A baby sleeps in a bundle of blankets on the step of number four, Private Drive. He has black hair, and on his forehead is a lightning bolt scar.
Rain falls upon the streets of Derry, Maine – and in the darkness of a gurgling storm drain, there lurks a clown with a white-painted face and a toothy smile.
Just outside the village of Market Chipping (where a 17-year old hatter is having her youth cursed away), a large moving castle navigates the horizon.
A boy with a lightning bolt scar.
A killer clown in the gutter.
A castle that moves across the countryside.
These are some of the images that come to mind when we think about iconic stories like Harry Potter, It, Howl’s Moving Castle, and others. They’re locked into our memories, helping elevate their source material above the swirling sea of competing stories.
Your stories can stand out the same way.
If you learn to craft unforgettable imagery.
What makes an unforgettable image?
I don’t think anyone could identify every quality that makes an image memorable, but in my experience, such imagery is often:
For an image to be unforgettable, it needs to stand out – and that means being unique in the context of the story’s genre and surrounding stories. For example, we’ve read about many boy wizards and chosen ones, but how many of them have had a lightning bolt scar?
Part of what makes readers sit up and pay attention is when there’s something odd or wrong about an image. Scars, for example, are rarely a particular shape, let alone like a lightning bolt. Clowns most certainly do not belong in storm drains (killer clowns themselves are a dissonant mirror of what clowns are intended to be). And castles don’t roam freely across the countryside. That dissonance helps catch and hold the reader’s attention.
To be remembered, images need to create an emotional reaction, which helps solidify their place in the story and in the reader’s mind. Harry Potter’s scar, for example, calls up various emotions throughout the series, ranging from curiosity, to sadness, to a sense of foreboding; the clown in a gutter elicits terror; and Howl’s moving castle inspires a sense of wonder.
If an image appears briefly or holds no importance to the overarching story, it will be easily forgotten. Memorable images, in contrast, tend to be either repeatedly featured as set pieces (such as Harry’s scar or Howl’s moving castle), or pivotal enough to be remembered or called back to throughout the story (such as Georgie’s murder at the storm drain, which ignites the plot of It and becomes a fixation of guilt for his older brother, Bill).
Unique. Dissonant. Emotional. Prominent.
Check, check, check, and…. check.
Now how do you actually write this kind of imagery?
Tips for writing unforgettable imagery.
- Trust your gut. The 4 qualities listed above are helpful to keep in mind, but in the end, these images will often arise naturally as you write, guided by moments of instinct and inspiration. So trust your gut, and go down rabbit holes – even if (especially if) it gets weird. Leave all doubting for later drafts.
- Write with specificity. Vague language rarely yields memorable descriptions, so push yourself toward specific nouns and verbs. This will increase your chances of stumbling across a key detail to elevate your image.
- Don’t give your image too many distracting bells and whistles. Give your image a clear focal point. For example, Harry’s Potter’s visual focal point is his scar. He has black hair (from his father) and green eyes (from his mother), which are important details, but they never compete with the scar. If Harry also had a glowing, magical aura, for example, it would dilute the memorability of the scar, because the aura would fight for our attention. (Think of your image’s focal point as the tent-pole detail I describe here.)
- Don’t pin all your hopes on one image. As I said in Tip #1, memorable images will often arise organically rather than intentionally, so don’t be afraid to plant a lot of seeds. Pack your story with all the odd, surprising, memorable images that come to you! Then while revising, elevate the best of them and trim back the clutter.
In summary? When trying to write memorable imagery: get weird, be specific, give your best details room to breathe, and try to write a bunch of memorable images while drafting to increase your chances of finding one that sparks.
Now go write something unforgettable.
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