Building an Image with Words

Consider these three sentences:

  1. It was a dark and stormy night.
  2. Great crashing Zeus’s fire split the ink-black sky into razor blades.
  3. Lightning pierced the heavens, banishing night for a heartbeat.

Number 1 was insipid. If it created an image in your mind it was probably Snoopy typing on his doghouse in the comic strip Peanuts. It’s lazy writing.

Image result for it was a dark and stormy night

Number 2 is purple prose, with mixed metaphors and reaching, confusing imagery (Zeus’s fire? You’re counting on your audience instantly knowing the Greek god threw lightning, not flames). The reader must work to form an image.

Number 3 works. You see the lightning brightening the sky for a moment. Maybe “heartbeat” won’t be seen as a unit of time and therefore briefly confuse the reader, or maybe it won’t be an issue at all.

Create Movies in the Reader’s Mind

Readers need to see what your words describe, effortlessly, instantly. The magic of reading is that every reader is their own cinematographer—no two readers imagine the same thing, but we must give just enough for them to build a wondrous scene.

Over-describing bogs down the reader; the writer is trying to take over the cinematography role. Lazy writing doesn’t give enough or doesn’t entice the reader to imagine the scene. Finding balance is an author’s job.

Those Pesky English Rules 

Rules of English allow an image to be built from words.

Active Voice vs. Passive Voice

Passive voice makes the reader wait to build the picture. “The ball was thrown by Scott to the dog.” This passive construction forces the reader to imagine a ball. What kind of ball? Ah, it was thrown, so it’s smallish, oh, Scott threw a ball (revise image), where? To the dog. The image is built in fits and starts.

Now, “Scott threw the ball to his dog.” The image progresses easily. Scott, oh, he’s throwing a ball to his dog.

Proper Modifier Placement

“Scott fed his dog because he was drooling.” Who was drooling? “Scott fed his drooling dog.” Ah, there’s the picture (what kind of dog did you see?).

Adjectives, as my English teacher bleated, means you’re using the wrong word. Adjectives modify a word. “I’m very tired.” Does this describe you as well as, “I’m exhausted” or “I’m out-on-my-feet” or “I’m on my lips” … each example is a tad more out there, but they are better than “I’m very tired.”

Punctuation is Always a Clarifier

“A good breakfast includes two of the following bread fries bacon ham and eggs.” Ugg. Do you see the difference between the following two sentences?

  • A good breakfast includes two of the following: bread, fries, bacon, ham and eggs.
  • A good breakfast includes two of the following: bread, fries, bacon, ham, and eggs.

The Oxford comma makes it clear that ham and eggs are separate items, not a singular ham and eggs. (And yes, “or” would have made that clear, too).

I admit it. I can be a lazy writer despite my efforts to the contrary. Thank the dear Lord for editors!

One thought on “Building an Image with Words”

  1. I admit that sometimes I just like to think about Snoopy, i.e. something familiar. Sometimes lazy writing makes it comfortable to slip into a book, but it must not be a book full of it or I’m not finishing it. Your example #2 would have made me throw the book in the garbage.


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