Writing Prompt: Using Imagery for Inspiration

One way to get your brain working if you’re having trouble getting started, is to start by describing something. Find a picture that’s interesting, look out your window, or close your eyes and imagine a vivid memory. You can even imagine a place you’ve never been or that doesn’t really exist. You can pick something as simple as a girl holding out an apple or as complicated as a busy city scene. Whatever your brain needs to get moving.

Once you have your inspiration, use imagery to describe it. And I don’t mean, “she held out a red apple.” I’m talking more about, “The vivid red of the apple glowed in her hand like a warning sign.”

Use mood. Use symbolism. Let the imagery take you somewhere. By comparing the apple to a warning sign, it’s suddenly ominous. There is danger and conflict, and my brain is already wondering what that conflict is and who is in danger from it. I could just as easily compare it to something wonderful and hint at a love story. Whichever direction you choose, if you let the imagery pull you into a story, the characters, plot, and setting will sprout and start to grow.


The Top Tool for Realism Is Imagery

It’s hard to talk about realistic writing without talking about imagery. What I said yesterday about realism related to research, experiences, and believability is true, but it was still framed in big ideas (almost more related to plotting: what situations or experiences will the reader believe are real?). Imagery is more about the small details of the experience, and it is one of the fastest ways to establish a feeling of realism – with or without shared personal experiences.

In other words, imagery is kind of an exception to everything I said yesterday.

Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, our senses are recording bits and pieces of what’s happening around us. Even if we’re not consciously paying attention, our bodies remember and respond to similar stimuli. If you want to know what those memories are, think about a situation and what it’s like for each of your senses. I’m going to use fireworks:


  1. Sight: flashes of bright lights in vibrant colors, dark skies with a hazy trail of smoke, an off-colored afterimage when you blink, faces lit by the flashes, or glow sticks.
  2. Sound: loud booms, a sizzling crackle, “oohs” and “ahhhs” from the viewers, or crying children.
  3. Touch: the hard plastic of a lawn chair against your sides, the chill bite of the evening wind, a warm arm around your shoulders, the stinging pain of mosquito bites, or the cold wetness of an aluminum can in your hands.
  4. Taste: the crisp sweetness of soda, the lingering flavor of a loaded hot dog, or the cold sweetness of ice cream.
  5. Smell: the growing smell of sulfur in the air, the lingering scent of grilling, or the strong acrid aroma of alcohol.

When you put details like these into your writing, those details immediately establish a sense of realism for any reader who has had a similar experience. In this case, the food and setting-related sensory details will really appeal to people who saw fireworks in a similar situation (like the 4th of July in the U.S.), yet the sensory details for the fireworks themselves (how they looked, sounded, and smelled) could appeal to anyone who has seen fireworks. In any situation.

Even better (and unlike “I went to the fireworks”), this imagery also gives a reader who has never experienced any of this an idea of what seeing fireworks is like.

This facet is how imagery can sometimes get around the personal experience rule. You see, most people don’t even think about sensory language when talking about something they haven’t experienced. Trying to describe how something felt when you never felt it requires either plenty of research or loads of imagination. People who aren’t used to doing either don’t think of them as options.

As readers, there is a subconscious assumption that if the person can describe how something smelled, sounded, tasted, looked, or felt, then he/she must have actually experienced it. If it’s described in enough detail, they might even believe it if it contradicts their own experiences (on the assumption that the character’s experience was unusual but possible).

That’s not always going to be true (if you’re really far off on what it’s like, it won’t work at all), and ideally, it’s best to couple imagery with detailed research. At the same time, a single sensory detail can go further towards a feeling of realism than a paragraph full of historically accurate facts.


Behold The Art of the Unexpected Comparison

These are not your average similes. They are startling, funny, and somewhat disturbing – at the same time, they get their points across. Because they do, they are powerful. You could use comparisons like these to shape a character’s dialogue or to make a point with tone. Or you could just read them and laugh.

“21 Actual Analogies Used By High School Students in English Essays.”

1. When she tried to sing, it sounded like a walrus giving birth to farm equipment.

2. Her eyes twinkled, like the moustache of a man with a cold.

3. She was like a magnet: Attractive from the back, repulsive from the front.

4. The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

5. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli and he was room temperature Canadian beef.

6. She had him like a toenail stuck in a shag carpet.

7. The lamp just sat there, like an inanimate object.

8. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

9. Her eyes were like the stars, not because they twinkle, but because they were so far apart.

10. His career was blowing up like a man with a broken metal detector walking through an active minefield.

11. The sun was below the watery horizon, like a diabetic grandma easing into a warm salt bath.

12. From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you’re on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes at a 7:00 p.m. Instead of 7:30.

13. It was as easy as taking candy from a diabetic man who no longer wishes to eat candy.

14. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes before it throws up.

15. Their love burned with the fiery intensity of a urinary tract infection.

16. It’s basically an illusion and no different than if I were to imagine something else, like Batman riding a flying toaster.

17. If it was any colder, it would be like being in a place that’s a little colder than it is here.

18. Joy fills her heart like a silent but deadly fart fills a room with no windows.

19. The bird flew gracefully into the air like a man stepping on a landmine in zero gravity.

20. He felt confused. As confused as a homeless man on house arrest.

21. The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife’s infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM.


I ran into this at tickld, but from what I could find about the original post, this is a collection from a variety of teachers and has been sent around by email long before it was posted online. If anyone finds a definitive author, please, let me know so that I can give credit.


How to Put Your Readers in the Mood

“Mood” is a term that gets thrown around a lot – and not always correctly. That’s partly because it’s in everything (movies, books, music, etc.), so even without knowing exactly what it is, many writers use mood automatically. It’s like osmosis – you absorb it and use it without even knowing. If you want to write or enhance a specific mood, however, you’ll need to know more precisely what it is.

Put bluntly, mood is atmosphere. I think of it like the scene of a movie or tv show. If it’s supposed to be creepy, there are probably a lot of high violins playing in the background and deep shadows in the lighting. If the mood is happier, the lighting would be brighter and softer. The background music would be bouncy or light and sweet. Honestly, if you picture a scene from a movie right now and how it made you feel, you’ll have a good idea of how they built that mood (What lighting was used? What location? What music? What was happening?).

In writing, mood is built mostly by word choice and rhythm. Strong adjectives and imagery tend to bring specific moods to mind. “A cold wind blew through to trees, making the branches crackle like scraping bones,” is going to make a more ominous or creepy mood than “A cold wind blew through the trees, making the branches tinkle like icy wind chimes.” The second one is more whimsical and less frightening, and the only difference is the simile. Here is where picturing the movie scene can be particularly helpful. The words you would use to describe that movie scene can make the same mood as the scene.

Using more abstract imagery (like the similes above) often gives a stronger impact than adjectives alone, yet neither one by itself is enough to make the mood of the scene. The second one could end up more frightening in the end because how these word choices combine with the pacing and situation is what builds a truly powerful mood.

Thinking about the character’s emotions can help you decide what pacing is right for the mood you want. When people are upset, their movements and breathing get faster. Whether they’re scared, excited, or aroused, a faster and more impulsive pace is a natural response. When people are calmer or feel more stable emotions, they move at a slower, more leisurely pace. Since those speeds are already associated with certain types of emotions, passages written in those speeds can help artificially inspire the emotions.

How the situation affects the mood completely depends on what the main character knows and feels. Unknowns generally cause nerves or fear. If the character knows what’s going on and has a handle on it, the mood is already set up to be calmer. Since this relies on the character’s emotions, it links very closely with the pacing choice.

True masters of mood combine imagery, pacing, and situation to manipulate their readers’ emotions. It adds an extra punch to any book, and if you’re writing horror, it is a definite must. You may be using it instinctively, yet by consciously tweaking these three facets, you can definitely up the impact.

What mood will you write?