And images are good. Images are like smells — they carry a lot of freight. For example, when I smell cigarette smoke on a chilly fall day, I’m right back at the football park, watching my brothers play, drinking hot chocolate, chatting with the other sisters of the players. I loved it. So the smell of cigarette smokes makes me feel happy.
And I hate the smell of cigarette smoke.
Same thing with imagery. You can create incredible pictures in your reader’s mind with the right image. Here’s one I liked from The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff: “I could hear the scuff of their sneakers on the linoleum. The sound was nice and reminded me of shuffling through dead leaves.” First, the image works because I’ve always liked stomping dry leaves in the fall, so I get why it’s a good sound. But it’s also just a little off because of the description: not dry leaves, not fall leaves. Dead leaves. That word dead makes you go, “wait, what?” It reinforces the weirdness of the character speaking, who happens to be a replacement, a changeling from the underworld called Mayhem who was left in a human baby’s crib.
I recently edited a book called The Late Great Show! by Gary L. Wolf (the author who wrote the novels that the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was based on), and he used amazing imagery. When he describes a modern-day Aphrodite, he says her toga “clung like a swath of off-color graffiti.” Since his version of Aphrodite is a perfect, beautiful, bitchy, spiteful little trollop, the phrase is perfect. It captures her beauty but hints at her nastiness. In his next book, Typical Day, Gary describes a sound: “LifeMaster sucked the cube in with the swishing sound of sand whisking through an hourglass.” LifeMaster is a computer game that sets your life into place, one day at a time, so you don’t have any surprises. You know what’s going to happen before you ever get there. No room for spontaneity, of course. So this image of the hourglass, and your life wasting away, one grain of sand at a time, is so effective.
Imagery does one other thing: It sets you apart from a storyteller. Anyone can tell a story, but a writer uses all of those elements of style (foreshadowing, imagery, symbolism, etc.) to create art. Those details pull up emotions and memories that color the words themselves. They make the act of reading not just about what happens, but about how it makes you feel. That’s why writing creates magic — it takes you out of your mundane life and into another place and time. Imagery helps make that other time real.