Imagery in Short Stories

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In this recent post on Anton Chekhov, we shared a maxim of the short story master:

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

This is called imagery. And as Chekhov suggests, it’s just as important in prose writing as it is in poetry. Here is an introduction to implementing the principle of imagery, coupled with moments of imagery mastery from the short story writers of GCAA:

  • Reading Is Image Viewing

Anytime you read something, a moving picture plays out before your eyes, however subtle. Some people find themselves attaching familiar, real-world locations and faces to the unfamiliar worlds they encounter in books; others concoct their own imagined worlds as they read through a text. Next time you read something, try slowing down and noticing what you see. For example, what do you see in your mind’s eye as you read this image-rich part of one student’s short story?

Both Shelly and Basil were driving together in their red, shiny, droptop Ford. The country wind blowing through their hair. They were excited to be on vacation, but it was a point in their excitement where their conversation of enticement and spectacle had come to an end and settled into a silent melancholy smile that they both wore. Their father had just bought them a house in the hills of North Carolina where they used to go as a family when their mother was still alive. Hiking, swimming, fishing, cave diving, the whole nine yards. The outdoors was a passion both of the sisters shared. They haven’t been in the mountains since their mom died and their father remarried. They couldn’t take trips like this anymore because their father’s new wife and her kids didn’t enjoy the outdoors like Shelly and Basil. The kids of their Father was more interested in disney world and other consumer directed attractions. Shelly and Basil weren’t upset by this like others would be. By the time their father remarried they both were already on their way to college and were more focused on their careers rather than vacations. Their Father bought them the house as a late graduation gift for the both of them so they could enjoy some time together away from the rest of the family.

  • Images Are the Opposite of Thought

“Show, don’t tell” is a cliché of creative writing teachers. But like most clichés, it’s true and it serves a purpose. This is a thought that tells: “Dominique wanted some ice cream.” This is an image that shows: “As Dominique passed the cold, silver barrels, a rainbow of creamy concoctions, her stomach did somersaults and her eyes dilated in a fit of desire.” Often revising our short stories is a process of translating thoughts (boring) into images (exciting). Read this image-rich section of one student’s short story:

It is not very nice to die surrounded by white walls, while someone sticks a needle into you.  But it would have been far more painful for Sadie to live another day, so we watched her go, tears streaming down our faces; little 6 year old me sobbing quietly next to the veterinary table looking on as my dog passed into nothingness.

Sadie’s eyes were hollow, black holes with hardly any life left in them.  She looked as though she were crying, as though she did not want to go.  I licked salty tears from my dry lips whispering “I love you Sadie” over and over again.  She whispered back to me with her eyes saying, “I love you too, I will miss you.”

I missed her too, after she died.  Her fat little piggy body, her flamboyant, prideful strut. She could be a little devil sometimes but boy was she fun to play around with.  Sometimes my dad would hold her front legs up and she would stand up on her back legs and they would dance. She seemed to enjoy it or at least the attention she got.

Now imagine this section of the story written as thoughts instead of images:

I was really sad when my dog Sadie died. Sadie looked pathetic as she was put to sleep. I missed Sadie very much.


  • Use Specifics

A key aspect to creating good images is to use specifics: active verbs, simple but precise, concrete nouns, and simple, sensory adjectives. It’s important to avoid language that sounds flowery or writerly, and instead focus on simple language that precisely captures the five senses. Notice how the specificity of the writers’ word choices enhances the imagery in these selections from student stories:

The sun was beaming down, peaking through the puffy white clouds that float upon the earth’s atmosphere, hitting the bright freshly cut green grass that surrounded the trunk of an oak tree. The shade from the tree was protecting me from the sun beams making the area warm and not too hot. I was there under that tree within the shade leaning against the trunk with my eyes closed thinking. I came to the tree very often to release some stress and gain some peace. The tree was the only area I know of that I knew where I could go to escape away from my “normal” life. Under this tree there were no authority or no negativity, it was all peace.

This is the way it’s always been, it’ll be my turn soon. It’s early morning, the sky is a soft dim grey. The wind takes its frustrations out on the city, hair and scarves are tossed around as it’s beaten by the strong force. Streets are overflowing with traffic, taxis and buses blaring their horns are each other is an everyday routine. The sidewalks a cluttered mess, I weave in and out of people to get to the crosswalk. Tapping my foot impatiently I wait for the signal light to switch over, ironically in a rush to get to the building I’ve hated for the last four years, Russet High. Like most days I am layered in an old tattered sweater, black jeans, and my canvas backpack. The light turns white, my eyes lock on others when walking past them their distinct assigned accessories pop out. An oversized top hat, feather boa,  multi-colored wig are just a few that stand out to me, the rest a blur as I am in a rush. Arriving to the building I open the clean glass doors to dread another day of high school.

  • Smooth Camera Work

In short story writing, it’s important to slide smoothly between backstory images and close up images. Think of a camera panning out and zooming in. Writers have to make those transitions too. If a writer has no close ups, and everything is backstory or written from a distance, the story loses tension. If the writer focuses endlessly on one close up, the camera work starts feeling like security footage – every little detail is captured, including many unimportant details. Notice the smooth camera work between backstory images and close up images in this student’s short story:

A week later, Liam asked me to go to his birthday party at the movies. We were gonna see the last Twilight movie. I was at my grandmother’s theatre production at Harris Stowe theatre. It was dim and dark, just lights on the raked stage, just the cast on the stage and me sitting in the audience. My mom was backstage. Suddenly Liam walked in and asked me if I was ready to go. His brother’s girlfriend had driven him here. My shoulders hunched, my eyes popped, my hands clenched, and I popped up, standing stock still for a good five seconds. “What are you doing here?” I whispered. “Are you ready to go?” he replied. “What are you talking about?” he said. Then it clicked. Oh my gosh, I thought, I forgot to ask. “Well go ask,” he said. So I went and asked. He came with me. Mom was ironing her costume that she was going to wear for the show. Her afro was thick, full, and curly. We both creeped up. She cocked her eyes, squinted her eyes, and flared her nostrils ever so slightly. “Mom,” I said, “I forgot to ask you. Can I go to Liam’s birthday party?” “Who’s gonna be there? What adult’s gonna be there?” she fired out quickly. “I need details, Taz, I need details…” Liam jumped in. “It’s actually a huge party,” he said calmly, “My whole family’s gonna be there.” She started checking things off the list. “So your mom’s gonna be there?” mom asked. “Yes,” Liam said. “And where is it gonna be at?” she asked. “Ronnie’s,” Liam replied. “What time will she be back?” she asked. “Nine-thirty,” Liam quipped.

From that point on, we started talking on the phone everyday. Because I had my own cell phone, I was able to hide it from my mom. He would call me everyday after school at the same time, after dinner when mom was in her room chilling. Even though he didn’t know I was hiding it from my mom, he seemed to had always called at the perfect time when my mom wasn’t around. Every time we talked we explored something new about each other.

How Can I Get Better at Imagery?

Honing your imagery skills is an ongoing part of developing your writing skills. Here are three exercises from The Practice of Creative Writing by Heather Sellers to practice getting better at imagery:

  1. “Break the rules. Write a piece that is all thoughts, commentary, no images. How do you engage, transport the reader?”
  1. “Take an image from any previous piece of writing and extend it, moving in closer with your camera, and slowing time down, so that you expand this single moment, this glimpse, into five pages of prose or twenty lines of poetry.”
  1. “Choose from your own collection of photographs, a few photos of the same person, someone you are close to, at different points in life. Write paragraph sections inspired by the images in the photographs, very directly, as well as images from your life with this person. Avoid thoughts!”

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