Imagery is often least-discussed stepchild of the writing craft world. That's understandable. Most of us who write novels begin with either plot or character or a combination, and whether you are pantser or plotter, you need to get that ugly first draft out before you really know what the book you're writing is about.
Imagery - or the image system, as Robert McKee calls it - is a reflection of the novel's theme, and the theme is hard to define until the second or third draft. Yet imagery can deepen a novel's layers, attach significance to character behavior, enrich the plot, and produce satisfying connections for readers.
And imagery attaches significance to disparate events that at first blush seem unrelated. In the past several weeks we've experienced earthquakes in Wyoming and Los Angeles, a rare "blood moon" eclipse, and we're all sick of the "never-ending winter" of snowstorms and ice storms that don't want to quit. The ancients would have seen a pattern in these natural events, as portents of something significant.
How can we enrich our imagery and thus enrich our stories? Here are five ways that I find and use imagery in my work:
1. Find patterns. In my current WIP, I created a character who loves math and is practical. Her father repairs clocks as a hobby. After my first draft it became clear that numbers, time, and mechanical objects that take on magical aspects figure throughout the story, and so I played with those ideas, enriching sensory elements - the sound of a chime, the metallic taste of fear, the sharp point of a steel blade. Readers might not even notice my choice of language, but at a subconscious level, it will hopefully resonate.
2. Use repetition with variation. The color green figures prominently in another novel I'm working on. The novel has much to do with plant life; but I use green in other contexts - for a certain kind of light, for the color of someone's eyes.
3. Discover surprise. My novel SIRENS is told in the two alternating points of view of two girls, and is set in the 1920s. Spiritualism was a popular concept in the 1920s. I unearthed references to the popular magic show of Howard Thurston, who had two special acts, one in which a girl levitated and one in which a girl disappeared after being enclosed in a box. My two characters became living representations of those two magic acts, and thus I could surprise the reader with a connection between the spiritual aspects of the novel and a popular magic show of the time.
4. Use the setting. As in my title example, setting and natural elements provide perfect ways to incorporate imagery. Snow can be cold and life-threatening, but it can also conjure images of cozy evenings by the fire and festive holidays. Find ways to express what the snow means to your character and bring a layer of threat or joy to your scene.
5. Don't overdo it. It's easy to make too much of a good thing. Pare back to the essential and make enough connections that the reader doesn't feel knocked over the head by your use of imagery or image systems.
Chime in: how have you used imagery in your writing?