Imagery in Writing

I (re)watched The Third Man the other night, and was struck (as most are) by the imagery in it. Lime, fleeing through the Vienna sewers, silhouetted, is film noir legend. Anna walking slowly, slowly up the lane only to… Well, I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen it. But you have to.

Can you create this with just words?

This made me think of non-visual art, namely writing, and how to create such striking, such poignant imagery. It’s all-too-oft said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but is the reverse true? Must a thousand words be spent to paint a picture?

Sometimes, more frequently not. Words have advantages that pictures- and movies- do not. Those are also chasms, pitfalls for the unwary writer or their editor. I am frequently admonished to “Show, not tell”- words can lead the reader down the path, but there is the hidden danger of simply narrating everything to the reader. Worse still, this has become acceptable in modern “literature”- Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey and their ilk all simply tell the reader what they are supposed to be feeling, and the pulp-minded weaklings read such follow blindly along (not that I have any opinions on the matter).

But the serious writer, like the serious reader, wants to be shown and decide for themselves what they should feel. Well-chosen words are your armor; brevity your sword in the literary battlefield. Let the poets have their thousand words; do not gush about the scene, paint it and move on. Concentrate on what your characters are feeling and why they are feeling it. If they are hollow, one-dimisenional dolls such as in the “books” mentioned above, certainly you can dress them up as you please and change them as you see fit. The well-created character will have the emotional response they must have. Sometimes it’s the wrong one- in fact, it should be. Or the right one, after far too long has past.

She stops, right? She HAS to stop. Right? (she doesn’t stop)

Think now of one of the most memorable moments recorded on film. Scarlett has finally realized Rhett loved her and she scorned him- a time too many. He does what he should have done long before- leaves. She, for her part, does what she should have done long before- follows him. In the realization of her life crashing down around her, she asks desperately where she will go. He turns to her and says… You know the rest. You spend nearly four hours begging her to love him or him to move on from her until that’s the only way that story can end, and the ending is no worse for the foreshadowing.

Or imagine the end (OK, I will spoil it) of The Third Man. Anna taking the long walk, reproduced from the first funeral, this time with Holly waiting. You sit and watch. Imagine the words. What is going through Holly’s mind? Is he thinking of Lime’s last assurance- “You’ll find she’s worth it, Holly“? Or is he dreaming of the future when she reaches him? Or..?

What goes through his mind when she doesn’t stop, doesn’t look at him? What does he hear, hear footsteps fading on the Vienna road? Does he cry? Does he shrug?

As in that last shot, what is omitted is frequently as critical as what is included- particularly for purposes of gripping the reader. It can get them to turn the page, or keep talking about what happened or what might have happened. When showing something, let them fill in some blanks- give the reader what they need, but don’t force everything on them. In this way, they take ownership of it. It’s not a moving picture where they’re forced to acquiesce to exactly what is being shown to them, but rather, they enliven the scene by adding in details that are their own.

The list goes on, and I am quite sure you can name a hundred other examples off the top of your head. It’s good, I find, to reflect on other mediums, how it is executed there, then try to figure out how to apply that to the written form.



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