By Emily Hughes
I have recently taken up creative writing and I am in the beginning stages of learning how to craft my voice and how to convey emotion in a work of fiction without simply telling the reader how to feel. When I look back on books or short stories that surprised me with intense emotions, such as sadness or excitement, I was never told to feel that way, but rather was seemingly forced into those emotions by the imagery in the story. Imagery in a work of fiction is essential and a good way to help convey emotion to the reader without simply explaining the emotions they should be feeling.
One way I am learning to incorporate better imagery into my creative writing is through replacing “judgments” with “concrete, significant details.” Janet Burroway discusses this in her book Imaginative Writing. She describes “judgments” by saying, “Judgments tell us what to think about something instead of showing it” (Imaginative Writing, 18). For example, instead of using imagery to portray a character as sad or in despair you simply describe the emotions the character is feeling. This way is definitely easier, but through taking this route you are robbing your readers of discovering those emotions by simply telling them what the character is feeling. Instead, Burroway encourages writers to use “concrete, significant details,” or imagery, to portray these emotions. It allows the reader to not only discover the emotions themselves, but it also helps to stimulate similar emotions within themselves. When we are presented with a description that appeals to our senses it makes it easier to visualize and we usually end up feeling how the imagery portrays the character to feel in that particular moment. Burroway explains this when she says, “Emotional response consists of these physiological reactions, so in order to have an effect on your reader’s emotions, you must literally get into the limbic system, which you can only do through the senses” (Imaginative Writing, 18). We perceive the world through our five senses, therefore by using imagery that calls to mind specific sounds or smells it makes it easier for the reader to relate to the character and in turn feel the emotions the character in the story is feeling.
One example of this use of imagery is in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” In the story Anders, the main character, is in a bank when a bank robbery occurs. Unable to keep his mouth shut he ends up angering one of the robbers who, SPOILER ALERT, shoots him in the head. However, while the bullet is still traveling through Anders brain Wolff describes what flashes before his eyes. Wolff helps to convey the emotions of Anders in his last moments first by listing the memories that Anders did not think of including his daughter, his first lover, or any of the beautiful poetry he had memorized. Instead, the first word Wolff uses when describing what Anders did think of in his last moments was the word “heat.” Not an emotion, not a person, not an abstract idea, but rather something you can feel. He then goes on to use beautiful imagery to paint a picture of a young Anders playing baseball. What sticks out to Anders in this memory is a phrase he hears someone’s cousin say. He says, “’Short’s the best position they is’” (Imaginative Writing, 40). This phrase Anders will go on to describe as “music” is what he reminisces on in his final moments. Wolff’s use of imagery in this short story is what allowed me to step into the emotions Anders was feeling and it is what I hope to replicate in my coming attempts at creative writing.
Emily is a Reader for SLAM. She is an English major at The College at Southeastern. Emily enjoys creative writing and reading anything by Jonathan Safran Foer.