paragraph (see below) really struck me. I was trying to set it as an idyllic town moment, but I'd already done that earlier in the scene. By this point, it was time for the characters to get into the action. A few simple changes made an enormous difference!
Let me draw your attention to three impactful changes in the above paragraph:
- Added the word "blurs" to indicate movement.
- Switched "delicious", which readers associate with something good, to "yeasty", which is a much sharper smell.
- The change that made my jaw drop was "wafting through the air" to "chased us", which raises the tension by 99.7%.
Carefully selecting more descriptive words like "blur" and "chased" not only set the stage, but also raise the tension by eluding to action. This same technique can be use to create a sense of dread, forebode danger, or other feelings that raise tension in the story. I'll talk more about this throughout both articles in this series.
The Right Setting Imagery at the Right Time
Let's take a second look at this same paragraph.
In the last two lines of this paragraph, "In the winter and early spring ...", I was trying to do multiple things: scene setting, signaling the time of year, and foreshadowing danger. But again, by this point in the story, I needed the characters to move.
I asked myself the following things:
- Have I already conveyed enough information about the world to tempt the reader deeper? Am I overwhelming the reader with world-building and underwhelming them with character development (aka: is this character interesting enough to journey with them through the pages of this novel)?
- Has the time of year been conveyed earlier in the scene? Do we need the time of year at all?
- Have I signaled to the reader that danger is coming already? Is foreshadowing through scene setting appropriate here?
After evaluation, I cut these two sentences completely. These are just sample questions and there's not a perfectly right or wrong answer. However, when your critique readers signal that the pacing is slow, you'll need to ask yourself these kinds of imagery questions.
Cut it Down
Here are two last examples of using imagery to control pacing.
In the first paragraph, notice how Raye suggested the word "snap" instead of "rippled in the morning breeze?" I was actually trying to slow the pacing down right here and pull attention to the flag, giving the reader's brain time to think, “Uh-oh, this is bad.” I wanted the reader's brain to slow down as the protagonist's brain was as she realized a distant danger was now at the threshold of her life. I carefully considered this change. I decided to keep the pacing fast and drive hard toward the major pinch point, merely a page away, at the end of the chapter. By keeping the pacing fast through the above paragraphs, the reader careens toward the pinch point.
In the second paragraph, I used great language: shouts, pulsed, chaotic, harsh, thrown, sharp. But see what Raye suggested? She cut down half the words. We know that short sentences increase the pacing and the tension. Instead of marinating in the great language, she suggested I cut it down to keep the pacing going. Also, by cutting back and slightly restructuring the sentence, it is much stronger.
This second paragraph leads into next week's article, where I expand from background setting description, to other types of story description.
Be the Boss of Your Story
Many writers give their stories to their brilliant writer friends for feedback. It is wise to listen to what other successful authors say (especially if they're in your genre), as well as your beta readers, and your editors. However, at the end of the day, it's your story, your brand, and your name on the cover. It's very important to have confidence in the story you're trying to tell. Though I'm suggesting you evaluate your imagery, perhaps you're the next Patrick Rothfuss and your brand is to have rich descriptions which invite your readers to wrap themselves in the world you've created. It's up to you to decide!
If you have any great imagery suggestions, please share them with everyone in the comments. The more, the merrier!
IFW Opening Lines, including setting
Writing Excuses podcast on setting as a way to signal to reader what the story will be about
Kristin J. Dawson lives on the edge of a forest in the Pacific Northwest. She's the author of THE LILAC PLAGUE, the HowDoesShe.com Literary Contributor, and a Deep Magic E-zine Board Member.
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