Be Specific: Use Concrete Imagery

Screenshot of video lecture.

Hello, everyone. Walter Bowne here.

I picked some flowers, some late summer flowers, blooming in my garden. This was back in September. And I’m very excited for the garden to come alive again from the ground — much like writers are excited about creating life on the page.

So why do I have a bouquet of colorful flowers here in front of me?

When we are writing, we want to be specific. We want to use concrete terms — whether we’re writing poetry, essays, or fiction.

Imagine if Edgr Allan Poe called his poem, “The Bird” rather than “The Raven.” Or if Paul McCartney sang “Bird singing in the dead of night” off the White Album. No, it’s “Blackbird singing in the dead of night.” Or even “Ode to a Nightingale” from John Keats. An ode to a Canada goose would be so different.

The author talks about the types of birds used for symbolic meaning in his video lecture.

The specificity helps us to create imagery and symbolism

A nightingale, a raven, a blackbird — all specific birds. Each with its own characteristic, imagery, mythos, symbol, color, and tune. Each bird is unique — like those three very different songs.

Just like you’re unique, right? So if you’re sitting in a classroom of thirty students, you’re not a “student.” Sure, you’re all human, but you each have a name, a story, a tune, personality, a backstory, and no one looks like you — and never will.

Much like these flowers. This one is a Black-eyed Susan. This one right here, which is not looking so good, as it’s been sitting in a vase in class for a week, is a cardinal flower. This flower grows to be about six feet high. I wish I was that tall.

I have painted daisies here and late-blooming echinacea.

This was one of the last to bloom — the echinacea, also known as the coneflower, which comes in many varieties, but very often seen as purple. But what’s great about this flower is the thistle. So my finches come and pluck the thistle for food. The New Jersey state bird is the goldfinch, and it’s wonderful to feed these wonderful creatures with wonderful, native flowers.

Also in the vase, I have thickseed, a beautiful little flower, which also comes in many varieties. It grows low to the ground, but it’s profuse in its bloom and spreads easily, with the right soil.

And right here, I have a dwarf Mexican sunflower — a gorgeous bright orange flower which grows to waist high — which is not that tall if you’re like me, at 5’6 on a good day. Such flowers provide the garden and bouquets for inside, a variety of color and height and bloom times — from early spring through winter. And these flowers are wonderful pollinators that we so essentially need.

Invite the reader into the Eden of your creation: my garden in New Jersey. Photo by author.

Writers, like bees, are pollinators, right?

So why am I talking about flowers and birds? Are writers not pollinators? Don’t we want readers to be nourished on the thistle we grow? Don’t we want to offer our readers a variety of color and complexity: whether it’s a daylily that blooms magnificently, but only for a day until another opens the next morning — like a short haiku or sonnet.

When we write our essays and our stories and our poems and our novels, we want to fill our pages with things that are concrete and specific. Those concrete images now provide imagery for color, smell, texture — all for a feast of the senses.

Consider you’re creating a film. The set designer needs to know what “things” to place in the scene. A romance novel with swirls of pink and blue called, The Gentleman Cometh, with a swooning woman and a dashing, bearded man with long black hair and black eyes on a coffee table of a single woman reveals the personality and interest of that character in a very different way than if Anna Karenia from Tolstoy was on the table, with a bookmark, a creased Ace of Hearts playing card, near the end of that magnificent novel.

There is no judgment here — it’s all about the character you are creating — or the story you are presenting, even it’s about yourself.

“I was reading a book when I heard a knock on the novel,” is a fine sentence.

But what book? The type of book, even the type of bookmark used, and the kind of playing card, can reveal so much symbolic significance. Is the woman in a doomed relationship? Is she awaiting a romantic engagement? Why an Ace of Hearts? Or a Suicide Jack — the blade pointed toward his head?

The author with his siblings Dave and Noelle back in 1991 at Shakespeare’s home. Photo by Susan Bowne.

There was no soundboard or spotlight in Shakespeare’s time

In writing, everything is essential: writers, like Shakespeare, need to create a universe to immerse readers. We cannot rely on the visual or a five-minute sweeping shot from a drone over the frozen fields of Alaska.

We need to make that feel as real for the reader as possible. Create that thunder and lightning in your writing — like the Bard, who writes in King Lear, Act III Scene II:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

So the set designer needs to know what flowers to put in the vase. Flowers, especially roses, convey emotion and meaning. Red, of course, is love — think Eros here. Yellow is quite different. When you are writing about specific things, you can describe and use the senses to create the imagery and the symbolic meaning for your audience.

For example, when Blanche DuBois, in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” corrects her sister Stella and says the color is “della Robbia blue” — Tennessee Williams is saying so much about his doomed character. It’s not any blue. If you’ve even gone paint shopping, you know what I mean. The color is “the blue of the robe in the old Madonna pictures.” Is she pretending to be the virgin as she always presented herself?

This goes with most things: “I drove my car to the store.” What type of car? A 1987 Honda Civic with the paint fading from the trunk” is very different from a 2021 Lamborgini. What store? Target or Nordstroms? The detail reveals the character — much like the words the character uses.

Learn what things are. Take a walk around your yard. Find out the name of that bush. Find out what bird sings that song. Take a picture of that weed growing between the cracks on your driveway and identify it — there are many apps that can give you the exact name of every plant — its familiar name and its Latin name.

Shakespeare, of course, was excellent at this: think Ophelia at the end of her life, giving all types of herbs to the court: all those herbs Shakespeare knew growing up in the country. All those herbs in Act IV Scene V are symbolic. Give them life by giving them the name:

There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue
for you; and here’s some for me: we may call it
herb-grace o’ Sundays: O you must wear your rue with
a difference. There’s a daisy: I would give you
some violets, but they withered all when my father
died: they say he made a good end, —

Live oaks with draping Spanish moss line the entrance of Boone Hall outside of Charleston, SC. Photo by Madeline Bowne.

Be like Adam — and name things for the reader

Find out about the trees in your Eden. Some bloom late. Some bloom early. Whitman’s “I Saw In Louisiana A Live Oak Growing” is a wonderful poem about the need for human connection. Its Latin name is Quercus virginiana. It would be a much weaker poem if he used a maple tree or a fig tree. Or if he just wrote “tree.”

We cannot see a tree — only the basic shape of a tree, like what a four-year-old would draw. If you’ve had the luxury of strolling under live-oaks along the Southern coast of The United States, you know how magnificent and magical these trees are — and a tree can grow all alone and mirror that majesty of God and Creation, but humans cannot — Walt Whitman cannot.

So when you write, write with specificity. It will help your writing become three-dimensional. Even if you’re writing a persuasive essay or an expository essay, in analogies or anecdotes, you can weave and wield these images like a high-ranking wizard. Suddenly now, the images convey pathos — emotion.

The writing then will be full of life: sounds, color, texture, odor, meaning. Think about writing about a cafe or a bakery or a kitchen. Just learn to expand your horizons and deepen the picture — and then learn to cut when the ambiance or the imagery just overwhel

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