The Skill List Project: Imagery

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time, we began looking at symbolism and I promised that this time we’d turn our sights on imagery. What do I mean by that? Let’s talk.

Is Your Décor Random or Designed?

Every scene has to take place somewhere. A room. A forest glade. A military field-camp. A factory on the moon.

Each such setting has stuff in it. The amount of word space you spend describing this stuff depends on your viewpoint character, but whether your description is detailed or cursory, you have to say something about the place where the action takes place.

Similarly, every significant character requires some amount of description. You may or may not choose to give a ton of specifics about the character’s physical appearance—the character’s personality and back-story are usually more important—but some specifics are generally necessary.

Given that you have to provide descriptive details about significant persons, places and things, how do you decide what you’re going to say?

Sometimes your plot or story logic will impose constraints. If a scene takes place in a peasant’s shack, the “stage dressing” has to be appropriate to what a peasant would own in that particular culture. If a character is a rough-and-ready adventurer, he or she has to be able to play the part. However, even with such constraints, you almost always have ample scope for variation. A shack can be distinctive and still believable: neat or cluttered, cozy or disgusting, etc. The same applies to adventurers; they have to be capable of fulfilling their role in the story, but they don’t have to be generic. Quirks are almost compulsory.

So back to our question: given that you have a wide freedom of choice in selecting specifics about persons, places and things, how do you make your decision?

By gut instinct? Sometimes—sometimes your subconscious demands a certain look and feel. But if your gut isn’t talking? You could pick stuff at random, but won’t it add to the power of your story if you choose details that resonate with the overall tone?

Thus we come to consistent pools of imagery.

Consistent Imagery

When we’re first introduced to imagery, it’s usually connected with similes and metaphors, as in the famous light/dark imagery from Romeo & Juliet. However, as Mary Catelli noted in the comments to my previous post, metaphors are risky in SF because readers may take them literally. (If someone in an SF story says, “That salesman is a real rat,” there’s an excellent chance the salesman is an honest-to-goodness rodent.) Similes are less of a problem, but can still lead to misunderstandings and reader confusion.

Loosely speaking, the whole of an SF story is a metaphor. I don’t want to push that idea too far—I usually dislike SF stories that are direct take-offs of current issues and events—but SF still has to resonate with modern-day sensibilities or else there’s no emotional connection with the reader.

And look, there’s that word “resonate” again. To me, that’s the key. Your story will be stronger if your imagery resonates with all the other story components: plot, theme, character conflicts, etc. I’m not just talking about the metaphors and similes you use; your story’s imagery also includes the details you introduce in settings and character descriptions.

Let’s take a concrete example. I’m currently writing a novel that’s set in a time and place where the conflict between science and magic is tearing society apart. This conflict operates on multiple levels: economic and philosophical as well as the physical. One way or another, almost every scene reflects the conflict…and that very much includes the imagery.

The action is told in first-person and the narrator is a student in geology. (Geologists are seriously under-represented in SF! Why does every scientist have to be a physicist or biochemist?) So naturally, I’m using a lot of geological similes. That’s just Viewpoint 101—viewpoint characters see the world through the lens of their knowledge and interests. But there’s lots more to the imagery than that.

I chose a science student to be my viewpoint character because I wanted someone directly involved in the magic-science conflict. If I’d chosen someone on the “magic side” or someone whose position was neutral, it would completely change the effect of the book, even if the events stayed the same. I chose a scientific viewpoint character in order to get a certain resonance.

But the imagery doesn’t stop with the narrator’s viewpoint. Most significant characters have attributes that reflect the magic-science conflict: they may be on one side or the other; they may be painstakingly neutral, and signaling that fact in dress or behavior; they may be marked by the conflict in various ways, or have a back-story related to the conflict. Whenever a character is introduced, his/her appearance or actions somehow echo back to the novel’s central issue.

The same applies to settings. When I describe a room, the room’s décor is influenced by the conflict. The influence is usually subtle—I don’t want to annoy my readers by banging the drum hamhandedly—but why would I decorate some setting with meaningless trappings when I could choose something resonant? That’s just a wasted opportunity. (To contrarians reading this, of course a room’s owner may deliberately choose to expunge any hints of the conflict…to make a sanctuary with no reminders of the struggle. But that’s just another aspect of imagery: a carefully sanitized absence is itself a powerful image.)

I’m not suggesting that writers should do this slavishly—artistic judgment is always required, not to mention creative invention and variation. There’s nothing wrong with throwing in quirky details just because they’re fun (and because serendipity is your friend). But if you draw most of your imagery from a consistent source of inspiration, you can make your story resonate and heighten its psychological effect on the reader. Why wouldn’t you do that?


In all this talk about details of character and setting, there’s something I haven’t mentioned: the 800-pound-gorilla of SF writing skills, world-building. Upon reflection, I’ve written almost 30 posts in this series, but I haven’t mentioned world-building once. I guess the moment has finally arrived…so next time, we’ll start looking at this most SFnal of skills. See you then!

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Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.



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