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Imagery in Flash

Writers throughout time have used imagery to convey ideas and writers of flash fiction are no exception. When writing in such a tight, compressed space, it’s important to incorporate vivid, powerful images effectively. Using imagery in new and unusual ways can really make your work stand out.

Nuala Ni Chonchûir, in her essay Language and Style says:

‘Imagery is mental pictures or figures of speech, like similes and metaphors; they paint vivid pictures for the reader and make her understand exactly what you mean. Using imagery can inject beauty and freshness into your short fiction.’

In simple terms, imagery brings your stories to life.

For example, read this stunning story by Sharon Telfer, which took first prize in the 2016 Bath Flash Fiction Award. It’s set in and around the sea, but every single image is fresh, original and breathtaking.

Waves break under a setting sun

So how do we incorporate imagery into our flash?

Well, it’s time to channel your inner poet and get down and dirty with some original, imaginative language. This takes practice, so I’ve given you four different exercises to see if you can conjure up your own unique imagery…

Exercise #1: Explore unusual imagery

A good way to start is to be aware of the lure of the cliché and really work at developing your own style.

Look at these fairly generic sentence starters:

  • Her eyes were as big as…
  • She carried the scent of…
  • His memories crumbled like…

The temptation might be to complete them with something familiar, like:

  • Her eyes were as big as dinner plates
  • She carried the scent of jasmine
  • His memories crumbled like dust

The images are clear enough, but they are so clichéd that they have lost all impact.

Have a go at making a list of ten or twenty really familiar, clichéd lines and try to think of new and original images to end them with. The more you practise this, the easier it becomes.

Take your notebook out and about with you and think of unusual ways to describe familiar settings, cafes, parks, schools, stores etc. Look at the cast of characters around you and make a note of that bearded man with the studious eyes or that child with a trumpet for a nose.

And once you begin to collect up all of these new, original images, you’ll probably find some kind of narrative arc unfolds without you having to overthink things too much.

Exercise #2: Create a character with an image

Next, take one of those weird and wonderful characters you have in your notebook—the goth girl you saw on the bus, the angry man shouting into his phone, the twins in the park, the thin mother who always stands alone outside the school gates—and then create an image FOR them.

For example, let’s take a look at Bluebeard the pirate, I’ve given him the associated image of skull and crossbones.

I would start by padding around the image of a skull and cross bones, asking questions as I go.

What happens if you uncross those bones? What if that skull still has one gold tooth? What if underneath the eyepatch there is a living eye? What if the bones themselves dig for their treasure which just so happens to be the body in which they belong? What if the skull is singing a sea shanty and each of those words taste like fish and chips when you swallow them?

Can you see how a weird and wonderful narrative might form, just from that ONE image of a skull and cross bones? And yet, this image is really familiar, a cliché in fact, so imagine what might happen when I start with a bold, original image? Yep, you guessed it, I’d end up with a bold original story.

Exercise #3: Use your senses

Remember, imagery is not metaphor or simile, so avoid abstract phrases—we’re looking for sensory detail: anything you can see, hear, taste, touch, smell.

Try to come up with one bold image to use as a symbol for each of the following emotions:

  • Hate
  • Love
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Joy
  • Hope

Eg: A yellow daffodil might represent hope, it’s a spring flower after all and spring brings new life, fresh ideas and so on. Now ask questions and create a mind map around your image.

What does a daffodil smell like? What might a daffodil taste like? If a daffodil had a voice would it be soft and melodic? A child’s voice, a wise old woman’s? Can a daffodil hear a baby cry? What would a daffodil hope for? How would it tell me?

Play around with your senses and symbolism and let the narrative form organically through your answers.

Exercise #4: Use contrasting imagery

Opposing images can really emphasise a shift in your story (and yes, there should always be a shift in a story).

Take two opposing images from your notebook (eg: one representing good and one evil, or one beautiful image and one ugly), then create a story by starting with the first and ending with the other.

(We use this method at Writers’ HQ for our weekly Flash Face Off and it’s a really effective way of sparking new stories!)

Some final things to think about:

When you first start to write, you may have a flurry of ideas, lots of bold, original images sparking fabulously weird narratives. This is great BUT at this point the temptation might be to try and wedge all of this imagery into one story. Resist that temptation! A flash littered with too much imagery can leave the reader confused. Use your imagery sparingly and effectively. Better to weave one fabulous image through your story than to overload the reader!

Remember, imagery doesn’t always have to be visual. Try playing around with auditory imagery: begin with a piece of recognisable music or birdsong—maybe the caw of a raven to unsettle the reader—a siren wailing, a child singing, a dog barking,

Or what about gustatory imagery? Dazzle those taste buds with mama’s blueberry pie, tantalise those nostrils with the smell of freshly cut grass, the chemical high from a petrol pump, or the sweet tobacco taste of a lover’s kiss.

Finally, think about your title. Be bold or be gentle with your title but always be meaningful. Use a strong image to give the reader a vital titbit of the meal that is to follow… and make them want to devour it.


Want more story writing advice from the brilliant ‘Flashy’ Kathy? Well, she’s only gone and written a MAMMOTH course on the subject: The Beginner’s Guide to Flash Fiction. Dive in, get flashy, and develop your writing with our FREE weekly Flash Face Off challenge!

Kathy Hoyle

Kathy Hoyle

Kathy is an ex trolly dolly who took to writing because it was preferable to staring at the walls in hotel rooms. She has since gained a BA (hons) and an MA in Creative Writing and loves to write gritty short stories and flash fiction. She is working on a novel , powered by jammy dodgers and endless mugs of tea. She has been shortlisted for The Exeter Short Story Prize, the Fish short Memoir Prize, the Ellipsiszine Flash Fiction Collection Prize and the Spread the Word Life Writing Prize. Her work has appeared in various litmags such as Virtualzine, Cabinet of the Heed, Lunate Fiction and Reflex Fiction. She is Pushcart Prize nominee. You can find her on Twitter at @kathyhoyle1

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