When I first began to practice the craft of writing (as opposed to just expressing myself in writing), I very deliberately planned my stories. I created character worksheets detailing the entire life histories of the main characters. I drew diagrams of my characters’ living quarters. I collected images to represent each character, and I put together files of pictures of furniture and objects in my scenes.
I may have gone overboard with this process, but I wasn’t off-base with my idea. Collecting images to represent your characters and settings is essential to successfully telling your story. Even if the character you’re writing about is based on your great-Aunt Hortense, with whom you spent every summer growing up and whose face you think you remember in every detail, you should still get several pictures of her to reference.
If the setting for your story is an imagined one—say, the surface of Mars—it is even more imperative that you collect images. You may say that you want to use your imagination, and you should, but there’s actually no better kickstart to the imagination than a jumping-off point.
Why is this important? Well, let’s talk about the concept of verisimilitude. Verisimilitude refers to the depiction of realistic details and can often make or break a story. For example, say your character is imprisoned in a crumbling, old tower. If you describe the story with relatively overused images—it’s dirty, the stones are old, it’s cold—your reader doesn’t really get a mental feel for your character’s plight. These details just aren’t specific enough.
Now, say you have several images of actual crumbling towers, or even better, are fortunate enough to live within driving distance of a few. When you look at or visit these, you can see the exact quality of the light when the setting sun slants through the openings in the castle and hits the stone floors. You can see the centuries of rust on the iron bars of the window and imagine the reddish residue on your protagonist’s fingers when he grips those bars. You can see the ivy snaking up the walls of the castle and imagine that the protagonist gets so hungry that he actually tries to eat that ivy.
With all of these images, you ground the scene firmly in specific, unexpected details. By doing so, you cause your readers to fully immerse themselves in your story. That’s what you want.
So, no matter how well you think you know your character’s face or the setting for your story, always, always get pictures. Pick out the details from those images—the surprising ones. Create verisimilitude, and you’ll create a masterpiece.