How to be an Imaginative Writer

Much of writing is spent “Imagineering,” staring off into space and thinking about what you want to say next. 


You need to spend time deciding how to relate the next scene, what your characters may say or do, or perhaps come up with a phenomenal choice of words.  This is particularly true when you approach setting. You as the imaginative writer need to “create” the world for your tale.  You can’t create that world alone, since you have a collaborator: the reader.  A writer can only suggest the world to the reader through words and images.  The reader must then draw upon his or her own experience, his or her own understanding, and use your words and images to construct something of a waking dream. 


It’s vital to always remember that you aren’t totally in control.  You can suggest to the reader what you want him or her to imagine, but you can’t force the reader. 


That ability to suggest requires care and precision on your part.  One of my mentors, Algis Budrys, a longtime editor and critic for the Chicago Sun Times, once said, “Any good writer must have a type of genius.  Just to write clearly, to write effectively, requires an intelligence well above normal, and great writers are always geniuses.”


I’ve never felt completely comfortable with that statement.  It suggests that writing capacity might be measured by IQ points.  Many verifiable geniuses are terrible writers.  But Algis was right, I’ve decided.  In order to guide a reader through a waking dream and to do it well, one must have a certain creative genius.  That genius isn’t measured in IQ points. Instead, it comes from understanding both the world as a whole, and the reader in particular.


So as a writer, you must become a creator of worlds.  What kind of world will you create?  Perhaps you want to choose the simplest path and create a world just like the one that you live in.  It’s the world that we all inhabit.  If you live in the United States, it might be described as “Anytown, USA.”  It’s the world that you and the people around you know.


Of course, everyone perceives the world a bit differently. 


I live in a nice quiet town, where not much happens.  That’s how I see it.  But the drug dealer around the corner might perceive it differently.  Knowing that we live along Interstate 15, and that drug shipments from the cartels in Mexico have to pass through our town on a daily basis, he might imagine that my home in Saint George is a thrilling, dangerous place.  


So one’s perceptions and emotions color their feelings about a setting.  As an imagineer, part of your job when describing a setting is to capture the emotional nuances of the place, as rendered either by the point-of-view character or by you as the narrator.


So a setting isn’t just a “place.”  It’s not just a state, a city, or a private room in an inn, it’s also the emotional nuances, the tone, that you must capture.


Fortunately for you and me, most readers are not very imaginative.  They’ll pay good money for people like us to create a world for them.  So it becomes our job as writers to make sure that we’re always one step ahead of them.  We need to provide settings that are so fresh and engrossing that they come alive in the reader’s imagination.


Creating that world is a simple trick.  We “create” the world by reporting on it, repeatedly using images, sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that excite the mind and make it feel real.  Very often, to create that world requires us to repeat information in different ways.  For example, if I want to create “rain” in my story, I must have my reader see it coming in the distance, smell the taste of moisture in the air, feel the wet drops as they begin to plop down, and so on.  


I need to do more than just that, though.  I need to report on the character’s emotional state.  Do they feel beaten down by the rain?  Is a cold deluge just one more assault in an otherwise brutal day?  Or is it something that delights them, refreshment after a long drought?


Last of all, I need to make that world come alive through motion.  I might have rivulets rolling down my protagonist’s face, for example.  The description cannot be too static.  If it is static, it literally is “forgettable.”  The reader will read over the description and forget it immediately.


An article recently came out from the New York Times on the neuroscience of reading, and it discusses the clinical evidence for much of what I’ve been saying on this topic for years. Here’s a link.


When you describe a world, your job is to first imagine a world worth describing. 


Is it a place that your reader wants to go, or is it a blasé rendering of the day-to-day world that we live in, or is it a place that is downright repugnant, a place that the reader might want to escape?  Is it rife with rich details—sight, sound, taste, touch, smell—that bring it to life, or does it suffer from the author’s inability to imagine it fully? Will the world be described in vibrant motion, or is it described as a passive place where nothing is happening?


The article shows that brain-mapping with an fMRI reveals that rich descriptions that evoke each of the senses also lead the brain to be stimulated in the sensory area that is described.  A sentence that puts your world in motion, arouses the part of the brain that becomes excited when it sees something moving.


The article goes even further.  If you’ve read my articles on “Why People Read,” you’ll find that some twenty-five years ago, I suggested that a story puts a reader through an emotional exercise, provided by another person—a writer—and I’ve suggested that people who read frequently become more compassionate, more understanding of others, and thus become better people.  The article above also supports that position.


All of which leads me to this:  Your setting is very often the gate through which your audience enters your story.  The world that you create—through layers upon layers of imagery—is the beginning of every scene.  It is where your characters are born and live out their lives, and where strange creatures and societies may thrive.  Most importantly, it is a place that can only be reached—through you!


It may only be a simple world, like the one around the corner from your house, or it might be rich and alien, a place like Middle-earth or the planet Dune that only lives in the imagination. But that world is evoked by you through the images that you carefully select and weigh, and it is evoked by a reader who struggles to interpret the things that you set to print.  Your goal is to take control, to select images that bring your world to life, and to use language that never slows or stops your reader, but instead becomes invisible, as the reader is lost in your world.


“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”

—Ray Bradbury



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