Imagery for a master writer isn’t just coming up with a nice turn of phrase . . . one that conjures up a sunset suddenly appearing like a distant marching band turning the corner . . . or the sense of a breeze on the skin like a silk scarf.
A truly compelling image is the one that grips your imagination by the throat and just won’t let go.
For examples, there’s no better place to turn than Edgar Allan Poe. Founder of the detective story, master of the creepy short story, and a quotable poet, this is his 200th anniversary (he was born Jan. 19, 1809), and I highly recommend the Read Street series of blog posts on Poe in the Baltimore Sun.
Here a couple of excerpts from those posts that refer to Poe’s command of the gripping image – how it can hold your attention and burrow into your brain.
Where in your own writing can you create and point the reader’s attention to a glorious, unforgettable image?
In this Read Street guest post by Rob Velella, creator of the Edgar Allan Poe 2009 Bicentennial Desk Calendar, Velella describes Poe’s timeless appeal:
Poe was the first author that I wasn’t ashamed to enjoy – and I remember what pulled me in were his sights and sounds. I heard the tremor in the narrator’s voice when he told me how “calmly” he would tell me the whole story. I saw the old man’s evil, vulture-like eye, blue film and all. I heard the sound of the old man’s heart, beating like the ticking of a watch when enveloped in cotton.
What appealed to me then is still what appeals to me now: his ability to take words that do more than tell a story, but show one. He was a writer of sensation, creating images that are impossible to forget – a writhing black tongue in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” a shackled man in jester’s motley appealing “for the love of God!” in “The Cask of Amontillado,” and the one-eyed black cat sitting triumphantly on the head of a murdered wife in “The Black Cat,” just to name a few.
Here is another excerpt from the Read Street series on Poe, by a member of the South African-born mystery writing team known as Michael Stanley (with Michael Sears), Stanley Trollip’s Read Street blog post on Poe:
Of everything I read, I only recall a few vividly. The one that had perhaps the greatest impact on me was Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.” After I turned the bedside light out, darkness brought vivid mental pictures of impenetrable cell walls and a gaping hole in the middle of my bedroom floor. The swish of curtains nearly caused cardiac arrest as I imagined a great scythe swing ever closer to my shaking body. I knew that creaks in the house meant that the walls were closing in. Mice running across the pressed metal ceiling of my room convinced me that rats were swarming all around my bed. My active imagination took its toll, and I was terrified for weeks after finishing the short story.
How did Poe achieve these effects? Here’s a bit from commentary on the “The Raven” poem, in the 1884 Harper & Brother edition (illus. by Gustave Doré), written by Edmund Clarence Stedman, a 19th-century poet.
The components of “The Raven” are few and simple: a man, a bird, and the phantasmal memory at a woman. But. . . . What have we? The midnight; the shadowy chamber with its tomes of forgotten lore; the student, — a modern Hieronymus; the raven’s tap on the casement; the wintry night and dying fire; the silken wind-swept hangings; the dreams and vague mistrust of the echoing darkness; the black, uncanny bird upon the pallid bust; the accessories of violet velvet and the gloating lamp.
He notes that “all this stage effect of situation, light, color, sound, is purely romantic, and even melodramatic,” but is so effective. The bottom-line: it works.
Here’s one last example, from “The Masque of the Red Death,” the description of the fitful effect caused by the hourly chiming of a “gigantic clock of ebony” that stood “against the western wall” in a set of princely rooms where a masked ball was being held.
Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes, (which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies,) there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before.
Poe had the knack for the image that stuck in the brain, like one from a dream that is odd, memorable, mysterious . . . and so concrete that you wonder if indeed you dreamed it . . . and pray to god that you did.
His feverish imagery isn’t necessarily to imitate, although masters like Stephen King have pulled it off, but to learn from. One of Poe’s tricks: he often combines description of the image with the distinct effect it has on those that encounter it.
The gripping image is a technique that can be used in powerful writing from journalism to fiction. Find the odd, eccentric, specific image that holds the imagination, and you can push the reader to feel emotions – of fear, unease, delight, or compassion – because of the power of their own imaginations to continue where you left off.