Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Writing to the Imagination

By Kathy Krajco
© 2006,
Kathy Krajco

Art is a medium of communication. Every art form is a language. Each language has its possibilities and limitations.

Novelists work with words. In some ways this art form is the least limited in the types of information it can convey. For example, though the visual arts (like photography, sculpture, and painting) give us access to the subject's inner person, only words can take us right into her head. Yet literature has its limitations, too. Since the advent of moving pictures these limitations have become a big disadvantage. Unless your novel really gives today's readers something more, something worth the effort of reading, they would rather watch a movie or television program. 

Therefore, today, novels simply must make readers visualize immediate moment-to-moment action. Your stage/screen is the image-ination. It's a part of the reader's brain you must get and keep control of. By the power of suggestion, words paint pictures there. To make readers "get the picture," words must...

  •  be nearly effortless to read

  •  be visual

  • never disrupt the picture by calling attention to themselves

To see how important writing this way is, let's consider how much a playwright or screen writer shows -- instead of just having some character tell about. 

Offstage and Onstage Action

On the stage or screen we witness most of the story. Occasionally, some action takes place offstage, and we learn of it through hearsay. For example, in Hamlet, we don't witness what happens on Hamlet's voyage to England. But we do know that Claudius has arranged for his murder there. So, we see Hamlet reach the coast, thunder his great soliloquy, and embark. Then, back at the ranch...

Was Shakespeare lazy? Did he leave out this exciting action to shorten the play? No, he had good reasons to keep that action offstage. By doing so, he eliminated material unnecessary to prove his premise. Also, by not showing what happens next -- by skipping that scene and jumping ahead to what happens weeks later in Denmark -- he maximizes the plot's dramatic impact.

So, on stage and screen, some scenes are left out for good storytelling reasons. Nonetheless, notice that Shakespeare puts the lion's share of the story in immediate scene on stage. He relates only bits of it through narrative summary. Indeed, think how boring a play or movie would be if many things happened offstage and the characters just told us about them!

So most of a story on stage or screen is immediate scene (or dramatic form), and some is narrative summary (or narrative form). In a novel, there's no set, so a third mode of conveying information is necessary: description.

Readers prefer immediate scene as much as a theater audience does. In fact, to get published today, the bulk of a novel's text must be immediate scene, with brief narrative summary only when appropriate, and with brief descriptions brought to life by filtering them through a character's viewpoint.

Immediate scene plays in the reader's imagination. That's the novelist's stage or screen. Now, if we're to write to the imagination, we must first understand how it works.


We process words as language in the frontal lobe of the brain. We do it the way a computer processes computer language. As we mature, we become increasingly able to process words another way, too: as raw stimuli. This happens as we accumulate a vast store of experiences in memory farther back. They are networked words, images, sounds, and so forth -- a relational database.

We use this farther-back part of the brain to visualize. It's the image-ination. It develops through use, so it doesn't fully develop until a person is in her or his mid-twenties. That is, it doesn't fill in with gray matter (an intricate network of connections among brain cells) till then.

Let's see how words work on each of these parts of the brain.

If you ask a teenager whether eating a cockroach is a good or a bad idea, she has no knee-jerk reaction to the question. That's because she processes your sentence as language, in the front of her brain. Considering that brain cells transmit information at hundreds of feet per second, she takes much longer to come up with an answer than an adult does. And she doesn't have the same reaction to the question that an adult does. She just matter-of-factly replies that eating a cockroach is a bad idea. In contrast, an adult does have a knee-jerk reaction to the question. He not only responds much more quickly, he screws up his face and says, "Yuck!"

Why? Because he doesn't process your words as language in the front of the brain. Your question lights up brain cells farther back, in the area that houses the imagination. So, he doesn't analyze the question, he experiences it: He sees a cockroach, feels its mushiness inside, and feels its skittering legs clawing his tongue.

Children have imaginations, too. But their imaginations haven't yet accumulated a vast store of experiences to reference and aren't yet networked with words. So, you can't stimulate a child's imagination the way you can an adult's. (That's why children's books need pictures.) If that teenager does imagine eating a cockroach, she doesn't do so automatically, as a knee-jerk reaction: she must make a conscious effort to imagine eating one. Even then, she won't have as vivid an experience as an adult does. 

Experts think this is why teenagers and children show "poor judgment." Adults may make no greater effort to think before acting, but they automatically imagine an act before doing it. They therefore see what could go wrong and get this warning in a way that has much greater impact that pure logical analysis would.

And so, if words don't stimulate the imagination, they are processed as language in the front of the brain.

As a fiction writer, that vivid experience in the imagination is what you're after. You must write in a way that stimulates it. You must write in a way that makes the reader unaware of the words on the page, a way that makes him visualize the story as if it were taking place on a stage or a screen in his mind. Doing so sucks him into your story so that he becomes absorbed in what we call the Fictive Dream. This is like a daydream, except that you, the author of the story, make it up. 

How to Show Instead of Telling

How do you write to the imagination? Well, here's how you don't: 

He was nervous.

Now, here's how you do: 

He drummed his fingers on the table.

You process the first sentence in the frontal lobe of your brain. You process the second in your imagination. That's because, in the second, I gave it something visual and auditory to work with. That sentence made you see and hear his fingers drumming on a table. In the first sentence I told you he was nervous. In the second, I showed you he was nervous. Hence the adage: show instead of tell.

Here's another example of how to show instead of tell: 

He told her to shut the door.

"Shut the door," he said.

In the first sentence I tell you that he told her to shut the door. In the second sentence I show you that he told her to shut the door. You process the first sentence as language in the frontal lobe. You process the second quicker, in your imagination, where you see and hear him telling her to shut the door.

Those were simple examples. Here is another that shows how to give the imagination enough to work with so the reader "gets the picture." 

She came out of the Metro before the Cathedral of Notre Dame and approached it. The sound of its bells was deafening.

She came up into sunlight before Notre Dame's dizzying facade, where the deafening thunder of its bells shook the ground. But she walked right through the downward reverberating sound without it altering the beat of her heart.

Which account would you rather read? Which puts you there?

Tricks of the trade can help you spot and fix places where your writing tells instead of shows. They can also help you enhance the reader's experience by making it more vivid. But memorizing these tricks won't give you that last sample of prose. Only your imagination can. You need a lively imagination both to know what stimulates imagination and to vividly imagine a scene yourself. For, as Shakespeare often said, imagination is what distinguishes those who write well from those who don't.

Degrees of Showing

Some words show more vividly than others. Consider the evolutionary sequence of sentences below.



She hit the ball.

Doesn't show.


She hit the tennis ball.

Shows a little.


She hit a forehand.

Shows better.


She whacked a topspin forehand down the line.

Shows vividly.


She finally ended the point by rolling the ball crosscourt with a grunting roundhouse swing.

Shows more than one thing.


The first sentence speaks in generalities too broad to suggest a picture. We don't know whether she hits a baseball, a softball, a volleyball, a tennis ball, or perhaps even a basketball.

The second sentence is still vague, but it does give the imagination just enough to work with. So, we vaguely see her with a racket hitting a tennis ball. Yet we don't know whether she's hitting a forehand, backhand, volley, or serve. Chances are that, by default, we'll see her hitting a forehand. But this may not be an accurate picture.

The third sentence gives us a definite picture. But nothing else.

The fourth sentence brings the picture to life with a precise verb. This sentence shows vividly because it shows how and where she hit the ball. It also begins to involve us with the character by giving us a sense of her feelings. We can see that she isn't engaged in a lazy Sunday-afternoon hit. She wants something (to win) and that makes her interesting.

The fifth sentence shows even more vividly because it also describes her swing and because it involves us more intimately with the character. In fact, it characterizes her, not just her shot, by showing her great determination and effort. The author of the last sentence needn't tell you that she is a competitive person who plays aggressively with great determination and effort: the author shows you that.

What gradually improved those five versions of that sentence? A progression from generalities to specific, particular, concrete details.

When the Authorís Voice Intrudes

As the author of a story, you are like the wizard of Oz. From behind a curtain, you create, project, and manipulate the illusion of the Great Oz in your reader's imagination. Itís a spell. Don't break it. So, let Oz do all the talking... straight to the imagination.

Your writing is then projecting a movie onto the screen of the reader's imagination. Having this experience on the other side of the curtain, she's unaware of you. If any information comes from the author instead of a character (including the narrator), she hears your voice coming from nowhere. That intrusion interrupts the Fictive Dream (i.e., breaks the spell) and ends suspension of disbelief, just as when Toto the dog exposed the Wizard of Oz by pulling aside the curtain he was hiding behind. Poof -- the end of the Great Oz.

(Yeah Toto!)

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