Picturesque: Writing Great Images with C.S. Taylor

I’m so, so excited to have writer and blogger C.S. Taylor back with me for On Writing 2.0! For those of you that were around for the first event, Cherise had some fantastic insight on the craft, and she continues to show her knowledge of writing in today’s post. Read on for some great advice and examples of writing great imagery!

Over the years, I’ve had many young authors come to me and ask for critiques or help in developing their writing. Each person is different, with unique struggles and gifts, but there is one thing that seems standard amount many authors. Many of us struggle with creating vivid images and descriptions.

White Wash Principle

Many of us, even myself at times, struggle with what I refer to as the White Wash Principle. We have a lot going on in our stories in terms of action or dialogue or internal narrative, but often we fail to set the stage. What do our surroundings look like? What people are there? What feelings and atmosphere are in the air around us?

These questions must be answered in every scene, every interaction, every moment. Those images are part of what keeps the reader grounded in the present moment of the story. A writer cannot simply state that they walked into the kitchen or that they were threatened with a knife there. Rather, we need to see, hear, taste, touch, feel, and intimately know the very vibrations of the atmosphere and the people in it.

So how can we, as authors, make that happen for our readers? How can we create a cohesive atmosphere within our stories? How can we unearth vibrant images that will create picturesque scenes to ground and secure our readers’ attention—not only at the start of a narrative, but throughout?

Base Advice

My base advice always starts with this—read, read, read, read, read. Find your style. Find those scenes that vibe for you. Find the places you’re viscerally sucked into a scene through the picturesque descriptions. Read them and re-read them and re-read them.

Try to understand not just why you love them, but also why they’re working.What makes those scenes work? What makes them stand out to you? What about those scenes is anchoring you into the story such that you’re nearly overwhelmed by the level of realness you feel while reading?

There are many stories, many scenes, many moments that have made me feel that way as an author and a consumer, but most recently I have found myself enveloped in the rich, poetic prose of Auralia’s Colors, a fantasy narrative by Jeffrey Overstreet.

Through his prose, I have found—once again—my soapbox on creating description and images that not only work for your story but blend into the style of your story. Obviously, every style will be a little bit different, but there are still three tools that one needs to use when crafting dynamic descriptions and images for a novel, and hopefully, today, I will competently share those with you.

Creating Solid, Emotional Sentences

As a writer, I find there are two things that stand on the threshold of creating solid, emotional sentences. Strong, specific word choices. And focused word connotations.

When we’re writing sentences, it’s important to choose specific words with specific connotations. Why? Because every word, particularly strong ones that will truly bring your writing to life, have an emotional attachment.

Think about the word death. What kind of emotional attachment does that word have in a scene? Does it bring sweet memories? Does it bring dread? Curiosity? What images and thoughts does that singular word dredge up in your mind?

What about the word black? Is that a neutral word for you? How does it change when I add the word “ink” in front of it. Inkblack. An entirely new word with an entirely new connotation.

Whether we think about it or not, the words we choose and the strength of those words garner the attention of a reader, so the writer has to be careful and thoughtful about the choosing and the placement of every single word in a sentence because every single word implies something.

Let’s say for a moment, that I am Jerffrey Overstreet. Let’s say that I am writing about Auralia. And let’s say that I choose to write: “An old man found Auralia, still, on the bank of a river. She appeared relatively unharmed, merely dirtied by the soil. She cooed to herself, looking up at the evening sky, and the old man assumed she was searching for whoever had left her there.”

How do you feel about that section?

Does it pull you in as a reader? Perhaps. Does it introduce the characters and the situation well? Perhaps.

But how strong are the words? Are there passive verbs that aren’t working? Are there sections that could be tightened or clarified? Are there verbs or nouns or ideas that could be further brought to life? Do any of the words in that give you an emotional context or connotation through which to view the story?

For me, as a reader, the section above isn’t badly written. It’s first draft material. But it doesn’t move me. It doesn’t drawn me in and hold me captive. The word choices are relative and bland.

As a reader I require better. I need solid. I need concrete. I need evocative. I need emotional. I need for myself, playing the part of Jeffrey Overstreet, to make a purposeful choice with each word to set the story in stone for me. This is his chance, my chance to remind me why I care about this situation, what the stakes are, what the emotional appeal of this story is. This is his chance, my chance, to hook the reader and drag them down into the depths of my story.

And I need to realize that, as a writer, any moment may be my last chance to do this. Any moment may be the one where a reader says “this isn’t enough” and chooses to set my story down. So what can I do to make sure that I’m dragging the reader into the story and drowning them in it?

I need solid, emotional sentences. Solid, emotional words. Specific, strong, moving words strung together in a way that makes me hold my breath and say ohhhhh that’s what I’m here for.

Luckily, Jeffrey Overstreet accomplishes this to the nines and back throughout Auralia’s Colors, but the following section is one that consistently and memorably brings to light the examples of solid, emotional sentences.

“Auralia lay still as death, like a discarded doll, in a burgundy tangle of rushes and spine weed on the bank of a bend in the River Throanscall, when she was discovered by an old man who did not know her name.

She bore no scars, no broken bones, just the stain of inkblack soil. Contentedly, she cooed, whispered, and babbled, learning the river’s language, and focused her gaze on the stormy dance of evening sky—roiling purple clouds edged with blood red. The old man surmised she was waiting and listening for whoever, or whatever, had forsaken her there.”

Gosh, I die every time I read that. It’s just overwhelmingly gorgeous to a writer like me. There are so many choice, specific, enrapturing details scattered throughout Overstreet’s section. So let’s take a moment and go back. Let’s highlight them. Let’s see specifically what Overstreet is doing, adding with his word choices and connotations here that builds and secures his story for the reader.

“Auralia lay still as death, like a discarded doll, in a burgundy tangle of rushes and spine weed on the bank of a bend in the River Throanscall, when she was discovered by an old man who did not know her name.

She bore no scars, no broken bones, just the stain of inkblack soil. Contentedly, she cooed, whispered, and babbled, learning the river’s language, and focused her gaze on the stormy dance of evening sky—roiling purple clouds edged with blood red. The old man surmised she was waiting and listening for whoever, or whatever, had forsaken her there.”

Take a look at that. Just look. What happens if you take out any of the bolded words? What are you left with? Perhaps, you would be left with a basic idea of what’s happening—like I provided in my example above.

But these words choices—each of them has a strategic placement and feeling associated with them that the author is using to ensnare his reader. Without them, this section would be weakened to nothing.

Bringing Your Images to Life

Another way to bring life to your images is to literally—or rather figuratively—give life to them. What do I mean by this? I mean, give life to things that don’t normally have life.

Personification is what they call this.

It refers to the poetic term of bringing life to something that is not normally alive, or making that thing personable, living, real.

Let’s pretend again, for a moment, that I’m Jeffrey Overstreet. To circumvent the necessity of describing the passage of years, I could do a time skip and use narrative description to sum up what I want to happen to the baby Auralia as she grows into a child.

I could, per se, write something akin to “Auralia grew up, wild in the forests where the old man raised her. She had silver-brown hair and an odd little smile. Every day, she journeyed through the forest, finding small treasures to bring back to him.”

Once again, not awful. Definitely first draft, voiceless material, but not awful.

To his credit, Overstreet did not do that. Rather, he chose to use personification (as well as simile!) and brought true life to both the setting and the character he was describing, even as he circumvented covering a great span of time. 

“The child became twigs and burnt autumn leaves, thin and fishy fingers clutching acorns and seeds as though they were stolen jewels. Her hair hung in tangles, silver and brown like the bark of apple trees.Her smile sealed off secrets. Each day she made a hurried journey to see as much of the world as she could bear and to harvest a small gallery of souvenirs.”

Technically, you can also accomplish bringing memorable moments (or life) to your descriptions and images by using metaphor or simile, too. I’ve seen cases in literature where both of these also work to the authors advantage in further bringing characters, places, and objects to life for the reader.

Personification is one of my particular favorites and the one that almost always works for me in literature. It gives me a fresh look and taste for story, and more often than not use of personification aids in withdrawing from cliches, whereas use of simile and metaphor can often harm an author’s originality by use of cliche.

 (If you want to see some grand uses of simile and metaphor in fiction, read Palimpsest or Deathless by Catherynne Valente or Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Beautiful and evocative usages of simile, metaphor, and personification.)

Intimacy with Your Atmosphere

One thing—as a reader, a writer, and an editor—that I always harp on is sentence flow. Sentence flow is something that can make or break your paragraphs. Sentence flow can either aid your reader into sinking into your story, or it can jerk them out and leaved them swimming in cold choppy seas of sentences, trying to gather all the information they can before they’re completely overwhelmed.

There’s a reason why you hear so many books described as “juvenile” or “written by a fifth grader.” Authors are terrified of sentence flow issues, and let’s be honest, it’s really hard to get a good flow just right so that it’s serving both the purposes of the story and the reader’s frame of mind.

But a good sentence flow is something that only comes with a knowledge and intimacy with the atmosphere of your story.

Atmosphere is a wild thing. It can change from scene to scene, interaction to interaction, moment to moment. It can change with subtle word choices. It can adjust with minor shifts in colors or sounds. It’s wild, free, and on the prowl.

Atmosphere is the predator level of your story. It’s where everything comes together—where those specific word choices, those connotations, those personifications, those emotions, those tiny story details all bind together and electrify.

Atmosphere is the life pulse of your story. And when your atmosphere is strong, the reader can almost close their eyes and be overcome by your writing. They can close their eyes and see the memory of the surroundings. They can listen and hear the faint noises of snow crunching underfoot, the smallest snapping of a twig. They can brush their fingers against the surface of the tepid water, or bare the tip of their nose to the swishing brisk winds. The can smell the dankness of the forest, the age of the wine. They can feel with an uncanny intimacy the very world of your story vibrating around them. That is what good description, incredible images, lifelike atmosphere can do for your narrative.

So let’s say, for a final time, that I am Jeffrey Overstreet. Let’s say that I am writing about the captain of an army on a crisp winter’s evening as he searches for the girl called Auralia. And let’s say, for now, that I write about it this way: “The hour was quiet, near dark. The sun cast shade through the trees. The wind ripped through the branches, and the tree branches rattled with it. Icicles sank into the snow below when the wind blew. A rider could almost disappear into this forest. Captain Ark-robin had waited for this chance. He sat on his vawn, waiting, listening, for the girl Auralia.”

As before, not bad. First draft quality. But what’s not working here? Can you feel the surroundings of the captain as he waits? Can you feel the cold? Can you hear the wind? Can you see the patterns made by the sun? Is there any emotion in you?

No. Not for me at least.

And why not?

First of all, this example breaks my two prior stated “rules” of writing picturesque images for your narrative. But second, let’s re-read that and take a look at the sentence structures.

“The hour was quiet, near dark. The sun cast shade through the trees. The wind ripped through the branches, and the tree branches rattled with it. Icicles sank into the snow below when the wind blew. A rider could almost disappear into this forest. Captain Ark-robin had waited for this chance. He sat on his vawn, waiting, listening, for the girl Auralia.”

What do you notice when you’re looking at them? The sentence structures. The rhythms. Is anything different or varying with them? No. Nothing at all. The first two are simple sentences, both very short and clipped. The second two are both longer sentences, one compound, one simple. Then, another simple sentence, and another. And finally, a sentence with a different formula at the end.

How does that feel when you read it?

Personally, it grates on my nerves. It feels jarring and clunky, alarming to read and frustrating to stare at. Reading such stark prose makes me want to close the book and go look for something else to read, something that will draw me in and make me feel as if I, too, am present in this book.

The important thing when writing is to change your sentences. Change your patterns. Change your beginnings. Change your endings. Try not to put two similar sentence constructs alongside each other. Use different sentence lengths and patterns to establish a rhythm for your writing.

This is something that I think Overstreet accomplished well when he introduced Captain Ark-robin in the captain’s search for Auralia. Not only did he follow the two already established “rules,” but he also set out a gorgeous structure pattern for the flow of his writing, which helped enrich the atmosphere of his book. 

“This was an hour for stealth. The evening sun, peering through an array of passing clouds, beamed ever-changing patterns of light and shade through the trees. When the wind rushed in from a vast and frozen lake, bare branches scraped against one another as if for warmth; ice fell in a clatter and snow in a chorus of whispers and splashes. A rider could pass ghost-like through this wilderness.

Captain Ark-robin had waited for this opportunity. He and his armored vawn were motionless, silent, hidden in brambles, listening.

Tap.”

So. Not only did Overstreet manage to follow all three rules and evoke a natural, gorgeous atmosphere to draw the reader in, he also touched on another piece of craft that can also help build tension in moments like this.

Notice, at the end, a single word. A single line in a paragraph. Tap.

A single sound.

And in that moment, the reader is still with Captain Ark-robin. We’re hovering in the narrative, waiting to see what he sees, waiting to see what he’s searching for, waiting to know what happens next. Waiting, and trusting that Overstreet will continue to use these beautiful images and descriptions to take us there.

Closing Advice

Imitation.

That’s how I did it. That’s how I learned.

Imitation.

That’s why I always insist with people—if you want to write well, you need to read. You need to find what you love, what stands out to you, what is most deeply evocative for you as a reader. And then copy that.

Now, don’t copy it forever, but copy it to start.

Find those paragraphs. Type them out, write them out, feel them out. Trace the words with your mind, memorize the words through your skin, through your heart. Put them down over and over and over until you can feel their rhythm sizzling through your veins.

Then, replace their words with yours.

Imitate the formula that sets your eyes alight and your reader’s heart on fire. Practice this with your own prose until it feels natural, until you can feel yourself learning and developing your own style, searching for those chances to bring your prose to life.

Eventually, the vivid becomes the natural. 

A Parting Note with Love

Crafting picturesque images for your scenes is not an ability developed overnight. I spent many, many nights in grad school crying over other author’s writing wondering why my own didn’t feel as pronounced and vivid as theirs did.

So let me tell you now—it’s okay if it doesn’t work.

It’s okay if you don’t write beautiful description the first time. It’s okay if you don’t unveil gorgeous, evocative images the second time. It’s okay if every single draft you ever write feels like it hasn’t come to life yet. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to learn quickly. You just need to be willing to try.

That’s what writing is all about—finding your groove, finding your voice, finding that place where your prose unwinds and sings. And that’s your process. You don’t have to get to that realm of perfection right away. 

All you have to do is open your heart, and sink your fingers into your prose. Writing is like a body. It won’t work for you, until you work for it. So dive deep into your words, into yourself, find those words and emotions in your soul and tear them out if you have to. They’ll look ugly at first, but that’s how innards always look. Editing, crafting, playing—those are tools for later.

But don’t give up. That’s what I’m here to say. If you’re not perfect, don’t give up. Keep trying, keep reading, keep learning, keep developing, keep growing. And someday, those blood-dripping innards you were so concerned about laying on the table, someday, they’ll be beautiful.

~ CS Taylor

CS Taylor was raised on fairy lit paths somewhere between the backstreet alleys of Jackson, Mississippi, and the jazz infested avenues of New Orleans. Currently, she’s settled in the open meadows of Iowa where the tulips grow thicker than the grass.

She spends her days teaching special needs and gifted children to read and write, and she spends her nights star gazing and ignoring her own writing. She graduated with her terminal degree in Writing and Editing  from University of Nebraska (Omaha) in 2018, and now she delegates her writing efforts to mentoring young authors, providing editing services to Indie writers, and grumbling at her uncooperative characters. She hopes one day to talk those characters into becoming part of a book.

CS Taylor can be reached at her email thefoldedworld@gmail.com. You can also reach out to her through Instagram, Facebook, GoodReads, Pinterest, or on her blog: https://thefoldedworld.wordpress.com.

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