Don’t Write Scenes–Write Images

Don't Write Scenes--Write ImagesWhen you think about it, the transformative power of the written word is no less phenomenal than the technological miracles of computers, televisions, and smarts phones. Both are alchemy. Technology uses wires and circuits to turn code into the wonder of light and color. Writing does exactly the same thing. Little black squiggles on the page have the power to reach another human being’s mind and light it up with imagery just as vivid as anything that person might experience in the real world.

In reading, all you see are words on paper. But think about one of your favorite books. The visual memory that returns to you is not one of black words on white paper, is it? What you see are images—recalled snapshots of an experience that, in your mind’s eye, looks almost as real as memories of your actual life.

That is the marvelous power of written fiction.

As readers, we know this instinctively. But as writers, we can sometimes get so lost in the technical minutiae of the art form that we forget fiction’s visceral impact. To readers, a story is light and color, sensation and emotion. To writers, fiction is often words. Ideas. Themes. Plot. Structure. Scenes.

Although all those things are crucial to a solid story, they are ultimately just the framework for a reader’s sensory experience of your work. This is why it’s so important for writers to think visually when writing.

Creating Visual Memories of Your Stories: An Exercise

Light the dark BookIn her essay “Nobody Asked You to Write That Novel” in the anthology Light the Dark, Pulitzer-winner Jane Smiley observed:

The moments are what come to mind when I think about the books I like best—moments that stick in my mind as pictures. When you’re deep into reading a book that you’re very fond of, the images pass through your mind and leave a permanent impression. I don’t tend to remember the ideas as strongly. For me, a novel’s conceptual framework generally takes a backseat to the images that tell the story. Ultimately, these images are more important and enduring than what the writer believes.

Today, I want to challenge you to stop thinking about scenes (not permanently, of course, but just as an exercise). Instead, start thinking of your story in terms of images.

Close your eyes and let your story drift through your mind. Maybe put on a song you find especially evocative of your story. Now just watch. What do you see?

  • Maybe you immediately have a strong visual response. (Whenever I listen to Nightwish’s “Last of the Wilds,” I experience an almost overwhelming image of my heroine from Dreamlander riding a black stallion through the white snow toward a battle.)

  • Maybe what you experience is more of a jumbled mass of pictures—as if you dumped a box of Polaroids onto a table—vivid and real but without conscious order.
  • Or maybe you have to purposefully conjure specific images based on scene ideas—creating them on the spot, rather than discovering them already preformed in your own mind.

No one of these responses is right or wrong. But the stronger your visual memories of your story, the more likely you will be able to craft words that work the same alchemy for readers.

Likely, the images that come to you most naturally and vividly are representative of the most important moments in your story—whether you realize it or not. If you want to create a cohesive (and resonant!) story, you must use these visceral “story memories” to build your narrative, plot, and theme in the most organic way possible. Instead of trying to glue the story’s mechanics onto the top of these central images, you can instead mine these images for the thematic elements and ideas that make them so powerful to you. And then use that.

6 Ways to Write Powerful Imagery

Several Short Sentences About Writing Verlyn KlinkenborgIn Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote:

The very nature of reading encourages us to believe we’re looking through the prose to worlds on the other side of the ink.

To that end, here are six ways you can learn to pay attention to your own visual imagination, mine it for its full wealth, and then craft a story that unforgettably shares those riches with your readers.

1. Recall Your Visceral Responses From Other Books

The first step to writing strongly visual fiction is to gain a conscious understanding of this highly subconscious phenomenon. Look to yourself and your own reading experiences.

Again, think of your favorite reading experiences (not movie experiences, since they’re already explicitly visual). What do you remember? What do you see? (And definitely try to go beyond any image that might have been directly influenced by the book’s cover or other related art.)

Try to remember these “moments” in the story as specifically as possible. Mentally flesh out the visual details. Now… what do you feel? What emotions do you associate with these moments? Do you remember what was happening in the plot? In the theme? Do you have an intellectual memory or understanding of these things as well? Or is what you feel more of an idea?

Again, there are no right or wrong answers. Just analyze your experiences and your responses. Figure out what about these particular scenes is so visually arresting they’ve become imprinted in your memory.

2. Fill Your Mind With Images

You cannot draw water from an empty well. None of us are capable of coming up with something out of nothing. We all need external “objective” input from the outside world in order to, in turn, create something subjective from within our interior worlds.

Remember the Neil Gaiman quote we referenced a few weeks ago? He talked about how our early (and not-so-early) influences get tossed into the compost heap of our minds where they’re broken down into the kind of rich and fertile soil we require to grow new ideas.

This is why writers must be students of the world. Being a student begins by opening yourself to experiences and, particularly, images. Yes, read like crazy. But also look like crazy. Become an avid looker of the world. At every opportunity, fill your brain with new images.

When possible, travel. Watch movies of all types—the more varied, the better. Study paintings: if it’s of people, study every single face: look for the artist’s conscious decisions in every brushstroke. Utilize Pinterest by following a variety of boards, everything from global scenery to fantasy paintings to architecture.

Be a visual glutton. Cram your imagination full of beautiful and arresting images. You won’t even be aware of how most of these images influence your own writing, but they will.

Dreamlander K.M. WeilandRecently, I rewatched Disney’s animated Robin Hood, which was a childhood favorite. I was surprised to be able to realize how much of the film’s imagery had impacted my own writing. (The armory behind the waterfall in Dreamlander? I can now see how that was totally my imagination recycling the scene when Robin takes Marian to his hidden camp through the entrance behind the waterfall.)

3. Study Symbolism

The reason imagery is so memorable—and so powerful—is because it represents symbolism. This is true on both a universal level (e.g., we all instinctively understand the implications of light and dark), but also on a personal level. The reason certain images from certain stories remain with you so intensely is because they represent or are in themselves symbols of things that are important to you.

We might argue that art itself is essentially nothing more or less than symbolism. Especially when it requires people to interact with it emotionally (rather than on a conscious, logical level), it becomes a manifestation or metaphor of a deeper feeling, idea, or belief.

Written fiction tends to complicate this idea. Unlike a painting, which simply is what it is and offers no commentary upon itself, written fiction is almost entirely its own commentary. This is why writers instinctively understand the importance of the principle “show, don’t tell.” The more we tell—the more we commentate—the more we degrade a story’s natural symbolism.

To execute symbolism well, writers must have a conscious understanding of this powerful tool. One way to look at symbolism is as the intersection of imagery and meaning. This definition affords guidelines for study. Part of paying attention to your own visceral reactions to images (those you see in real life, film, and visual art, but also those you imagine based on the written word) is, first, asking yourself what these reactions tell you these images mean to you, and, then, what it is you think the artist intended them to mean.

4. Make Use of Weather, Lighting, and Color

Universal symbolism largely draws its metaphors from universal sources. Top among these are weather, lighting, and color. Think of these as these as the primary colors on your palette—red, blue, and yellow. They’re bold, they’re brash, they’re impossible to ignore, and they’re powerfully memorable. But they’re also just the starting place for more nuanced uses of symbolic imagery.

Think again about some of your favorite remembered scenes. I bet some of the most powerful aspects of these memories incorporates one or all of these elements.

More than once, when I’ve struggled to write a scene, it’s because the lighting is off. Sounds crazy, but sometimes you just can’t write a scene the way you want it if you have the sun shining down on your characters.

Same goes for color. Color galvanizes all my visual scenes. In all my memories, it’s the colors that pop to mind first. And when I do the mental exercise of running through one of my stories image by image, my mind’s eye is instantly awash in color.

5. Train Yourself to Think in Images

Allow me a momentary rabbit trail: It has been my observation that the reason many writers get hung up on the outlining process is because they’re too focused on the words. They’re creating a list of scenes that is nothing but words (e.g., Larry went to town; Maya broke her leg). When they stop thinking of the outline as a scene list and instead start using it as a brainstorming exercise in which they vividly envision their scenes, everything changes.

However important it may be, if scene structure is the beginning and end of how you think about scenes, you’re missing one of the most important ingredients. In planning every scene in your story, discipline yourself to take a step back from the plotting. Instead of focusing rigorously about how your character has to have a goal and that goal has to be met by conflict, give your subconscious a chance to speak up. Stop thinking about the scene and start seeing it.

A recent reviewer of my aviation-adventure novel Storming made my day by saying that “some of her stuff is outrageous, but always entertaining.” To me, this means I’m doing my job right. I’m opening up my subconscious and using its unique and vibrant images. Instead of just writing, “oh, and then they had a fight,” I’m trying to find the most interesting visual to represent this important moment in the plot.

But remember, even as you’re relying on the power of universal symbolism, you’re trying to avoid using the same old image readers have seen a million times before. You’re taking all your own visual influences, throwing them in a food processor, and seeing what new and interesting mashup emerges. Don’t settle for seeing the same old sights; seek brave new visions.

6. Polish Descriptive Skills

And now, finally, we come to the subject of execution. Writing is ever a tale of duality: subconscious and conscious. Your conscious brain can have nothing worthwhile to execute if the subconscious isn’t supplying it with rich fodder. But even the richest imaginations will fail to connect with others if the conscious execution isn’t portraying ideas as powerfully and cleanly as possible.

Really, the art of creating visual fiction is as vast as the art of narrative writing itself. Choosing the right words, balancing subtext and context, knowing when to show and when to tell, even crafting solid structures and themes—all of these are inherent to marvelously visual fiction.

Still, when most of us think of executing images on the page, we’re thinking about describing them. Description is one of the most important, straightforward, and yet difficult skills for any writer to master. In writing visual fiction, perhaps the two most important aspects of description are concreteness (avoiding abstractions or generalities) and specificity (choosing evocative and memorable descriptors).


A writer’s imagination is the ultimate fantasy land. Visit it fully every chance you get. Open the doors and let it spill into the real world. And, in return, never cease feeding those fantasies with the beauties and wonders of reality. Taking full advantage of the shared imaginative experience the written word creates between individuals is one of the most incredible opportunities and greatest privileges of being a writer.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is an image you recall vividly from one of your favorite books? Tell me in the comments!


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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I’m re-reading one of my favorite books right now, and it’s a book that seared images into my brain the first time I read it. The book is called Revelation Space, and one of the very first images involves a woman named Ilya Volyova riding an elevator a thousand decks down the spine of a starship called the Nostalgia for Infinity, past vast habitation and recreation centers fallen decrepit from abandonment, entire decks filled with overgrown forest and jungle, and de-pressurized chambers storing all manner of smaller craft plundered by the crew.

    The Nostalgia for Infinity is so old no one can remember who built it or how long it has existed. It was built to carry a quarter million passengers, but in the opening chapters there are only seven people aboard the ship, and only two of them are awake.

    Volyova is descending to the cold depths of the ship, the lower decks where others fear to tread, to consult the captain.

    And then we meet him.

    He’s not a living person so much as he’s a corpse frozen to near-absolute zero to retard the growth of a nanovirus that attacks his machine parts and melds them with his flesh, creating a monstrosity whose growths have shattered the casing of his cryocasket. Volyova warms his cryocasket just enough to allow nanomachines in his brain to come to life, simulating the firing of neurons along his synaptic pathways.

    And finally his words echo from speakers set into the wall while his corpse remains inert: “Where are we?”


    I had never read anything like that when I picked up Revelation Space, and I was electrified. And oh, the rest of the book does not disappoint. The meeting with the captain is merely the apéritif to a harrowing space opera that takes the reader between star systems, on the edge of sanity to the true revelation at the heart of the book.

    So yeah, images count big time. The author, Alastair Reynolds, excels at creating unique and vivid imagery, often on an absurdly massive scale.

    This is a good post, KM, thank you for reminding us of the extreme importance of sketching those scenes for our readers. And I agree wholeheartedly with the quote up top saying it’s the images, not the finer details of plot, that remain in a reader’s mind long after he or she puts the book down.

  2. Jeffrey Barlow says

    This is a fun article to read, considering I’m working on a graphic novel.

  3. Joe Long says

    My memory has quite a collection of images. I treat my written story as a film. I picture each scene. I’ve decided where the characters are and what’s supposed to happen, then I close my eyes and watch them play it out to my direction. Much of the dialogue is spontaneous. I note all the visuals, including things like body language, to describe in the text. That way, when someone is speaking, I can imply the emotions by the flow of their speech and their movements. Often I say the dialogue out loud and watch for how I express it without thinking. Things like communicating an anxiety in the speech by stuttering and looking away.

    Now although I have all the imagery in my mind it doesn’t always make it’s way to words. That conscious part is deciding what is and isn’t necessary to include and to make sure everything works together logically.

    • Joe Long says

      Cohesion! That’s the word for that last paragraph above.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, you raise a good point in that it’s not always best for the story if the author remains absolutely true to the vision. Sometimes we have to kill a few darlings.

  4. Cliff Farris says

    Having worked on all five continents, and with a huge range of people, I have many images in my mind. My approach is to call an appropriate scene to mind and use every writing trick I can summon to heighten the sensory impressions and vividness. I put my characters into that scene.

  5. We are so on the same wavelength. I always see the story in images first before words and sometimes the whole book is played out. It is so refreshing to read this post when trying to work through all the elements of writing, grammar, punctuation, dialogue tags etc. I love Nightwish too great band and fantastic music to write to. The scene that springs to mind is from Lord of The Rings when they are crossing the mountains before the Mines of Moria, the snow and ice storms, the descriptions are amazing. I was there. lol Thank you for a wonderful post.

  6. Your work really resonates with me. And, this post arrived after a deep dive into plotting when
    I needed to write visually. This really helps. Thanks!

  7. Marianne says

    I have a rather unusual question. I wrote a sex scene, but I don’t want the content to become vulgar. The characters don’t maintain such a strong ‘connection’ between them, so I won’t tie to the passion involved.
    Since I don’t want to go into any detail in this scene, I wrote and interrupted it by they waking up together the next day.
    I asked my parents to read and they didn’t like that interruption because it was too abruptly and not subtly.
    How do I make it look like those transitions we watch in the movies where they cut subtly to the next scene in order to reach a young adult audience too?
    Any advices in this sense, please?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s really all about scene transitions, which are a skill all their own. You might find this post helpful: .

  8. NYWoman says

    I received an inexpensive Virtual Reality headset you use with your phone. Basically it’s a “stereoscope”. I figured out how to create a dual image, ‘spherize’ it (I am a SUPER NOVICE, so trust me, this was a fairly simple task) in my graphics software, and then upload it to my phone. I’m writing Science Fiction, so delving into a not-in-my-head image is a challenge. If you Pinterest “Spaceships”, for example, you will find all types of moody tech scenes, which you can turn into something to prop into your headset, and perhaps a little closer to your mind and writing.


  1. […] “When you think about it, the transformative power of the written word is no less phenomenal than the technological miracles of computers, televisions, and smarts phones. Both are alchemy. Technology uses wires and circuits to turn code into the wonder of light and color. Writing does exactly the same thing. Little black squiggles on the page have the power to reach another human being’s mind and light it up with imagery just as vivid as anything that person might experience in the real world.” I’ve been brainstorming for HA this past weekend, well, over a week or two now. Flashes of scenes come to me. I hope when I’m ready to write this story, all of it comes with me. […]

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