Whether you drafted a new novel in November for National Novel Writing Month or you’re in the middle of a multi-year writing project, one key task in revising your book will be to comb (or machete) your way through it to see whether the imagery – the metaphors and similes you’ve used in descriptive passages – is as fresh and original as possible. Ideally, you want images that not only make the story come alive, but also help your novel resonate on a deeper emotional level.
Recently, for instance, I was reading Stuart O’Nan’s bright gem of a novel, The Odds: A Love Story, and I stumbled across images so startlingly original that I had to stop and reread entire chapters. The book is about Art and Marion Fowler, a middle-aged couple who, on their thirtieth wedding anniversary, travel to Niagara Falls to bet their life savings, hoping to save both their marriage and their house.
On the bus trip there, Art looks across the aisle and spots another couple “clutched at each other like plummeting skydivers.” This moves him to touch Marion, who is reading a mystery novel on the bus seat beside him: “He slipped his hand from atop the gym bag and dropped it to her blue-jeaned thigh, a middle-school move. He squeezed the yielding loaf of her leg, smoothed, patted.”
Besides being comic, this passage sets up a study in contrasts between what Art once had in his youth—the kind of passionate risk-taking you’d associate with skydiving—and what he has now, a wife in blue jeans whose thigh is described as a loaf of bread. Even Art recognizes his approach as “middle school,” but there is affection and hope in his gesture as he smooths and pats Marion’s leg.
By choosing the image of “skydivers” and contrasting it with “loaf,” O’Nan sums up the battle between youth and age, hope and disappointment in love. More importantly, he has set us on a certain journey here, establishing the main characters as human, flawed, and sympathetic. Think about how different—and how much flatter—this scene would read if, instead, O’Nan had simply said the other couple was “making out” or “all over each other,” and described Marion’s leg as “thick” or “flabby and middle-aged.”
Another novel I read recently, The Beautiful Mystery by Canadian mystery author Louise Penny, has much simpler, more straight-forward sentences, but Penny cleverly calls on imagery throughout the book in ways that allow her to transform this cozy mystery into a novel that makes readers consider the power of music to reach a state of ecstasy and feel closer to a higher power. Set in a monastery deep in the woods of Quebec, the mystery centers around who murdered one of the monks, who have become international celebrities because of their Gregorian chants.
In one of the scenes, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache follows his arch enemy, Superintendent Francoeur, into the woods to confront him. Gamache wants to know what Francoeur is texting on his Blackberry—and to whom he’s sending the message—so he tries to grab the phone but fails to get it. Afterward, “The two men stared at each other, their breaths coming in puffs, obscuring the air, as though a ghost was forming between them….The silence was so great it almost ached.”
Penny could have written this scene differently; for instance, the action would certainly move along faster had she simply described the men panting to catch their breath and a long silence stretching between them. However, by adding that image of a ghost forming between them, and describing the silence as “so great it almost ached,” she is describing the depth of Gamache’s sorrow. He is a thoughtful man who lost one of his young officers in a previous book, and the loss of that officer—and the debacle of that final battle—has haunted him and his other officers since. He is aching, and the ghost of that man he lost is always with him. The novel takes on an emotional depth it couldn’t have without imagery like this, and becomes not just a mystery where we’re following breadcrumb clues to solve a puzzle, but a book that makes us think about loss, grief, faith, and recovery.
At this very moment on my bedside table is Joanna Trollope’s book, A Spanish Lover. Trollope’s books fall in the general category of “women’s fiction,” and what I admire about this writer is her willingness to take on uncomfortable domestic situations—affairs, widowhood, lousy parenting, bad business decisions by married couples—to create acute cultural observations that ring true both as a cataloging of contemporary society and as stories that work on a deep emotional level. You can’t read a Trollope novel without having to reconsider your own life choices.
Trollope, like O’Nan, is a master of sly imagery that you tend to read through fast and then have to return to for a better look. In this novel, for example, Lizzie, who has never had to work outside her own home or art gallery, takes a job as a school secretary when the recession causes the gallery to slide into the red. As Lizzie attempts to learn office procedures from the current school secretary, about to retire, she is startled by discovering “every item of information cross-referenced in longhand across a perfect wilderness of index cards.”
I love the juxtaposition here of “perfect” with “wilderness.” Of course the system is “perfect” for the current school secretary, who has been using it for decades; on the other hand, it’s a “wilderness” here for Lizzie, who is lost in this forest of index cards and, more importantly, experiencing what it’s like to be set free in the wild instead of managing things in her own gallery and at home with her four children. She will clearly need new survival skills to adapt.
It’s tempting to finish a novel as quickly as possible in this age of self-publishing, when everyone advises you to have more books on your shelf because that equals more profitable downloads. But why not take the time to go back and revise the book you’re writing now not only for grammar, narrative arc, and chronology, but for language, too?
Make your imagery as fresh and original as possible, and you’ll add depth to your writing—and enrich the ways in which your readers experience your book.