What makes one novel or book series your favorite? What makes a story memorable? What keeps you reading and unable to put the book down, even when you’re tired or have other more important things to do?
The answers could involve many aspects, but I feel that overall, how well the content draws you in and causes you to imagine yourself in the story, picturing and experiencing what the characters see and feel is what sets a fantastic book apart.
For some writers, a common method is to write an abbreviated story at first, simply telling what happens without any imagery or details. Then they go back through it again to add the details and imagery that will turn their story into a page-turner. When I’ve written short stories, I’ve generally done this as well, with a few exceptions. If I can picture the scene or events vividly in my mind, then I try to get the language right first, so I don’t forget.
Whether you’re rewriting a scene or writing it for the first time, put yourself in the shoes of the immediate character and imagine what they are thinking and sensing. Are they impatient? Are they cold? Does their elbow hurt because they recently bumped it against the table? Can they smell the grass that was just cut? Can they hear a dog barking in the distance? Can they still taste the coffee they finished half an hour ago? ☕ Who or what do they see around them?
If the scene takes place outside, or in a large indoor space, you can also imagine viewing events from above or from a distance. What would onlookers see? What physical details about the environment, scenery, and surroundings can you include to paint a clear picture for the reader? 🚂
Compare the next paragraph to the excerpt that follows it, taken from the western novel Shane by Jack Schaefer. Which version do you prefer? Which piece draws you into the story and makes you want to know more and keep reading? I rewrote the excerpt with less details to show how important the imagery and language in the actual book are to portray the story in an entertaining and evocative way.
Shane accepted the bottle from Will and turned around to face Chris after he’d mocked him. Everyone in the room grew quiet as Chris stepped back a couple paces.
Original Shane was just taking hold of the bottle Will had fetched him. His hand closed on it and the knuckles showed white. He moved slowly, almost unwillingly, to face Chris. Every line of his body was as taut as stretched whipcord, was alive and somehow rich with an immense eagerness. There was that fierce concentration in him, filling him, blazing in his eyes. In that moment there was nothing in the room for him but that mocking man only a few feet away. The big room was so quiet the stillness fairly hurt. Chris stepped back involuntarily, one pace, two, then pulled up erect. And still nothing happened. The lean muscles along the sides of Shane's jaw were ridged like rock.
Another vital aspect of illustrative writing is well-placed dialogue. One of the best ways to draw readers into the narrative is to include realistic dialogue at the right time. So much more can be expressed about the characters’ emotions, motivations, and personality through dialogue than by simply writing about a conversation or past events.
Compare the two versions below. The excerpt I rewrote this time (without dialogue) is from historical fiction novel Savannah by Eugenie Price. Which version draws you into the room, and puts you there at the table, wanting to know more about Mark’s background and future plans?
Mark then asked Robert if his father had mentioned him the night Robert had dined with him in Liverpool. Robert decided to be honest and tell him that his father hadn’t brought up his name at all. Mark expressed his gratefulness for Robert’s candor and for having had the chance to visit his father thirteen times. Robert was surprised at his reaction and response. Mark lamented his father’s abiding grief over losing his mother.
Original "Could I ask one more question?" "What is it?" "My father didn't mention me the night you dined with him in Liverpool, did he?" Robert Mackay's warm, brown eyes clouded. He got slowly to his feet and stood looking down at Mark. "If we're to be friends, as I hope and pray, there must always be some honesty between us, do you agree?" "Oh, yes, sir." A half smile turned up one side of Mark's mouth. "My father didn't mention me, I'm sure. And you're not going to believe that it's all right that he didn't." "My first thought was to lie to you, to say he had boasted of his fine son back in Philadelphia." "If you'd said that, I might not feel as secure with you as I'm beginning to feel, sir. You see, that wouldn't have sounded a bit like Papa." Mackay frowned, studying the young, expressive face. "You're really not hurt that he didn't bring up your name, are you? You're really quite calm and collected about the whole thing. Am I too forward to ask—how that can be?" "No, sir. Not at all. You see, I'm accustomed to being misunderstood where my father is concerned." He sighed, waited a moment. When he spoke again, his voice had a quiet certainty. "But as I told my father the last time we were together, I'd rather have had him for thirteen glorious visits than to have had any other father on earth—every day." Mackay shook his head. "How could the man have appeared to be so lost—when he had a son like you waiting for him?" "Because he was lost, I think. Lost in grief, over the death of my mother. He didn't find himself in all those years."
Let me know in the comments about one of your favorite books—past or present—that includes strong imagery and dialogue!