You have probably heard me talk about the importance of inviting a reader into a scene–presenting information to your reader as closely as possible to the way she would receive information in real life. In real life, we collect information via our five senses, and then our minds go to work on that information to make judgments, have ideas, feel feelings, reach conclusions, etc. I wrote about this idea at length in an earlier issue of The Habit called The Eye Is an Organ of Judgment.

Imagery is the most basic and most important tool for writing that invites a reader into a scene rather than telling the reader what to think. Imagery is simply language that appeals to the five senses by depicting concrete facts.

In Charlotte’s Web, the old sheep uses imagery to convince the rat Templeton to pay a visit to the fairgrounds:

In the trampled grass of the infield you will find old discarded lunch boxes containing the foul remains of peanut butter sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, cracker crumbs, bits of doughnuts, and particles of cheese. In the hard-packed dirt of the midway, after the glaring lights are out and the people have gone to bed, you will find a veritable treasure of popcorn fragments, frozen custard dribblings, candied apples abandoned by tired children, sugar fluff crystals, salted almonds, popsicles, partially gnawed ice cream cones and wooden sticks of lollipops.

That is an exceedingly vivid and sensory bit of writing. But there’s nothing fancy here. There is no figurative language, except possibly the word “treasure.” You don’t have to be a genius to write like this. You only have to pay attention. See what you see, write what you’ve seen. 

Contrast that kind of straight-ahead imagery with the following image from Ron Hansen’s “Nebraska”–imagery that is infused with some remarkable figurative language:

And below the silos and water towers are the bare treetops, their gray limbs still lifted up in alleluia, their yellow leaves crowding along yard fences and sheeping along the sidewalks and alleys under the shepherding wind.

That image of the fallen leaves moving like a flock of sheep is just brilliant. I don’t think you can teach that sort of thing. Nor do I think, as a writer, you can force that sort of thing.

I would like to propose, however, that Ron Hansen’s unteachably brilliant metaphor of the leaves “sheeping along the sidewalks and alleys under the shepherding wind” came from the same place that E.B. White’s more straightforward depiction of the fair came from. He just paid attention. He saw what he saw. He envisioned those yellow leaves clearly enough that he was able to say, “You know what those leaves look like? A flock of sheep.”

When I started teaching my first online creative writing classes, the last week’s assignment was to write a piece that grew out of a metaphor or extended simile. For most of the students, that week’s exercise was their worst performance–and by a good margin. It was a pretty discouraging way to end the class.

I have given up on forcing people to come up with brilliant figurative language. Figurative language, as Jesus said, “bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.”

Great figurative language comes in flashes. When the inspiration comes, be grateful. But you can’t depend on those flashes. (Though you can spend more time you spend in the writing chair, increasing the likelihood that you’ll be there wen the inspiration comes.)

The good news, however, is that you can write beautifully without figurative language. Would you be glad to write a passage like the one from E.B. White above? I know I would.

That kind of writing is well within your power. That kind of writing just requires that you pay attention to the world around you. See what you see. Write what you’ve seen.

Photo by Brandon Mowinkel on Unsplash