January 31, 2014 § Leave a comment


“The art of describing something by showing how it resembles something quite different is called imagery.”  Sylvia Cassedy (In your own words)

Writers are called on to provide descriptions of places or people. And writers have been made very conscious that the reader is easily bored. The reader of today will not, it seems, stand for much, least of all, for long descriptions. Writers must confine themselves to telling details. Hot steam hissed from the wet rings left by wine glasses on the steel tables of outdoor cafes. Cynthia Ozick (Foreign Bodies) has very effectively given us an impression of a heat wave in Paris.

To achieve a similar economy, the writer may also have recourse to  “imagery”.

Jane Austen creates a full and vivid world with little description, and almost no imagery. Offhand, I can only think of one image used: Harriet praises Emma’s piano playing to the detriment of Jane Fairfax’s but, prejudiced as Emma is towards Jane, she cannot let that go. Emma likens her own playing to lamplight and Jane’s to sunlight. An image that is not only very straightforward but very effective too.

Yet a simple image may prove ineffective because it is inaccurate. It is not sufficient to say “x” is like “y” to produce an image. The writer must truly find a point of comparison between two things. The writer who can produce an effective image in one book may not in another. In Circles of Deceit Nina Bawden describes Aunt Maud who looks as she grows older more and more like a barmaid; broad, florid face surrounded by hair stiff as hay sprayed with varnish . . . Is hay ever sprayed with varnish? If the reader has to pause to think about the image, the image, I think, fails. This image is not direct enough. We do not really know what hay sprayed with varnish looks like; we can imagine it but not immediately. The effective image creates an instant picture in the mind.

If Nina Bawden had said Aunt Maud’s hair was the colour of hay or had the texture of hay, we could easily understand what was intended, though we probably would not think the image sufficiently original. In an earlier book Tortoise by Candlelight, Nina Bawden writes: His moustache [Martin Bean’s] had a shabby, loosely tethered air as if he had borrowed it from a cheap theatrical costumier’s. The moustache is before us and so too is the ineffectual and unsuccessful Martin Bean.

Robert Cormier in The Chocolate War writes: Her hair was like maple syrup. Which of maple syrup’s characteristics is Robert Cormier likening the girl’s hair to? Does he mean glossy-looking like maple syrup, or that her hair is the same colour as maple syrup? He cannot intend to mean that her hair is sticky like maple syrup but he does leave the possibility open.

Lucy Boston and E L Konigsberg want us to imagine the hair of old women. And both using a different image are very successful. Mrs Oldknow’s hair (A Stranger at Green Knowe) is “cobwebby”. We understand that the hair is white, wispy (maybe wispily tangled) and there is not much of it. Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler’s hair is altogether white now and looks like frayed nylon thread. (From The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler). When nylon thread, as opposed to natural materials, frays it is particularly wispy and thin-looking.

The casserole slid into the oven like a letter into a mail box. Robert Cormier offers us this comparison in The Chocolate War. Is there much similarity between letters and casseroles? Letters are light and are dropped into mailboxes; casseroles are heavy and are not dropped into ovens. Is the image supposed to suggest other hidden things or have some allusive significance? Even allowing that the image may have some obscure meaning, the image should still work on an “obvious” level. If Robert Cormier had visualised a letter dropping into a mail box and a heavy casserole being pushed into an oven, he would have seen that the two have little resemblance to each other.

Images do not abound in prose writing and on average it would be unusual to have more than a handful in a book, one of which, perhaps, would be memorable. There are exceptions: Lucy Boston and P G Wodehouse often had recourse to, and had a gift for, the language of imagery.

Simple but effective: He looked back and saw his own dragging footprints, like wounds in the snow. And also from The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston: The trees dangled with icicles that tinkled like japanese bells.

Fanciful but accurate: It was this that had blotted out the sunshine for Bingo and made him feel, warm though the day was, that centipedes with icy feet were walking up and down his spine. ‘Leave it to Algy’ A Few Quick Ones (1959) by P G Wodehouse

Not simple, but striking and apprehension is immediate: It [the rain] came slapping across the roof like a boy in slippers too big for him .  .  . ‘A Real Durwan’ from Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies.

Few things are more effective than the use of imagery: for a few words full and vivid pictures are created in the reader’s mind. Yet one can’t help but feel that writers do a great deal of mental trawling to obtain those few words.


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