Ask yourself, "How would Helen Keller describe this homemade candle?" Maybe, writers should close our eyes and draw descriptions from senses other than vision.
Consider this jungle scene in a war story:
Temperatures climbed. Thick green vines hung from drooping trees, creating a sun-tight canopy above a lush layer of ferns. It was so thick even jungle creatures stayed to a few well-worn game trails. Tree leeches, thriving in the perpetually wet humidity, dropped on any warm-blooded mammals unfortunate enough to travel below. Decaying mulch ran deep, often sucking a man's leg up to the knee as he attempted to slog silently in pursuit of nearby enemy soldiers. Thank God for the safety of smokeless flames from the Sterno cans we packed to heat food and purify water.
Does this scene provide a vivid image? Yes, but does it provide the right imagery for the story?
Here's another example of the same scene:
Sweat dripped from the tip of my nose. I brushed squirming tree-leeches off my camo sleeve before leaning to one side, pulling my foot from knee-deep, rotting muck. In the low light of the heavy canopy above, I lost track of our game trail, the only way we could advance through thick ferns. Sounds of enemy soldiers carried through dense vegetation, making me thankful for smokeless flames from our Sterno as we heated food and purified water.
Notice both scenes provide vivid imagery. The first scene with 96 words concentrates on the visual image of the setting, while the second scene with only 77 words focuses on the consequences of the setting, thereby adding to tension.
How do writers determine the right detail to use in a setting? Those decisions can make the difference between a lackluster story and a page-turner. Writing would be easy if all readers brought the same expectations and life experiences to every book. The key issue is to figure out what readers bring to the party.
Fortunately, genres provide some guidelines about reader expectations. For example, YA and NA book buyers often want fast-paced tales with intense characters. Settings and scenes tend to be less important than character development and a dynamic plot. On the other hand, older readers enjoy more detail and are willing to allow a plot to develop more slowly. They are also far more likely to expect details in a story to be well-researched and accurate.
Another good way to learn about readers is to review successful books by other authors. For example, a book like Fifty Shades of Gray gives a good example of the level of expectations for one class of readers. If I planned to write erotica, I would study the successful books in that genre. If I planned to write literary fiction and appeal to typical readers who follow such a style, I would study books like Forrest Gump or Bridges of Madison County. Scene development in such books is a blueprint outlining the needs of those readers.
General thoughts about imagery in writing:
1) Detail provides a framework for the mental picture. Make sure the frame highlights the image you want readers to experience.
2) Like dialog, description must have a purpose. It must advance the plot, or it is empty filler that readers will skip over.
3) Keep it simple. One of my favorite methods for creating imagery is to give readers the basic parts of a scene, and let their imaginations fill in the rest.
4) Paint active mental pictures: instead of saying "it was a hot day," talk about the dog in the shade that wouldn't bother to chase the nearby cat because of the heat, or let the reader "smell" the decaying dead man in the other room, rather than telling the reader about the dead guy.
5) Think outside the box. Use plot devices in scenes to advance the story. For example, in Ghost of Lost Eagle, I needed to introduce an impending flashflood to my main character. What better plot device than Tuck's horse that senses the coming flood and refuses to continue up the canyon? The imagery is palpable while he tries to coax his unwilling horse further up the gulch. The obstinate animal made a perfect plot device to enhance tension, advance the story and provide realism.
Painting pictures with words is our craft. Scenes make everything else in stories possible, so they are the key to imagery. When readers are allowed to supply essential parts of the overall vision, they feel the author has connected with them.