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Use images in a scene to ground your readers

Using images in a scene can be a good way to center an event or ground the reader in the here and now of the story. Writing images is all about going beyond the cliché and using sensory details.

One of my favorite ways to create an image is to take a simple sentence or idea and expand on it, calling in our different senses.

In my work-in-progress I want to convey at the beginning of a flashback scene that it was a hot August day. I could just state, “It was a hot August day.” This is simple and direct but, because I want to expand on the mood of the scene, I rewrote this simple sentence and fleshed it out—using some sense impressions and an image.

Rewritten example:

That August we saw unusual rains even for the Pacific Northwest. It was the kind of weather that made your skin sticky and your chest heavy, as if you were breathing through cotton candy. Granddad and I had driven up the Dosewallips River Road to our favorite fishing hole…

In “The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer,” Sandra Scofield writes that “to get the hang of composing vividly sensual scenes, try starting with simple sentences that capture a moment in the action of a scene, or a caught emotion, and then expand upon it with rich sensory details.” She gives several examples, including this one below:

The sentence: The wind blew.

The passage: A low dry wind gust came up, gritty and gray as powdered gravel. A fierce small dust devil, whirling like a baby twister, roared over them.

The idea is not to clutter your scenes with unnecessary information but to focus on the details and images that will help your scenes move forward. Integrating description with the action of a scene will give your reader a vivid, sensory experience.

As you read, notice the difference between authors who integrate sensory detail into their story as part of the action and those who separate out description from the action. Then notice what parts you skim over.

Exercise: Choose a simple sentence in your work-in-progress that is integral to your scene and expand on it, using vivid, sensory images. Try to use more than one sense.

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