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The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Story Lesson 23: The Language of the Imagination

If you want to make images come alive in the mind of your reader, then you need to use a specific kind of language: I call it “the language of the imagination.” We could also call it “the language of the senses.”

If you’ve been doing all the practices, you’ll remember that a well-developed faculty of imagination depends on strong powers of observation. In the same way, the language of the imagination depends on words that evoke sensory experience.

Bring to your mind an image (of something real or something imagined) and put all your attention into what you can see: colors, shapes, textures, sizes, and so on. Jot down words for all of these things. Now, setting aside your image, collect more words for each of the kind of thing we can notice with our eyes: list of colors, words that evoke shape and size, etc.

What did you notice in doing this? What do you notice about these words?

Now bring to your mind an image of something that makes sounds. Use the ear of your mind to notice all the different sounds, and then jot down words for them. What qualities can sounds have? Pitch, duration, harshness, sweetness, and so on. Now, setting aside your image, collect more words for kinds of sounds or their qualities: bang, crash, tuneful, high-pitched, etc.

Now do the same exercise with your other senses: smell, taste, and touch.

Finally, turn your attention to your body, and make a list of all the things that can happen inside it (e.g. shiver, tense, relax).

Now you are starting to build your vocabulary of the senses.

One of the best ways to build your vocabulary of the senses is to read your favorite writer and study the words he or she uses. Read a chapter or two and take note of all the sensory words. Collect the ones you like in your notebook, look them up in the dictionary if you need to, and then practice using them in sentences.

One of the things you will probably notice about the vocabulary of the senses is that the words are highly specific, rather than general. You can’t make a picture in your reader’s mind by writing, “We had some good food.” Instead, you have to write, “We ate steak, medium-rare, with baked potato and a green salad made of just-picked lettuce.” Can you feel your taste buds coming alive with the second sentence and not the first?

Write down ten or fifteen of the most general words you can think of. Now write a more specific version of each of those words (use more than one word if you need to). What do you notice? What’s the difference between these two kinds of words?

What you will notice is that specific words make pictures in the imagination, while general words do not; they merely convey information.

Now take one of your stories and examine the language to see whether your words are specific or general. Look especially at the places where you are trying to make pictures. See if you can revise these images to make the language more specific. What do you notice?

The other important quality of the language of the imagination is that its words are concrete rather than abstract. Concrete words represent things we can know through the senses: tulip, chocolate, cow. Abstract words represent things we can know only through the mind: justice, truth, happiness.

Collect all the concrete words you can think of. Now collect all the abstract words. Select some from the first list and make some sentences with them. Collect some from the second list and made some sentences with them. What do you notice? Now experiment with mixing concrete and abstract words in the same sentence.

It’s important to remember that words serve different purposes. Abstract words are not “bad,” necessarily; neither are general words. It all depends on what you’re trying to do with them. If you’re trying to make sensory pictures in your reader’s imagination then you’ll want to rely primarily on concrete and specific language. This doesn’t mean that you’ll never use an abstraction or a generality, only that those words won’t take over.

Look at some chapters by your favorite writer and notice the passages that make pictures in your mind. Now look at the words that are making those pictures. Are they concrete and specific, or abstract and general? Choose some images to imitate: write a sentence or a passage in which you create the same kind of image as your writer has done (e.g. visual, auditory, tactile). Try, as best you can, to use the same kind of language. What do you notice?

Afterwards, if you like, take some time to reflect: What will help you get better at learning and using the language of the imagination?

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