The Power of Imagery

We know that using similes is a powerful tool in writing, but it's not just the act of thinking one up. A truly powerful simile or metaphor acts as an immediate image. A mood enhancer.

Here's the prologue opening of Higher Hope by Robert Whitlow.

"The afternoon thunderstorm thrashed Savannah with wet whips, the raindrops falling in waves that raced across the ground."

When I opened this book, the first half of that sentence leapt out at me. The verb matches the noun. It sets an immediate tone, I think.

Writers use imagery all the time, but does your simile match the mood of the scene? Does it evoke an image in a fresh way? I've heard of rain whipping through. But I've never read it described as a thrashing whip.

Off the top of your head, can you think of any images or similes authors have used that stuck with you long after you'd finished the book? When writing, do you use certain images/similes to convey a specific tone?


Jody Hedlund said…
I just love being able to come up with a similie that matches the mood or setting. In my earlier writing I think I overused them, but I'm learning that when they're well-placed they can really make more of an impact.
Debra E. Marvin said…
Jessica, I have one phrase that I read many years ago that always stuck with me for its beauty. I believe it was the LaVyrle Spencer book YEARS and she described the sound of honking geese as 'a nail being pulled out of wood'. Well, of course it was written beautifully but evoked such a reponse in me that I've never forgotten it.

At times a contest judge may point out something and say it's nice but 'you should never write something that pulls your reader out of the story (in regards to a simile or metaphor). I know what they mean.

BUT, I enjoy reading those kind of phrases even if they do stop me short! I'm capable of getting back into the author's story.

I guess we have to weigh carefully any use of phrases that jump off the page in our writing. They must add to it, not cause confusion.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Jody,
I worry about overusing mine. So true though, that when one is used well, it's very, very powerful.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Debra,
What a cool way to put it! I guess that's why she's famous (or part of it, lol).
I enjoy beautiful writing too, especially if it's coupled with a fast paced story. You're right. It's all about the usage. And I like what you said about not causing confusion, because sometimes we get a little too creative and lol, people don't know what we mean. Snort.
Kristen Painter said…
I love writing similes. I think I've come up with some pretty good ones too.
Jessica Nelson said…
You probably have. I like some mine too. Others, I've been like, what was I thinking? LOL
Oh, I do try to use similes and imagery but I don't know that I'm very good at it. Mostly I try and set the mood by the way the POV character describes his/her surroundings. The same view can look very different depending what mood you're in and what the circumstances are at the time.

Good thoughts, Jessica!
Katie Salidas said…
The right comparason, simile, metaphor, analogy, can do such wonders for your writing. Just don't overuse it. I'm still trying to learn that one. I don't have any examples, but I know when I read and I come across one, it does stick with me for a while.

Great post
anita said…
This isn't off the top of my head, I actually had to look it up. But it's always stuck inside of me, not just for the beautiful, thought provoking prose, but for the depth of emotion it evoked when I read it.

This is from Jane Eyre, and it's after Jane has left her beloved Mr. Rochester and is sleeping out in the wilderness on her way to a new town and a new life. The author uses the sentences like a descending stairway, leading the reader deeper into the angst until finally, at the end, the metaphor comes to light and portrays the emotion so beautifully:

"My rest might have been blissful enough, only a sad heart broke it. It plained of its gaping wounds, its inward bleeding, its riven chords. It trembled for Mr. Rochester and his doom; it bemoaned him with bitter pity; it demanded him with ceaseless longing: and impotent as a bird with both wings broken, it still quivered its shattered pinions in vain attempts to seek him."

WOW. Is it any wonder I can read this book time and time again and never grow tired of it?
anita said…
Oops! That's actually a simile, I suppose. Not a metaphor, since the "as" is used. I don't know why I always confuse those. SNORT!

Great post today, Jessie!
Hi Jess -

Two authors who use this type of imagery are Mary DeMuth and Patricia Hickman. I can't think of specific examples at the moment, but their books make you wish you'd written those lines.

Susan :)
Unknown said…
I'm with Jody there...I am terrified I over use them. But I can't help it. I want you to see the picture as I see it in my head. I've been told numerous times to "trust the reader" Sigh...*whines* But what if they don't picture it right!!! *stomps feet* LOL
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Eileen,
Using scenery as imagery/mood setting is an excellent technique. :-) We don't always need similes to make something strong.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Katie,
Sometimes they stick with me too. For awhile, at least. LOL Ever seen those spoofs on writing metaphors? They're hilarious, but it's true that sometimes we might go too crazy with it. LOL
Jessica Nelson said…
Great example Anita!!! Okay, so I'm confused now. I thought metaphors were with as or like, and similes were both a metaphor and stand on their own. Sheesh. I kept wanting to write metaphor in the post and had to change it to simile, when the whole time I was right??? Heeehee. Too funny.

I love that example. And look at the repetition of emotional words. Really beautiful.
Jessica Nelson said…
Before I ever started writing I read Hickman's books and I was completely blown away by her writing. I LOVED it.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hahaaa! Marybeth, you're so funny!
anita said…
Okay, since we're both equally confused, I went to the dictionary. I have been mixed up about this forever!

Metaphor: a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance, as in “A mighty fortress is our God.”

Simile: a figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared, as in “she is like a rose.”

I think the difference is, with a metaphor, you don't use "like" or "as", but you do with simile. I THINK. Who knows? I'm still confused. Heh.
Tana said…
I hate to harp on this book esp. since it's not a christian novel but WHite Olenader is full of them superbly done and perhaps the best written example.
Jessica Nelson said…
LOL Anita!
Okay, so I was wrong. All similes are metaphors, but not all metaphors are similes. Does that help you?

I just sent a humongo e-mail your way. Let me know if you don't get it.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hey T. Anne,
No problem. Beautiful writing is beautiful writing. That was a sad movie, but I've never read the story.
Unknown said…
Just thought I'd pop by your blog and say hello since I'll be meeting you tonight. :)
Love that example! I wish I could think of one off the top of my head, but I'm not coming up with anything at the moment.

I also like how you talk about them matching the tone, I've never really thought about that before, but it is something I will keep in mind from now on!
Jessica Nelson said…
Hey Karen,
It was so fun meeting you! I had a blast. Maybe we can do it again.
Thanks for driving all that way.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hey Kate,
Thanks for stopping by. Yeah, that first sentence intrigued me. It set such a fierce mood that I wondered why he was describing the weather and what it had to do with what would happen next.
Terri Tiffany said…
I love using them if I can find the right one--I tend to overuse maybe too. Jodi Pecoult does an awesome job. Love that whip one! Don't you always thing, "now why couldn't I come up with that??"
Angie Ledbetter said…
One reason I like reading/writing poetry so much.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hey Terri,
Of course I think that! LOL
Jessica Nelson said…
I love the flexibility of poetry. You're right, it's such a good teacher of how to write well. When I started my first finished manuscript, I was in a creative writing class and the teacher mostly taught and had us write about poetry. I learned SO much and tried to incorporate that into my writing.
Rita Gerlach said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rita Gerlach said…
I use imagery throughout my novels. One of the best things I ever learned about the craft was from Gilbert Morris's book 'How to Write a Christian Novel'. You want the reader to see, hear, taste, and touch, what your characters, see, hear, taste, and touch. This is an exercise in great prose.

In one of my advanced reviews for Surrender the Wind, author Bonnie Toews wrote:

Her imagery is breathtaking: “The quill scratched over the parchment. Mingled with the resonance of rapping vines outside his window and the crackling fire, the sound dominated.”

Think of how those three things do sound. The scratching quill. Rapping vines on a glass pane. A fire crackling in the hearth. Those sentences are at the end of a chapter where the hero's grandfather is on his deathbed on a cold and gloomy night as he signs his last will and testimony.

Another trick is to use phrases that match the scene.
Yes, love a good simile - although I try not to over do them - and I try not to say "like a" so much....but instead as the author there did - he just made the image happen - made the rain a whip instead of writing "the afternoon thunderstorm thrashed Savannah LIKE a wet whips" - he let the rain BE the whips - if that makes sense :)
Pen Pen said…
I've loved Hemingway's rain imagery in 'A Farewell to Arms' since I read it years ago--
It shows how well Ernest Hemingway is able to prepare the reader for events to come. Catherine Barkley, the English nurse who falls in love with Fredric Henry, an American in the Italian army, states, "I'm afraid of the rain" (125), as they stay in Milan. She goes on to explain "I'm afraid of the rain because sometimes I see me dead in it. ... And sometimes I see you dead in it" (126). The foreshadowing this provides is very ominous and frighteningly accurate. Hemingway even continues to strengthen this foreboding by saying, "She was crying. I comforted her and she stopped crying. But outside it kept on raining" (126). He uses imagery from nature to contrast the clarity of the mountains, the danger of the plains, and the unknown of the rain
Warren Baldwin said…
You come up with some good ideas that are practical and helpful for writing. Thanks.

Do I come up with many similies? I try to, because even in speaking a simile helps drive a point home. Remember, it was the use of similes and metaphors that final pushed Jesus' opponents over the edge and they began to conspire to kill him. Similies and metaphors are powerful vehicles of communication. Thanks, wb
Tana said…
Jessica, I got my package today! I love the book and goodies! The note was so sweet. ((Big hug)) and thank you! XOXO
Danyelle L. said…
Great post! I love metaphors. :D I think they can add so much to the writing. I can't think of any specific ones off the top of my head, but a well-written metaphor is like the most exquisite music to my ear. :D
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Rita,
What an awesome review. And you're right, it definitely puts more than an image in the reader's mind, it puts the reader into the scene.
I can't wait to get your book! I'm not sure when they ship, but I'm awaiting! LOL
Jessica Nelson said…
Kathryn, that makes AWesome sense! What a great point. :-)
Jessica Nelson said…
Totally true. That's how I defend myself when more "spiritual" people say that fiction is not a powerful enough vehicle for the truth. Thanks for making that point.
Jessica Nelson said…
Ooooo, Pen Pen, that is really good. I haven't read much of Hemingway, but I know I should. He's famous for a reason. I really love that example because I love using the weather to mimic or be the opposite of a character's mood. Thanks so much for sharing that!
It makes me want to read the book.
Jessica Nelson said…
Thanks for letting me know, T. Anne! I hope you enjoy it. :-)
Jessica Nelson said…
That a good metaphor for metaphors. LOL! Yes, you're right. An excellent metaphor is just like that, like it hits the right chord, you want to hear it again, savor it...All that good stuff. :-)
Jessie Oliveros said…
In my copy of The Secret Life of Bees, I have underlined all of the incredible metaphors-it's full of them. "In the dark she looked like a boulder shaped by five hundred years of storms." "A barge of mist floated along the water..." "... while bees swirled around our heads with a sound like sizzling bacon." I LOVE LOVE metaphors.
Jessica Nelson said…
OH, I want to read that book!!!! I love that example of a boulder. Wow.
Angela Ackerman said…
I think Savvy has to be my fave simile rich book. That and Troll Fell--beautiful imagery and metaphor mastery.

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