WHAT YOU CAN IMAGINE, YOU CAN WRITE
Note: This is another draft from a book I’m working on. Read the first draft here.
You know how to use your imagination. It’s a natural talent. But perhaps you need a few reminders. This chapter is about helping you with that.
It starts when we’re very young. And it’s the same for all of us.
Imagine your childhood.
As a child, you were extremely good at using your imagination. So were your friends. And when you played together, you basically agreed to imagine the same things. You imagined stories.
Children appreciate fairy tales and folk stories in particular, because these are especially suited for imagining. The story elements are often simple yet vivid. Children quickly learn to use their imagination to bring these stories to life. They imagine the characters, the events, the dangers, the solutions, the feelings that run through each character.
A child judges a story not by how complicated it is, not by what it is about, but by how quickly and vividly and satisfyingly it engages her imagination. Also, how it makes her feel.
Whatever you can imagine, you can write.
Like young friends playing together, the job of a writer is to suggest to readers some fascinating things to imagine. So that they can have a good time.
There’s a natural process that powers your imagination.
Spiders create webs, birds create nests. Human beings create stories.
Webs, nests, stories. They’re assembled carefully, according to certain rules of nature, and they’re an essential part of our lives.
As we listen to a story, as we imagine it, our brains are kept busy on so many levels. And when a story is really powerful, when it triggers the right neurochemicals in our brains, we can become addicted to it.
As we write a story, we create a bundle of information that will activate the different areas in the reader’s brain, basically the parts that handle our awareness, concentration, language, new information, old information, reasoning, relationships, what our senses experience, and more. All at the same time.
The word “fiction” originally meant something that was created, or thought up. A product of the human imagination. A story. But here’s the interesting thing: once a story is shared, it can feel very real indeed.
Use your imagination in fun and clever ways. Arrange your ideas to create a story experience that will delight your readers.
Ideas are the tiny building blocks of a story.
We make up stories by assembling many ideas.
An idea is basically something for you to imagine.
When we write a story, we assemble our many ideas over and over in our heads. For a long time. Trying out different combinations and variations. Until it feels right. And then we can write it down or tell it to someone else.
When we write a story, we’re creating a specific sequence of instructions to guide our readers in using their imagination.
We orchestrate the flow of images and feelings that the readers feel.
Sometimes this flow might feel like a powerful flood.
Sometimes a modest gush.
Sometimes just a trickle.
Or even slow drips.
As writers, we must be good at controlling the rhythm of this. Turn it up, turn it down, turn it inside out.
The Gilgamesh effect.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a very old story. Some even say it’s the oldest written story in the world that can be considered a complete work of art.
This Gilgamesh character was likely based on a king who lived about 4,500 years ago, in the city of Sumer. His story is an epic because it has everything in it that you might have fun imagining.
Gilgamesh fights. Imagine that. He has buddies. Imagine that. He goes on a long and dangerous journey. Imagine that. He meets a malicious woman. Imagine that. His best friend dies. Imagine that. He meets all sorts of fantastic people. Imagine all that. He goes searching for the secret to immortality. Imagine that.
You can see why this story was so popular. It offers everything that can possibly arouse the imagination. All packed into one long story.
Imagine, what if you wrote something like this.
Imagine the effect on your reader.
Many ages ago, there was a Sultan who didn’t trust women. He treated them badly. He would get married and then execute his wife. He did this over and over again. One day, a woman decided to teach him a lesson. Her name was Scheherazade. Say, Sheh-heh-reh-zaa-duh.
Scheherazade was exceptionally gifted in the art of creating stories. On the first night, she made up a wonderful tale for the Sultan. But she stopped at the most exciting point. The Sultan was eager to hear the rest of the story. His brain was buzzing with all the stuff she had fed into his imagination. For this reason he couldn’t bear to have her executed. Not yet.
According to legend, Scheherazade the clever storyteller went on like this, one night after another, for a thousand and one nights, sharing stories from India, Persia, Arabia, and some say even China and Japan.
The Sultan was completely enchanted by her stories. He imagined every scene, every character, every adventure, every treasure, every pleasure. His heart raced at the exciting bits, he sighed at the touching moments, his mouth went dry when there was danger.
One day, the Sultan realised that he couldn’t live without Scheherazade’s stories. He was so moved that he vowed to never execute her.
Scheherazade’s stories were collected and retold for many generations. We know her characters Sinbad, Aladdin, Ali Baba, and many others. There are many versions of her collected stories. The most popular one is called, The Arabian Nights.
Like Scheherazade, how you make a story is that first you imagine it, then you make it as lovely and alluring as you can, and then you find a way to share it with someone else.
You already know how to do all this. You just need a little reminding.
How you describe something is how your reader imagines it.
Visual descriptions are a good way to trigger the imagination. Perhaps the most powerful way.
When you’re describing something that your character sees, you could talk about the size of it, or the shape, or colour, whether it’s hard or soft, perhaps talk about how far away it is, or if it moves and if so whether it’s quick or slow. You could talk about whether it casts shadows or perhaps whether there’s a shadow cast on it.
Sounds are the next best thing. You could describe something as being loud or soft, talk about whether there’s a rhythm to it, whether it sounds like something else, something interesting, and if so what. You could talk about how far or near it sounds, whether it’s loud and distinct or whether it’s low and fuzzy, and so on.
Another powerful way to trigger the imagination is to talk about how something feels. The physical sensations you get when you touch it, or when you’re close enough to feel it on your skin. You could describe whether it feels hot or cold, whether it’s in motion or absolutely still. You could talk about whether you feel an emotional movement coming from it, whether it’s happy or hungry or curious or angry or sad or aggressive or something else.
Sometimes, not so often, you could describe how something smells or tastes. Whether it reminds you of fresh flowers or cigarettes or a particular perfume or some kind of food you used to like when you were much younger or a garbage bag left outside for days or even a particular someone that you’re close to. Whether the smell or taste is strong, or subtle. Whether it hits you hard, right away, or whether it comes on slowly and takes time to notice.
Imagination is also a kind of false memory.
When you imagine, your brain acts as if you are seeing, hearing, touching or smelling something. Your senses come alive in response to this arousal from within you.
With some practice, you can imagine people and places and events that you’ve never actually encountered in real life. Even then, your body might respond as if you are experiencing it for real.
Also, once you’ve imagined something, you’ll be able to easily recall it later. It becomes a new memory. That’s why stories are so powerful. They leave traces in us that are as real, sometimes more so, than the actual experiences in our lives.
That’s why many people are happy to live in imaginary storyworlds, and never fully engage with their actual surroundings.
We can also trigger the imagination through the power of suggestion. If, for example, I describe a big box, perhaps in the middle of your living room, with a low growling coming from within, and now and then you hear something heavy scratching against the inside, what sort of an animal comes to mind?
What colour is it? How does its face look? How does it react upon seeing you?
You very likely saw flashes of this animal in your imagination. Perhaps you felt your shoulders tense, in response to this. Maybe, for just a quick flash, you actually saw the colour of its fur, the shape of its teeth, the jaws and the claws. Even though all these were never described.
That’s how suggestion works. Describe the outside in a way that inspires your readers to imagine what’s inside.
When someone reads your story, it’s not really your words that they respond to, but the images and feelings triggered by those words.
What you picture in your head, you also feel.
And when you imagine something often enough, even if it’s not true, and you associate it with good feelings, you’ll actually start to believe it.
All this happens so fast that it can sometimes feel like magic.
Your job as a writer is to create a parade of exciting images and feelings inside your reader.
Like an movie that plays inside them.
Imagine a big pot of pasta sauce in your kitchen, simmering on the stove. You can hear it rattling. The smell of tomato and pepper in the air, also fresh herbs like oregano perhaps. You can see an open jar of something oily on the side, it looks like premium grade anchovy paste, it smells good even from where you are. Imagine adding this into the sauce and then tasting it. Imagine how you felt as a child when your mother first made this for you, on your tenth birthday, and how she laughed as she watched you eat, the twinkle in her eyes, how much she loved you.
The more you imagine this, the more you can believe in it.
You know how to use your imagination. So let’s try a few simple exercises.
Start by making pictures inside your head. For example, think of a colour.
Let’s say you pick blue. See a big chunk of blue in front of you. Make it bright and vivid, so that you feel as if you’re actually looking at this.
Concentrate. See it as clearly as you can. Use your imagination.
Blue, blue, blue.
Next, choose another colour.
Maybe green. Or red. Yellow. Black. White. Grey. Gold or silver or the colour of early morning mist or the shade of the afternoon sun on the roof of an old village temple.
Pick any one.
Very slowly, using your imagination, cause the first colour that you chose, the blue, to fade into the second colour, right in front of you.
Hold it there for a few minutes. Relax. You’re not in a hurry to go anywhere else. Really imagine this new colour.
Afterwards, change this into a third colour. Something as different as possible.
And then a fourth.
Keep doing this. Imagine one colour fading into another.
Keep your body relaxed. Especially your shoulders. Breathe easy. Have fun.
Spend some time doing this every day, if you can. Ten minutes would be good. Perhaps just after your breakfast. Or if you’re travelling somewhere, do this on the bus or train. It’s a great way to develop your imagination.
You can also do the same thing with smells. Or sensations: imagine something brushing against your skin. For example, imagine that someone is stroking the back of your left hand with a feather. Feel each stroke. Make them distinct and real. And then change this sensation, from a feather to a cold metal rod, perhaps. Feel its coldness pressing against your skin.
In your own words, how would you describe this?
Write this down.
More exercises for your imagination.
Say “Cheese”, and see a block of cheese, whatever kind you like to eat, appear just in front of you.
See it clearly. Can you smell it? Imagine touching it. Running your fingers all over it. What does it feel like?
Imagine putting a chunk of this cheese in your mouth. On your tongue.
Keep it there. Taste the cheese.
Another exercise: say, “mother”, and see a vision of your mother appear. You know her so well. In your imagination, see her walk around. Turn around. Smile at you. Frown. Stick her tongue out at you. Can you see her features clearly? Can you read what’s in her eyes?
What did you feel when you imagined your mother sticking her tongue out at you? Describe that. Write it down.
Say, “father”. Or someone else close to you. See him. Or her. Do you sense a change in your body, in response to this image? How would you describe the sensation?
Say, “Santa Claus”. Can you count the hair in his beard?
Can you smell reindeer on his red clothes?
Can you hear him laugh?
Say the name of someone you truly love. See this person in front of you. Feel your response. Describe it. Write it down. Quickly, before it can fade away.
Say the name of the person who has hurt you the most.
See. Feel. Write.
Say “me”, and see yourself in front of you.
Feel what it’s like to look at yourself.
Keep doing these exercises. Come up with some variations so you don’t get bored.
Imagine locations that you love, see them clearly, and describe them.
Imagine feelings that you enjoy, and describe them.
Think of different types of food that you like, taste them in your imagination, and describe them.
What else would you absolutely love to imagine?
Make a list.
Imagine you’re throwing a party. You’d find out what food your friends might like to eat, what they’d enjoy drinking, what music they’d want to dance along to. And then you’d try to put all this together for the party.
The result will be an evening that they remember and talk about for a long time.
Imagine that your story is like this party. Make a list of the kind of things that you know you and your readers will enjoy imagining. And then create a story around this list.
Your readers will be delighted.
If you think your reader enjoys watching soccer, give the character in your story a giant TV screen to watch the soccer finals. If your reader likes long hikes, you could describe the amazing nature trails that run near your character’s home. If your reader likes to cook, let your character live in an apartment with a fantastic kitchen, equipped with the latest ovens and stoves and other equipment.
Collect photos of stuff that you like.
Food, furniture, flowers.
Cars, candy, cats.
Dresses, diamonds, daffodils.
Practise visualising all of the them. One at a time, or in different combinations, or all together, if you can.
Manipulate them in your imagination. Change how they look. How they feel. How they smell.
Make them bigger, or smaller, or brighter, or covered in a thick layer of gold dust, or dripping chocolate sauce.
Describe each thing you imagine. Try to keep it as simple yet vivid as possible.
Put these into your stories. Your private catalogue of magical items.
As you get better at this, you’ll find yourself imagining all sorts of incredibly detailed scenarios. You’ll remember all of it with great clarity. And you’ll be able to write about them quite accurately.
If you don’t hold anything in your imagination, and you try to write your story, you’ll still be able to produce some words. But the more you write, your words will feel empty to you. Hollow. Lifeless. You won’t experience the pleasure of having all your senses, your emotions, activated by your story.
And likewise, your reader will have a poor reading experience.
So imagine first, and feel, and then write.
Some people think the main tool of a writer is a pen, or fancy stationery, or a laptop, or a special app.
No. A writer’s main tool is far more powerful than any of those things. All of the important work has to be done inside our heads. The tool is our imagination.
Only after the elements have been clearly imagined, can we try to make up sentences and explain when they are.
What you’ve enjoyed in your imagination, becomes a joy to write about.
And in turn this becomes a joy for your reader to imagine too.
In short: you imagine something, and then you write a story so that you reader can have fun imagining the same thing too.
If we were living thousands of years ago, when people still believed in magic, we would say that a story was a kind of spell. And the job of the writer would be to cast such a lovely spell on the reader that the reader would even pay to keep the spell running.
Even today, a good story might feel like magic. But it’s actually all science. It’s based on how our brains work. We can’t help it.
We’re born to create, enjoy and share stories.
DON BOSCO writes thrilling fiction for teens and children. His stories are inspired by Asian legends and pop culture. He started the publishing studio Super Cool Books in 2011. In 2015, his Sherlock Hong Adventures series was acquired by Marshall Cavendish for international release. He is a local co-organiser for StoryCode Singapore, which promotes transmedia storytelling across different platforms and formats. His website.