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What makes a strong mental image?


Images, as I call them, are an important part of your prose.

Now, let's look at examples of bad images:

From Onision's (from now on, Onii-san) book, Reaper's Creek :

Maybe that current lead him to a gathering of logs, and assuming he had not already drowned, he was sucked under the logs, causing him to rapidly cease existing in the world as we knew it.

I might add other examples later.

I think you get the gist of it. An image here isn't painted with just colors but with mental connections and associations.

Unfortunately, Onii-san's writing is below mortifyingly atrocious, and while the terrible mental image was easy to spot, it didn't imply what would make for a good mental image. In fact, when I found a good mental image it also didn't help:

I welcomed the silence like a warm blanket on a cold night.

Even the broken clock shows the right time twice a day.

So, what makes a mental image good, impactful and vivid, instead of a laughing stock?

Why should this post be closed?

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2 answers


What makes it good is a good use of sensory information that the reader can recognize, "a warm blanket on a cold night" is talking about a particular sensory feeling we can relate to.

It has to be consistent with the character, and what the character knows, but ALSO something the reader can recognize. Saying "The animal reminded him of a vinglebeast" may be consistent with his experience, but doesn't help the reader at all.

It should not be overblown, or "purple" prose, meaning prose that is so flowery or ornate or poetic that it draws attention to itself, thus breaking the reader's reverie to focus on the description. Two ways to avoid this: Fewer adjectives and shorter length, readers expect descriptive prose to be easily digestible, not a paragraph long.

On the other end of the spectrum, it should not be cliché, a description we have heard so often it also breaks reverie. "It hit him like a ton of bricks" was certainly original at some point, and it must have been wildly successful imagery to be quoted so often that it became a cliché, but at this point it is just tired.

Which leaves you in the middle somewhere, original enough to avoid cliché, but not so original the reader notices it, or has to parse it, or for whatever reason it breaks their reverie.

It needs to aid the reader's imagination of the scene, or mental or physical state of the character. What is the character feeling? What sensation or emotion? What do they see? What do they smell?

These are some guidelines of what NOT to do. There isn't exactly a formula for good imagination aids, that is part of the art of writing and applying your own imagination.



Descriptive Words

You are looking for descriptive adjectives and adverbs. If you look at the two passages you've provided, you'll notice that the first is almost devoid of adjectives and adverbs, while the second uses description, as well as an entire adverbial phrase (I think that's what it's called - essentially everything after 'silence').

Why does this work? Without description, you are using nouns and verbs. X happened, Y failed, and Z began. With description, you give the reader an idea of what something was like. X happened quickly. Y failed completely. Z began with gusto. These are of course basic examples.

Which Words?

Some words are better than others. I remember one example on this very topic I once read. It was an excerpt (I'll provide a link if I can find it), about a steamboat owner seeing his new steamboat in the dark of night for the first time. If I just stick to the nouns and verbs, you have something like this:

He saw the boat, moored at the dock, its paint and smokestacks visible against the night.

Add in some basic adjectives and adverbs, as well as some more descriptive verbs, and things get better:

He could just see his new steamboat, moored at the dock hidden in the rushes, its black paint and smokestakes gleaming in the starlight.

A bit better. We're starting to get a good picture. Words/phrase like 'could just see', 'gleaming', 'black paint', and 'starlight' really help. But there's one final trick. If you assume that the story you are telling is related from a PoV (which it should be), then it makes sense that the PoV's emotions will color the narrative, right? How do you show that? Pause the tale and tell the reader what the PoV character is thinking? Have another character comment on the PoV's emotional state? There's a better way: use only descriptive words which suggest how the character feels. In the excerpt, the owner feels a great sense of pride in his new boat. Here is the actual excerpt, as best as I can recall. Pay attention to the choice of words, particularly in the last half:

He could just make out his new steamboat, moored at the dock hidden in the rushes. Its black paint gleamed in the starlight, and its tall smokestacks reached towards the sky, threatening to pierce the deep blackness.

Words like 'gleamed', 'tall', 'threatening to pierce', and even 'reached' to some extent all suggest how the owner sees his new boat: with pride, as something powerful.

How does this help you?

Writing this way does take some practice. I would certainly recommend you read some good classical literature. I'm talking things like Charles Dickens, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Jane Austen, and all the other greats. They use language as a tool (sometimes a bit too much - but it's a wealth of information for your question), and there's a lot you can learn from them.

When you are writing, try to determine what you are trying to say about the nouns and verbs you are using. Even if you aren't trying to convey the emotions of a character, you should still want to invoke emotions in your reader. That's ultimately what draws a picture: enough description to get the reader's imagination working. Take your first passage. Someone drowns in logs. But how are we, the readers, supposed to feel? Afraid? Sad? Maybe happy for some reason? Identify that, and identify the language which will get that across. I find using a resource like works great for finding words to convey what you want.

Best of luck in your writing!


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