Monday, January 30, 2012

Working with Images to Get More Emotion into Your Chapters

This week, a fellow writer in New York sent me this bit of wisdom from writer Richard Bausch, who is known for his wonderful short stories. Bausch has been published widely, and he currently teaches in the writing program at the University of Memphis.

His thoughtful ideas on image and emotion will be the basis for our writing exercise this week.

"Make your feeling in things, images. There is so much more in an image because that is how we experience the world, and a good story is about experience, not concepts and certainly not abstractions. The abstractions are always finally empty and dull no matter how dear they may be to our hearts and no matter how profound we think they must be. I am perfectly aware that I am presently speaking in abstractions. So here is an example: there has been an auto accident. A head-on collision. We can say it contains all the horror of death and injury, and the terrible shocks to existence that await us all. Or--as my pal Allan Gurganus did once long ago in a workshop we were in, talking about this very matter--we can say a man with blood trickling from his ear and eyes wide and glittering unnaturally, knelt, shaking, at one of the broken headlights, trying, with trembling fingers, to put the pieces of shattered glass back into place. That opens the richest vein of horror, and it is experience, and we witness it, and feel it. So, in revision, get rid of all those places where you are commenting on things, and let the things stand for themselves. Be clear about the details that can be felt on the skin and in the nerves."

This is echoed in one of my favorite writing books, From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler.  Butler recommends doing away with any interpretation (thoughts and feelings about things, essentially).  Let the things stand for themselves.

Readers are awfully smart.  They can get the meaning behind the message, if the message is delivered through images. 

In my writing classes, I help writers see how their book's "inner story," or the message of meaning in their writing, is primarily delivered to the reader through these images that reveal emotion, rather than through abstract thoughts and feelings.

This often seems counter-intuitive to the new book writer.  But look at your favorite stories.  Often the emotion is presented at a peak moment through a gesture, an object, the way light glints on a table top that's just been shined.  Images are how readers absorb the emotional impact, or payoff, of such a moment in a book.  I find this true, no matter which genre we're working in.

For this week's writing exercise, I encourage you to test this out. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise

1.  Choose a passage from your writing that is abstract:  maybe it's internal monologue, or thoughts and feelings from a character or narrator or author.

2.  Locate a tangible "thing," as Bausch says, that could possible convey this emotion or thought.

3.  Play with taking out the abstract and letting the thing speak for itself. 

4.  See if the emotional impact is enhanced.