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The Power of Imagery and Storytelling Elements in Family Narratives

One of the most powerful novels that I ever read was Zora Neal Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The most memorable passage in the book was the hurricane scene.  In vivid detail, Ms. Hurston so captured the fury of the wind, the rush of the flood waters, and the hard driving rain that I felt as vulnerable, terrified and drenched as the story’s main character.  The imagery in Ms. Hurston’s writing mentally transported me from the safety of my living room and dropped me right into the eye of that storm.

Imagery is one of the most effective literary devices in narrative writing. An image is a single word or phrase that appeals to a readers’ sensibilities. It helps create pictures in their minds. When skillfully applied, imagery in writing has the power to turn a passage on a page into a visceral, even physical experience.

“Imagery does not occur on the writer’s page; it occurs in the readers mind,” says novelist Stephen King, who made millions from creating scenes in his books that thrilled and horrified readers for many years. Although personal and family narratives may not carry the drama of a hurricane or the terror of a Stephen King novel, the artful use of imagery is just as important when writing stories about family or personal life. Without imagery and other key elements of storytelling, family and personal narratives will likely come across as one-dimensional and bland.

The right selection and combination of descriptive words, metaphorical and figurative language, gives narrative the potential to tap into a reader’s senses and create a vivid and engaging storytelling experience. Here are a few examples to help illustrate the use of imagery in narratives:

His aunt’s long, silver hair flows like a river and his uncle’s skin is like burnished mahogany.

Using the adjectives, “long,” “silver,” and “river,” and “burnished mahogany” as metaphors provides vivid and colorful ways of describing a woman’s beautiful hair and a man’s handsome features.

The ear-shattering mix of music blaring from the deejay’s gigantic speakers at the family cookout had my ears ringing for days.

This sentence, particularly the adjective “ear-shattering,” appeals to the readers’ sense of sound.

In narrative writing, it is the writer’s challenge as narrator to see and feel what is going on with the story’s character or characters, and to convey those sensory experiences to the reader. The writer should try to select words that best describe the characters, particularly what the main character sees, hears, tastes, feels and smells.

Imagery and narrative writing should be inseparable and should co-exist on the page so that readers can have the best literary experience. But even the best partnership of imagery and narrative writing won’t make a story complete without the other essential elements of storytelling. Those storytelling elements are:

  • Plot. The plot is the actual premise on which the entire story or book is based, especially in works of fiction. A story plot should have a clear beginning, middle and end. It should also have exposition, the background information of the characters and setting, so that the reader can understand the action and be able to follow along from beginning to end.
  • Characters. The characters are people, animals or things that perform the action in the story. Stories have main and secondary characters; however, a story can have only one main character (protagonist) and still be a complete story. Characters perform the action in stories, moving along the plotline.
  • Setting. The setting comprises the time, location, climate, and surroundings that serve as the backdrop for the action. Settings should be described in enough detail so the reader can visualize the story and feel connected to the action and the plot.
  • Conflict. In a story, conflict is borne from the struggle by the character or characters to confront opposing forces. Conflict is what creates and drives the story plot forward.
  • Climax. The climax is the highest point of tension in a storyline. It often shows up as a confrontation between the protagonist (main character) and antagonist (opposing force or character). A climax resolves the main conflict of the story and is the moment the main character reaches or fails to reach a resolution of their goal.
  • Resolution. When the action or climax is resolved, or the problem is solved, the resolution has occurred. It is the falling action or conclusion of the story’s plot. This is when the story winds down, loose ends are tied, and the plot comes to an end.

Infusing your family narratives with these storytelling elements and a powerful dose of imagery will ensure that your family history is not forgotten.

Photo by Cédric Frixon on Unsplash

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