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How to write active as compared to flat words showing imagery in your fiction or creative nonfiction and features


Novel and photo by Anne Hart.  How to Start Engaging Conversations on Women's, Men's, or Family Studies with Wealthy Strangers: A Thriller.


Here's how to practice writing 'live' as compared to 'flat' writing when creating imagery that makes an impact on the reader. Check out some examples of 'live' writing compared to 'flat' writing. When writing creative non-fiction or fiction and poetry, describing the way dialogue is spoken, or using 'tag' lines to denote behavior, expression, emotion or gestures, and even describing environment, the more specific the imagery, the less 'flat' and the more 'alive' the writing becomes.


Don't write as if telling. Your goal is to write the effects, that is, what happens as the results of the action. You want to use words that create imagery. You're aiming to design pictures/visuals using words. An example could be: "His first job, waiting on cabaret tables, felt as uplifting as being onstage. He laughed to himself often that it, in a way, finally made use of his degree in musical theater."


You're amplifying. Words such as 'blister' -- do more than simply inflame, burn, or incite. You're describing the outcome in detail, turning up the volume of the event or words spoken in dialogue. You're not only heating up the words but using words as imagery to show the result -- the blister rather than stating the 'burn.'

When writing fiction, using "he said" all the time is supposed to separate the professional from the amateur writer who keeps changing the "he said" to words such as he explained, complained, shouted, moaned, squawked, or some other word that describes behavior felt in a speaker who is saying something to someone else. 


Here are the examples and variations on a theme of "he said."


He croaked

He squeaked

He gurgled like a bittersweet weight on his bunions.

He pricked his finger while he fingered his mud-brick.

He rambled

He shook his head

He shouted

He quietly murmured

He mouthed the words while burping loudly and rudely


Or describing behavior without emotion, you might write, "Our robot wove supple internets and intranets of persuasive essays as it wrote the one manifesto that would define a year of work in pure mathematics, but it could not compute the total number of atoms in this universe in the time allowed."


Describing the behavior, the action, gestures, and the dialogue or monologue with or without emotion


You want to describe the behavior, sound, and gestures of what you might hear when somebody speaks. If the person sounds like a frog, perhaps from exhaustion when returning home, you might describe the tag line of dialogue as whatever words spoken, described as "he croaked" instead of "he said."


In nonfiction, said is good enough, for example in a short news article. In a novel or describing the behavior in a play or script, you might use the words "he croaked" to describe the sound of the person's voice as the words emerge from a person returning home.


In describing a language, you could write, "He spoke (name the outer space alien language in your science fiction novel) as though it dirtied his mouth. The phrase has been used in a popular novel to describe an actual language, but to be "politically correct" in your own novel, if you choose to write a description of how someone speaks a language, you could use similar descriptive words to show what somebody feels about the language he or she is speaking at the moment.


The point is to create imagery of how a person behaves and feels inwardly about the act, situation, language, or environment he or she speaks about outwardly. Active writing is using imagery in words to describe behavior and emotion, inward and outward. The goal is the reader gets the big picture through the small details. That separates flat writing from active writing that's 'alive.'


For example, describe how an individual 'grips' or 'holds' or 'fingers' an object. You could say he or she gripped a penny, a painting, a book, a locket, a wallet, or a miniature horse as if it were a talisman or an amulet, lucky charm, or holy relic. The inner feeling the individual experiences becomes imagery in active writing so that the reader can feel the behavior as well as the emotion behind the behavior of the character in your work of fiction, creative non-fiction, or poem, play, feature article, or script.


You might also describe someone or something that is inside different from outside. You can say the person is 'like' a diamond with flecks of coal, sound or unsound in the way it looks to the viewer, or worth or worthless, valued or valueless, inside.


Notice how many writers use the words "at heart" to describe emotion rather than "at brain" or mention the area of the brain that's the seat of emotion, that controls the other parts of the body. The goal and objective is to create imagery where the reader can feel immediately what you're describing. How would you describe someone or something that has toadies?


Would you use the word toady to describe a flatterer in your novel or story? Or would you use the most familiar word for readers who don't want to look up every word in a dictionary that they read in a novel or story? A toady is defined in various dictionaries as a person who flatters or defers to others for self-serving reasons; a sycophant. It's also defined as someone who can be a toady to or behave like a toady. A toady is an obsequious flatterer; sycophant. fawner, yes man, parasite, apple polisher.


How many readers know what a toady is? What if you're writing for an audience of adults reading at fifth-grade levels? Newspapers often write for readers with a vocabulary or readers who read at fifth-grade to 8th-grade levels. Some newspapers even write articles at fourth-grade reading levels, others at high-school reading levels. It has been said that most newspapers write at levels so that a janitor and college president can understand the article.

A toady is a person who flatters and ingratiates himself or herself in a servile way; sycophant, servile parasite." The word used in Britain around 1826, apparently had been shortened from "toad-eater" used to described a "fawning flatterer" (1742). Originally, to word  referred to the assistant of a charlatan, who ate a toad (believed to be poisonous) to enable his master to display his skill in expelling the poison (1620s). The verb is recorded from 1827. Related words are: Toadied; toadying.


How would you describe lighting a stove to cook using imagery that creates 'live' writing as compared to 'flat' writing?


You might write, as it has been done in popular fiction, that he or she "coaxed the coals to life." But first you'd have to mention, as it has been written, that the person has to "sweep the ashes from the ovens" and then "coax to coals to life." If you're writing about a village in a remote part of the world, the oven could be outdoors. And coals may not have been used in that area, but dried cow patties instead as fuel, or wood.


What would light an oven in the Arctic winter or in the Gobi desert or outer Mongolia, among nomads, for example? Or what would be used as fuel in the rural tropics, such as the South Pacific, rural India, or the Amazon River villages of rural Brazil?


Would you describe a rainy autumn day as sodden heaps of auburn leaves? Or  as white plastic garbage bags tied with pink plastic strings displayed along the littered, gum-stained sidewalks puffed like macaroons on a silver matte baking sheet? The goal is to practice with words that denote imagery -- and then shorten the sentence to bare bones as far as using words that describe the picture you want to create.


Example: "Plastic garbage bags puffed like macaroons standing at attention at curbside." An exquisite novel of fantasy historical fiction using words as imagery that makes the writing spark alive I highly recommend is The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Or you might see my 2007 novel, How to Start Engaging Conversations on Women's, Men's, or Family Studies with Wealthy Strangers: A Thriller,  or see my 1987 play on growing up in Coney Island and beyond during World War II.