How to add strong imagery to your first draft

how to create strong imagery in your first draft

Once you’ve written ‘The End’, on your manuscript, you’ve achieved something amazing, something many writers never manage – you’ve written a book! Congratulate yourself, celebrate with your beverage of choice, bask in the knowledge you did it!

BUT – then comes the hard work. You’ve got to tidy that draft up and make it readable. You should definitely have an editor help you if you plan to self publish. You might want to use beta readers first, to test that the story and characterization are strong. What you don’t want to do is distract your readers from the main issues you need feedback on, because they get stuck nitpicking other areas that you know you can fix later.

If you can take a bit of time to tidy up some issues and add a layer of polish before your manuscript goes out for review, it helps you become a stronger writer for your future projects, and it reduces the burden on those you’ve asked (or paid) to help. For editing services, that reduction in help needed should equate to fewer hours spent on the project, which should lead to a lower cost.

The problem with your first draft descriptions

Depending on whether you’ve heavily plotted or are ‘pantsing’ it, chances are at least some of your first draft was written on the fly. You knew roughly what you wanted to say (or maybe you didn’t) but you were creating the images in your head as you wrote.  What that often leads to in a first draft is generic descriptions that don’t go much beyond the bare bones of what the reader needs to know. That can be because you haven’t got a clear idea of the character in the first chapter, so it’s easy to just describe her as having ‘long blond hair and sparkling blue eyes’.

It’s also easy to write cliches.’ Her eyes sparkled’, for example. ‘Her heart pounded’.   There is nothing inherently wrong with cliches or generic descriptions. It’s easy for your reader to picture them. But it also doesn’t tell them anything important about the characters or the situation. It also doesn’t help them imagine it particularly vividly. Their brain knows what they are expected to picture, and they just jump right to that, or lazily don’t even bother, because you haven’t really given them enough detail to do so. There is nothing about your Storyworld in these cliches or generic descriptiohns, and so it doesn’t help your reader build that up in their mind.

How to replace the cliches with strong imagery

how to avoid cliches in your first draft of your novel

After you’ve given your first draft some space, it’s time to read it through again as if you were a reader, not the author. There are a variety of exercises you can do in pre-editing that I’ve detailed in this pre-editing series – check your tense is consistent, look at Point of View changes, and make sure you cut the waffle. Ideally, you want to take a different pass at the manuscript for each one.

For imagery, print out a chapter at a time, and highlight each description. If possible, use one color to highlight the obvious, generic, cliched descriptions. Use a different color to highlight the descriptions that are unique to your Storyworld and feel strong. Almost definitely, most if not all your highlights will use the first color.

Now that you’ve completed the first draft and truly understand the struggles your characters go through during the course of the story, the full implication of the setting, and how the story moves from beginning to end, look at each description and find out if you can make it do double duty. Instead of telling us a character has ‘long blond hair and sparkling blue eyes’, do you know something about them now that means they look different? Is their hair long and blond, or is there a chance they keep it short? If it’s long – why don’t they cut it? To fit in with the other girls? Or maybe it is long and blond, but this character always keeps it up in a ponytail because she doesn’t feel comfortable in her own skin (and hair). Maybe she only knows how to blend with the ‘in-crowd’ and so she purposely keeps her hair looking just like everyone else’s, in which case can you allude to that here, or maybe later in the book. If she is defiant, can you use a word other than sparkling? Maybe her eyes ‘glitter fiercely’. Maybe she’s shy and rarely makes eye contact, so getting a glimpse of those sparkling blue eyes is unusual and a shock for the point of view character who is narrating this character’s looks.

And remember, that unless you are writing a 3rd person omniscient Point of View, where you as the author can be inside the heads of every character, you are almost definitely writing this description from a certain character’s point of view. You can tell us something about them as you describe things. If they are scared, then how they view a room as they walk into it will be very different from a character who is the queen bee of her social circle.

This deep layering – using description to tell us either about the setting, the character in question, or the point of view character, provides complexity and depth to the Storyworld that keeps your reader begging for more and not wanting to stop turning the pages. It’s fun to add once you know everything there is to know about your story, and the more you practice it, the easier it will be to add during your drafting in other novels.

If you’d like to, you can watch the YouTube video about creating strong imagery, which is in my pre-editing series.

Let me know how you’ve managed to strengthen the images and descriptions in your first draft, and how you’ve helped deepen your  Storyworld as a result – I’d love to know!


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