Image Building

In Business of Writing, Classes, Craft on October 13, 2009 at 4:22 pm

subconscious-mindEven though I am a sucker for a good plot even if the author has not been as careful with the prose, what I am most seduced by in a book are the images that arrest me along the way, and for which I am glad to have been stopped.

Betsy Cox, one of my grad school mentors, was the first one to really drive home for me the evocative use of images, one involving flies sipping on milk foreshadowing death in Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree. Before then, I’d been unconsciously aware of these stylized visuals designed to conjure emotion and to ping on the tinny submarine of the subconscious.

Since then, I look for them in everything I read, often disappointed when they aren’t there, and giddy when they are. Images may at first seem to be mere setting description, but they hit us below the conscious mind and are  incredibly powerful in fiction and non-fiction alike. They speak a symbolic language, and conjure layers that plunge a reader deeper than the sentences at hand.

Here are a few examples:

From Scented Gardens for the Blind, by Janet Frame:

…If only she were sitting now in her desk at school, turning the pages of Shakespeare…observing the stain of creation where word had joined word, blood had been shed, and the letters were lying tangled and asleep, bound by their dark cages upon the cloud-white paper.”

From Veronica by Mary Gaitskill:

On Animal Planet, people are putting computer chips under the skins of beautiful lizards in order to help save them from extinction. The camera zooms in on the writhing creatures. Their eyes bulge; their hinged red mouths fiercely gape. One strikes the air with a stiff webbed claw. Joanne presses the mute button to say grace.


If you’re interested in honing your own image building skills, I’m teaching a 1 week online course in the subject.

Image Building. 1 week online class. REGISTER
Nov 30-December 6, 2009. $49.

The visual world of your novel or story is a powerful way to evoke mood and feeling. There may be nothing more effective than using “images”—stylized, poetic visuals that specifically conjure a feeling, a mood, or a theme. Images are different than mere descriptions in that they speak to the reader on the unconscious and emotional level. They bypass the logical mind and resonate in your reader’s mind and heart long after the page is turned.

Learn to create and use images in your fiction.


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