Monday, May 23, 2022

Powerful Writing Embodies Imagination: Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun

Shakespeare's line, "Imagination bodies forth," sums up how to create vivid writing. Here's more of the quote.

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

--William Shakespeare, from A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, act 5. scene 1. lines 12-17, in The Riverside Shakespeare

Fiction writers soon learn that specific details create a real world for the reader. Poets take this even further. Ideas, action, are all most vividly rendered when they are dressed in images and metaphor. A poet tells the whole story this way. 

But what kind of details or "bodies? " The last line of the quote hits the mark: " to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name." You can easily name six things you see as you walk out in the world: For example: a streetlight, grocery store, post office, bench, park. While those are all specifics they are generic. They give no clue to the character, the local habitation, of what we see. We could be in Anytown, Anywhere. Depending on the type of street light, we could even be somewhere hundreds of years ago.

To create a local habitation, try this writing exercise: 
--Take the list above or make a list of your own. 
--Create four different story locations with everything on the list. 
--For each location create "a local habitation" by adding descriptive details or phrases to the items on the list.

For example:
Street light: space-age silver
Grocery store: convenience store with a fan in the doorway.
Post Office: A closed sign tipped sideways in the only window of the cinderblock post office.
Bench: Filigreed, black metal bench
Park: A triangle of green squeezed between condos.

What does this backdrop tell you? And some contrast of detail is good--you usually don't want your details to add up to a generic place either.

You can do the same exercise for describing minor/walk-on characters. In fiction, you can't call out everything with this level of detail--the trick is to call out the details that most create the mood or setup you want. Think of a painting. The painter uses composition and color technique to draw the eye to what is most important (the first reading). 

My own early fiction drafts are often laden with generics--you get the story out on the page any way you can, yes? But as I've studied and worked at the craft of writing poetry, I find myself beginning more and more with the specific image. With practice, a writer can create a habit of creating local habitations.

1 comment:

  1. I love your description of getting more specific with each draft. A first draft always feels to me like the most basic sketch. It gets more details with each pass-through.