Pumping Up Your Image

During one of the early writing classes I took, I received a red envelope from my instructor, Ariel Gore. This wasn’t just any red envelope. It was small and was decorated with Vietnamese characters written in gold. A drawing of a young boy and a young girl, in what seemed to be ceremonial dress, bowed to each other.

The envelope held promise, but I wasn’t allowed to open it until Ariel gave the instructions.

We were to choose an event we wanted to write about, she said, a powerful image from our past or a scene from a story in progress. Inside the red envelope was a series of cards with questions. We were to pull out the cards, one at a time, without peeking). She wanted us to answer each question and then use those responses to write – or rewrite – our story.

There was no order to the questions, and we didn’t have to answer them all. But, even the few that I drew were enough to widen my perspective of the scene, to see what the character saw, and to incorporate details I overlooked when I had written an earlier draft.

I loved this writing exercise.

The little red envelope appeared mystical with it’s Vietnamese writing, the hopeful expressions of the young boy and girl, and the secret cards; it was bound to do magic on my writing.

The assignment wasn’t daunting; all I had to do was read and answer a few questions. I could even make up the answers. There was no wrong way to do it.

And, the answers put me front and center into the image. They helped me color the scene, add texture, and reveal insight into my character.

As I stepped behind my character’s eyes, I drew these cards:

  • About how old are you?
  • What is to your left?
  • What is to your right?
  • Is anyone else in the image?
  • Why are you there?
  • Is there anyone who just left or who may be coming?
  • What are some of the sounds in the image?
  • What does the air smell like?

I thought it would be fun to try this exercise again. Here’s a snippet of a story – a before and after. Hopefully, the power of the exercise will still shine through:


One by one they got up from the bed. Jan went to the bathroom. Brian needed food. Mollie went downstairs and put on music. But Paul stayed upstairs with me. He wanted to smoke, so I opened the bedroom window and we climbed outside onto the roof.

There, under the stars, we sat on a small ledge. He smoked. I pulled in my knees and wrapped up in a blanket. We talked. For a long time, we just talked. He laughed at my jokes. But still, he looked me in the eyes when he spoke. I sat with him until the mosquitoes got the best of me.

After: *

At twenty-one years old, I was accustomed to staying awake into the wee hours of the morning. But, I wasn’t used to being woken up at 3am by a posse of four. My roommate Mollie, her friend Jan, and two guys I had just met all sat on Mollie’s bed, across the room from mine. They stared at me and giggled. Knowing they weren’t leaving any time soon, I sat up, wrapped my comforter around me, and listened while they recounted their evening.

Their tale ended, and one by one they got up from Mollie’s bed. Jan went to the bathroom. Brian needed food. Mollie went downstairs and put on music. But Paul stayed in the room with me. As the sounds of Jimi Hendrix climbed the stairs, Paul stood up.

“I need a smoke,” he said. “Can we go out on the roof?”

“Sure,” I shrugged. I wasn’t tired any more.

I opened the bedroom window and we climbed outside. The roof was cool and the air crisp. I pulled my comforter out with me, and we sat on a small ledge that jutted out just enough. We sat side by side, my toes barely over the edge and Paul’s legs dangling.

Paul lit a match, and, even though I didn’t smoke, the first whiff of his cigarette filled my nose with a satisfaction. We sat under the stars and talked about the fresh smell of Spring time in the morning – wet grass and dirt, about the quiet, and the light of the full moon.

It was easy, sitting there with Paul. I pulled in my knees but let the comforter fall off of one shoulder. For a long time, we just talked. He looked me in the eyes when he spoke. And, he laughed at my jokes. I sat with him past the last drag of his cigarette, through the songs of the early morning birds, until the mosquitoes and hunger got the best of us.

Whether you write memoir or fiction, your story is full of imagery. Details settle the reader into time and place, and they give flavor and richness to your story.

If you’re considering a rewrite, ask yourself this: From behind whose eyes does your story unfold?

Who’s got the angle on perspective?

And then, answer a few simple questions of your own.


* Funny, I said I wasn’t going to write flash fiction every Wednesday for a while. I guess I just couldn’t help myself.



11 responses to “Pumping Up Your Image

  1. I needed the extra information in the second version of the first paragraph to understand what was going on. The part in your first version starting with “But Paul stayed upstairs with me” along with the paragraph on the roof I preferred as you had written it the first time. You referred to the stars, which added romance, and then you focused on what counted, Paul and the way he treated you. This paragraph was all about Paul and I think anything extraneous took away from this sweet romantic encounter.

    Christi, take my comment for what it is: my preference. I have no credentials in this whatsoever. I think the cards with questions was a great idea and I think it is a great help to flesh out a scene. I think you wrote this romantic part on the roof perfectly, balanced with “under the stars” to set the atmosphere, and with your focus on Paul. It was moving and tender just as you wrote it and it was the crowning moment of the entire scene.

    I hope you won’t think I am out of my mind. Others with more experience than I have may like it better with the extra detail. But I fell in love with that paragraph as soon as I read it.

    • Carol, You’re a reader, as well as a writer, so your feedback is always valid. I thought twice about using a snippet of a full story for an example, and I can see how sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. Also, your point is well taken: in some instances, less is still more.

      Thanks for your comment.

    • Carol, I see your point and I think I agree. I liked the bit of mystery left by not saying what they talked about because I felt like that didn’t matter. I felt that their conversation was really just the beginning of something more.

      In fairness, that’s all in the second version, but I sensed the stillness of sitting outside pre-dawn better in the less detailed paragraph.

      I think Christi is such a good writer that even when she spares details, she still paints a full picture.

  2. I’m so glad you cleared up the wrong impression I got from the first sentence. I read it and thought, Good lord, Christi’s writing about an orgy! 🙂

    I appreciate your illustration of how you “plump up” your writing. I do this most often with my dialogue scenes, which I always write very quickly, like taking dictation. But, in general, I tend to write everything first with sparse details, and have to go back to fill in.

  3. Linda, “Good lord” is right. As I re-read the first paragraph, I can see how the success of a before and after writing exercise depends greatly on the example used.

    Like you, I still write initial drafts with much less detail. But this exercise has given me the foresight to consider a character’s senses more readily when writing a scene. Also, it’s a nice reminder that every detail shares something about the character or the story — it’s not just about word count.

    Okay, I’m still laughing at how much the opening implies….

  4. Although the first sample was well done (I too thought along the lines of an orgy, but just for a second!), the second is so much more grounded and pulls the reader completely into the scene. Great job.

    Are there more cards in the envelope, or just those you listed?

  5. I love this! (and would love a copy of the list)

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