Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute Home

Conjuring Sight--Evoking Images in Prose Fiction

Timothy A. Grady

Contents of Curriculum Unit 11.01.01:

To Guide Entry


Nearly everyone who reads has had the experience being transported to another world--of becoming so engrossed in a narrative that he becomes almost unconscious of the act of reading. In these cases, the prose an author constructs becomes so vivid as to replace, in a small way, reality in a reader's mind for a time. We see Chekhov's gun and Faulkner's dilapidated antebellum mansions. We, as readers, cherish these vivid interactions with text and measure the soundness of other works through them. Consequently, the successful evocation of images is a hallmark of well crafted fiction.

Over the course of the last five years I have taught the craft of fiction in the Creative Writing department at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School in New Haven, CT, and helping students to evoke image in the fiction they create has been a continual goal. Aspiring writers struggle to produce successful works of fiction due, in large part, to ignorance as to how to evoke mental images through prose. Contrary to what one might expect, it is not the rich or central images that students struggle with--it is their more mundane cousins. Students struggle with basic settings, character description, and action. Where an experienced writer might write, "John, staring at his old threadbare converse sneakers as he shuffled down Kensington Avenue, walked right into a woman, making her spill her coffee all over her crisp, tan raincoat," a student-writer is more likely to write, "he bumped into her." As the example illustrates, student-writers omit the sort of commonplace visual details that make a story vivid in readers' minds. The above example compounds itself in the works of student-writers, creating another problem of continuity, in other words, their works are not only devoid of visually descriptive detail, they are consistently devoid of it. While these two issues, lack of visual detail and consistent lack of visual detail, may seem similar, they are radically different. To clarify, the consistent lack the visual detail means the stream of various mental images necessary for a narrative to flow event to event, scene to scene, is missing. Further, their initial works, lacking the consistency and power of descriptive visual detail, often omitting entire visual aspects (i.e. setting), that help to captivate a reader, fail to to transport readers to the fictional world of the story. For instance, say a student writes a story about a man who falls down a manhole while reading the obituaries; rather than spend time setting up the visual aspects for the narrative (physical details pertaining to setting, time, character--never mind accentuating the images to emphasize the cosmic irony in the story), the student spends a good deal of time writing about the man's history, stray thoughts, or the sports article in the paper the man is reading; and if any of the narrative evokes images, they happen to be about something incidental and relatively unimportant such as the man's hat. The student-writers difficulty with evoking mental images through prose creates problem after problem for successful narrative.

The unit, Conjuring Sight, addresses those problems student-writers have when trying to evoke image in fiction. It fills in the missing pieces about how to write that typical books on writing fiction leave out. Over the years of study, creation, revision, and publication, I have found that success or failure lies in the construction of the prose--not in exercises or anecdotes, nor in passion or vision. The word-by-word labor of crafting prose is king in the writing game. Unfortunately, it is just that word-by-word instruction that is missing from most texts dealing with the creation of fiction (and thus about evoking image). For beginning writers, directions like, "make it more visual" or "try to establish a sense of setting," are essentially useless; such imperatives produce the barest of cursory changes to students' works. If one is lucky, a student might change "he fell" to "the man walked into the hole." While such improvements are laudable, they do not really qualify as the sort of deep understanding or skill that teachers hope for in their students or that successful fiction demands. This unit avoids those sorts of broad exercises; rather, it lays out word-by-word guidelines that helps student-writers to thoughtfully experiment with evoking image and ultimately to crafting captivating fiction that flows.

While the unit rests on the work of several educational theorists and writers, the overall guiding vision for its construction comes from my practical experience as a writer of fiction. In teaching my students, I have become aware of the price I have paid to develop the instincts for the working of prose; I would spare them the years of self-instruction, study, and reflection I found necessary because no practical guide existed. I experimented and experimented; always trying to emulate techniques I found in the works of others. When I became a teacher and studied several theorists, I discovered that I had unknowingly engaged in a inquiry-based learning process. Inquiry-based learning is a "strategy that actively involves students in the exploration of the content, issues, and questions surrounding a curricular area or concept...The activities and assignments...[are] designed such that students work...to solve problems."1

As I had experimented, trying to solve problems in crafting prose fiction, the inquiry-based learning process had allowed me to discover for myself the deep guiding principles of fiction. As such, the general framework of the inquiry process, moving from knowledge through experimentation to creation, is a theoretical support for the unit's sequence.

In the course of the unit, it is tempting to fall back on hackneyed adages, like "it takes practice," but that is ultimately an evasion of the question: how does one teach a beginning writer to effectively evoke mental images through prose? Considering the question when teaching fiction to teenagers, who are sometimes reluctant, self-conscious writers, it is critical to remember that the processes beginners uses to think, do, and perceive are different than those of established practitioners. This unit is laid out in distinct stages and promotes writing predominately as a craft (composed of techniques and principles), with less focus on the inspirational, intuitive aspects of writing. While such an approach is artificial to how most writers write, it promotes an environment conducive to learning as it sets up what the educational theorist Robert Gagne refers to as the the necessary "conditions of learning"--nine discrete, sequential instructional stages ranging from "gaining attention" to "enhancing retention and transfer"2. These stages, implemented in this unit via Arts PROPEL, a instructional framework for teaching art from Project Zero at Harvard, provide beginners the safety and support of concrete, step-by-step, instructions while still allowing immense creative freedom. In addition to these foundational design sources, this unit also uses John Gardner's Art of Fiction, Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, and Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe's Understanding by Design as major supports for teaching students the effective evocation and use of mental images in the works of fiction. Each of these sources will be discussed in more detail as the arise within the unit.

to top


While the general problem this unit deals with is students' difficulty with the evocation and use of mental image when writing fiction, the problem itself is unwieldy to think about. Without elaborating upon its nature, it would be all too easy to slip back into familiar pedagogical ruts such as more practice, more models, and more discussion. Sound unit design first requires careful statement of the learning goals one wants their students to achieve--"what should students know, understand, and be able to do...What enduring [deep] understandings are desired" 3. Again, it would be easy to summarize on this point, to jot down four or five goals, but, "Unless we begin our work our design work [curriculum planning] with a clear insight into larger purposes, it is unlikely that students will understand...the goal is far too vague: The approach is more 'by hope' than 'by design'"4 . Consequently, it is useful to break down the larger problem of the evocation and use of mental image when writing fiction to the smaller root causes that create that challenge, and then to derive clear, valid objectives based on those causes. Chief among those root causes are: 1) the lack of an accepted paradigm about how words evoke image in a narrative, 2) the novice writer's confusion between reading fiction versus creating it, 3) no understanding of how image affects the audience, 4) the lack of understanding about the role of continuity in a prose narrative, and 5) the difficulty in teaching art. Ultimately, it is these root causes that serve as the justification for the design (sequence, objectives, assessment, etc.) of this unit.

The Lack of a Paradigm

There are countless writing manuals, by authors of note and of obscurity, that touch upon the evocation of image in fiction, but few offer a guiding paradigm towards which instruction can be aimed. Writers and scholars have known for a long time that a relationship where, "certain transitory images are attached to certain words: the word is merely as it were the button of an electric button that calls them [the image] up"5 , but how that effect occurs is still up for debate. Perhaps this is because the exact relationship between how language, concept, and image work in the mind is still unclear, and "there exists a good amount of scholarly debate about it"6. While it helps to have some background about the scholarly debate, for the purposes of the emerging practitioner, hoping to write fiction effectively, having the exact relationship is unnecessary. In fact, "no amount of intellectual study" will tell the young writer what to do7, but too often these truths promote teachers and students of writing to take a wild-west-anything-goes attitude to the problem. In the end, this leads to a hundred different bits of advice from a hundred different writers--difficult at best to wrap into a clear, effective course of instruction.

Confusion between Reading and Writing

For a young writer, taking his or her first initial stabs at fiction, the difference between writing fiction and reading fiction looms large. The student, seeking to create gripping verisimilitude but uncertain how to, falls back on their most powerful experiences with narrative in their personal life and other narratives they have read. Unfortunately, most of these are primarily concerned with feeling and emotion8 . They recall some expressive or affective quality that they experienced when engaging in life or fiction, and then try to whip that feeling up within themselves while setting pen to paper; they hope with all their might that the magic will happen and award-winning narratives will spill from their pens. The young writer's confusion between consuming and producing stories, most of this simply inexperience in thinking about narrative. The concept that fiction is a construction, an artifice, is a new, and therefore, a difficult one for them to grasp.

Understanding How Image Affects the Audience

Born out of young writers' inexperience in thinking about fiction as artifice is their lack of understanding about how image affects the reader. The distinction between making students aware of fiction as artifice and how to engage in artifice may seem subtle, but it is critical. In a sense, understanding how image affects the reader is the flip side of young writers' lack of awareness of fiction as artifice--in the former, students don't read like writers; in the latter, they don't write like readers. They have not yet learned to write with a reader's point of view in mind; they don't anticipate how prose constructions (its content, sequence, and shape) will unfold the story in the readers mind. Having consumed narrative passively for most of their lives, they are ignorant of its techniques and effects. Even after they come to recognize fiction as a careful constructed simulation for a reader, they don't know how to do it because they have not thought about how they, themselves, have been affected.

Lack of Understanding about Continuity

For fiction to be effective, it must not only be vivid, it must maintain continuity in its vividness. Again, this may be a subtle distinction, but it is vital. The young writer may learn to effectively evoke image in a description or a scene, but unless he or she develops a sense for how a narrative uses a sequence of images to affect the reader, the race is only half won. It is the continuity of vividness, the sequence of images the words evoke, that helps to create what the literary theorist Richard Gerrig calls captivation. Attention, emotion, and construction (of image, detail, etc) are vital according to Gerrig to an effective narrative, and he notes that once those three elements emerge in a narrative, they must continue functioning to maintain captivation9. It is the continuity of vividness that produces the dream-like flow of consumption by a reader that every writer, at points, seeks.

The Difficulty of Teaching Art

It might go without saying, but teaching art is not quite the same as teaching math or English. Teaching students to become fiction writers is about cultivating their artistic sensibilities, instincts, thinking processes, etc. There are times when a particular student work is a total failure, but their performance on the unit was a stunning success; and vice-verse. As a teacher of creative writing, I find myself challenged to find ways to evoke, train, cultivate, and assess my students that would never work in my time as an English teacher. The act of the scholar and the act of the practitioner are fundamentally different, and while they may join together at times (and often to great effect), trying to fit any sort of learning into the standard progression of bloom's taxonomy or neatly assessable, scaffolded exercises is fraught with difficult. Art is messy; learning art, messier. While this specific aspect of the unit is not particular to the unit's content, it is key to its aim--producing better writers of fiction.

From Problems to Objectives

Due to the sometimes complex nature of teaching student-writers to create fiction, as demonstrated by the list of root causes above, the unit focuses on achieving several things at roughly the same time so that student-writers can experience authentic inspiration and learning. For instance, while the student-writers must become deeply aware of how language evokes imagery in themselves while reading a narrative sequence before they can begin to consciously employ those techniques in creating effective fiction, it is neither necessary or particularly useful to force the aspiring writers to master their ability to recognize how image is evoked through language before moving on to creating it--in fact, such attempts tend to destroy any sense of enthusiasm or personal connection a young writers have to the process. Utilizing a workshop model that encourages self-directed study, practice, and reflection, the unit tackles five objectives (born of the five difficulties outlined above). Specifically, the unit objectives are: 1) students will understand a paradigm for successful evocation of mental image in fiction, 2) students will understand and utilize the difference between reading and writing fiction, 3) students will be able to apply techniques to evoke image through the text, 4) make students perceive the need for continuity when evoking image and be able to do it, and 5) students will experience an environment that cultivates artistic learning and growth.

to top


Each of the five strategies listed in this section address one of the five root difficulties students have in creating fiction, and thus align with the five objectives of this unit.

Establishing a Paradigm: Gardner's General Principle

As their is not a clear, simple paradigm one may borrow from psychology, cognitive science, or literary theory about the relationship between how words evoke images, how they interact with abstract ideas, and how all of that integrates into a narrative, it is fitting that we turn to the paradigm offered by a writer, not a scholar. John Gardner's simple, powerful statement, "The important single notion in theory of fiction I have outlined...is that of the vivid and continuous...dream" is enough for the purposes of teaching the craft of fiction, especially in regard to how it evokes image10. Gardner's principle, or "notion" as he calls it, that fiction is essentially a vivid and continuous dream, can act as general, abstract paradigm to present the ideas of this unit to students, ask them to reflect upon, assess and critique each other, and so on. The simplicity of this paradigm avoids the debate of more precise theories while also being more practical to the aspiring writer--it is clear, concise, and adaptable to nearly infinite different situations that might arise in the prose.

For clarity when dealing with students, one additional concept might be added to Gardner: the mental image. All one needs to know is that mental images (the type that arise from fiction) are a "quasi-perceptual experience" in the absence of "appropriate external stimuli"11. In other words, the right language evokes a simulation of real visual experiences in the mind. This is what John Gardner refers to as "vividness".

The Difference Between Reading and Writing: Collaborative, Social Learning

Despite the deficit of experience young writers face in crafting fiction and evoking image, they usually have a wealth of experience in reading/viewing fictional narratives, exploring amongst themselves the relationships between the words and images in those narratives (both made by others and themselves) offers a great opportunity to help heighten the young writers awareness of art as artifice and the readers point of view. Utilizing the classic word-image dichotomy, in a collaborative, social learning environment where students create narratives using words and images, while also reflecting on narratives created by their peers, the unit provides a means to deepening students' awareness of the how words can conjure images. Through comparing and contrasting, combining and deconstructing, their respective exploratory creations, the students gain a means to think about themselves as creators and an awareness of audience. Further, the students begin exploring the idea of technique and effect--that what they do as a creator/writer has specific effects on the audience/reader.

Techniques to Evoke Image Through the Text: McCloud's Classifications

Gardner writes, "we discover that the importance of physical detail is that it creates for us a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind," but for the aspiring young writer, the question is: how does one present those "physical details" so that they create a "a rich and vivid play". 12Again, it would be easy to fall back on old artistic adages like "practice more" or "take risks", but that is obviously insufficient for effective teaching and learning. What the student needs is specific directions and techniques that they can experiment and practice with. Building off the work students will do in this unit by creating narratives with words and images, the classification of word-image combinations laid out by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics provides an excellent starting point. McCloud outlines seven ways that words and images can be combined in the narrative form of the comic; amazingly, his classification of techniques works equally well with narratives that use only text: The ways McCloud outlines are 1) "word specific", where pictures show what the the text deals with but don't add to it, 2) "picture specific", in which the pictures do most of the work and words are only accents to meaning, 3) "duo-specific", in these combinations words and images both send the same message, 4) "additive", where words amplify the image presented, 5) "parallel" combination that have words presenting one message but pictures presenting something completely different, 6) "montage" combinations that integrate the words into images, and vice-verse, and finally, 7) "interdependent", in these combinations word and images are paired up in such a way that they create a composite meaning that neither one achieves on their own13. With the slight alteration of his word-image combinations to non-imagistic-text paired with mental image, his classifications hold and act as a beginner's tool box of techniques on how to evoke image. The combinations, based on McCloud's work, are by no means complete; they offer a concrete starting point for the beginning writer.

The Need for Continuity When Evoking Image: Peer Critique

Helping students to learn specific ways to use words to evoke image--to achieve "vividness"--is only half the battle. To stay true to the guiding paradigm this unit uses, that fiction is essentially a vivid and continuous dream, it is still necessary to help students develop continuity in the presentation/evocation of mental images in the fictions they create. This unit will use an arts studio-workshop model (as laid out in the next section on Cultivating Artistic Learning), a part of which is regular peer and teacher critique, both at the individual level and class-wide. The students will read and critique their peers work for clarity and continuity. They will approach each with questions such as "what is confusing or vague in the physical details", "where does the images evoked heighten or recede", "how consistent is the evocation of images" and so on. This method, capitalizing on student's various comprehension skills, ferrets out any potential weaknesses in continuity (students become easily lost, bored, or angry when the evocation of image drops off or is confused). It also helps to reinforce the critical distinction in the students' minds between themselves as writers of fiction and readers of fiction.

Cultivating Artistic Learning and Growth: Arts PROPEL Workshop

Though the twentieth century has seen the emergence of a wealth writing programs, most authors continue to learn their craft without discrete curricula. They write, share what they write, succeed or fail, receive criticism, and then write some more--all the while studying the works of other writers. While that seems relatively straight forward, it does not meet the sort of criteria that many curriculum units today demand: a sure-fire progression of operations that any teacher can methodically scaffold, and any student can master, to generate a common output. In response, unfortunately, a number of writing teachers have developed and proposed formulas for students to learn and follow; these formula are nearly always flawed, limiting, and kill much of the inherent joy of creating fiction (and not single highly successful author that I know of ever has anything good to say about them.)

The young writer, unsure of his abilities, uncertain of how to progress, seeks, as John Gardener notes in The Art of Fiction, a set of rules that will insure them success. No such hard and fast rules exist--none that can be absolutely relied on in any case. As soon as one writer tries to make a rule, another finds a way to break it successfully. Writing fiction is not like performing a math operation; each time an aspiring student encounters a mathematical problem requiring summation, he can turn with absolute assurance to the set rules for performing such an operation—not so with writing.

In response to this difficulty of how to train a student to create better fiction via the more skillful evocation of images, this unit will use a studio art format. Though examples are still used and techniques still taught in this model, the format encourages open experimentation and seeks to cultivate the learners' skills through critique. In many ways, the studio format, is a recreation of the master-apprentice method of old where the student learns to appreciate a certain seemingly subjective set of aesthetics and creative principles.

Assessing student performance in the studio format can be difficult, especially because there are subjective aspects to art. This unit will utilize the PROPEL methodology developed by Project Zero at Harvard as a means to accurate assessment. PROPEL focuses on student growth, reflection, and conduct as exemplified through a portfolio created in the process of learning. PROPEL recognizes the subjective nature of artistic creation, but also bolsters contemporary education's need for hard data; the methodology proposes sixteen different dimension by which to measure student growth in an art studio and a portfolio.

In general, PROPEL proposes four major areas that all of its dimensions of measurement and activity fall into: production (the ability of the student to create), perception (the student's handle on formal knowledge), reflection (the facility of the student in thinking about art in general and specific pieces), and approach (the affect and behavior of the student when engaging in the learning and work). The activities of a unit run through the PROPEL methodology flow from the four areas it works with: students make drafts or practice a technique (production), students analyze a famous work for literary elements (perception), students critique their own and others work (reflection), and students strive to collaborate and be resourceful (approach).

The structure and sequence of the classroom activities in this unit are based in the PROPEL methodology. There are periods of focused work, critical analysis, peer review and collaboration, and finally, space for students to demonstrate their independence and resourcefulness. Teachers using this unit should establish point scales and rubrics for each of the four areas of PROPEL, and then more refined scales and rubrics for the dimensions that they would like to use in each area. Practical experience using this methodology does offer a few important suggestions.

When using the PROPEL methodology, it is most useful to use small scales, say 1 through 5, to measure both dimensions of measurement and areas of learning. The simpler the rubric attached to each scale, the more likely it will be that students will understand, internalize, and use the measures and rubrics. To help students grasp the complexity involved with all these multiple areas, dimensions, rubrics, and scales, It is extremely useful to have students self-assess themselves with them and to write up explanations of their assessments; likewise, peer scoring is also incredibly powerful.

to top

Classroom Activities

The lessons provided below are the series of lesson plans that illustrate the basic layout of the course as it plays out in a classroom. Every single day is not covered but these provide a general overview that can be customized for the individual classroom. For more information about the way these lessons play out, refer to the last section of the Strategies part of this unit, the section concerning Cultivating Artistic Learning and Growth. The PROPEL methodology outlined there will aid in understanding the unit's workshop design; for more information see Arts PROPEL: An Introductory Handbook by Project Zero at Harvard.

The lesson outlines follow:

to top


This unit wrestles with a complex, deep concept in the creation of fiction. While I, like every teacher, would like to believe that there exists some perfect unit that will teach something so well that a student will forever after have mastered it, it is important to remember that learning is an iterative process, and that mastery develops over years. The goal of this unit is not mastery--it is growth. If by the end, a student is better able to evoke images in the fiction he or she creates, then it will be an overwhelming success.

As you use this unit, keep in mind the inherent mystery that lies at the heart of creation. It will be tempting at points to create hard and fast rules to help yourself as a teacher manage the wide variety of work students will produce; in general, this is a good practice, just be careful to limit rules to procedural activities, rather than creative ones, whenever possible.

to top

Annotated Bibliography

Arts PROPEL: An Introductory Handbook. Cambridge: Project Zero, 1991. Print. A methodology for arts classroom based on process oriented portfolios; it guides the design of the unit and lessons.

Bruner, Jerome. "The Narrative Construction of Reality". Critical Inquiry, 18:1 (1991): 1-21. A journal article on how the mind constructs reality as a narrative. It outlines ten major points, but for the purpose of this unit only those pertaining to the difficulty with teaching students how to evoke image are touched on.

Gagne, Robert., Briggs, Leslie and Wager, Walter. Principles of Instructional Design (4th Ed.). Fort Worth, TX: HBJ College Publishers. 1992. An overview of principles relating to cognitive function that effective instruction should be based off of.

Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction. New York: McMillian/Vintage. 1991. An introductory primer on practical principles for a beginning writer.

Gerrig, R.J. Experiencing narrative worlds: On the psychological activities of reading. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.1993. An in-depth text on how prose operates upon a reader's mind.

Lane, Jill L. "Inquiry Based Learning." Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence at Penn State. July 15th, 2007. www.schreyerinstitute.psu.edu/pdf/ibl.pdf. A short guide to what inquiry-based learning is and the ways it can be applied in the classroom.

Le Bon, Gustave. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (2nd Ed.). New York: McMillian. 1897. An early sociological text on the nature of crowd psychology and how it is affected. Chapter two, on "The Immediate Factors of the Opinion of Crowds", is of particular interest to the ideas in this unit as goes into a discussion on how words evoke image.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics, The invisable art. New York: Harper Collins, 2007. A text on how comics work. It is included here because it lists techniques through which words and images can be combined.

Thomas, Nigel J.T. "Mental Imagery". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Fall 2010. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/mental-imagery. A lengthy article on what constitutes mental imagery, how it operates in the mind, and the current theories about it.

Wiggens, Grant and McTighe, Jay. Understanding by Design (2nd Ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD. 2005. A framework for curriculum planning that focuses on aligining educational goals, assessments, and learning activities

to top


1 Jill L Lane. "Inquiry Based Learning." Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence at Penn State. July 15th, 2007. www.schreyerinstitute.psu.edu/pdf/ibl.pdf.
2 Robert Gagne, Leslie Briggs, and Walter Wager, Principles of Instructional Design 4th Ed. (Fort Worth, TX: HBJ College Publishers. 1992), 32.
3 Grant Wiggens and JayMcTighe, Understanding by Design 2nd Ed. (Alexandria, VA: ASCD. 2005), 17
4 ibid. 15
5 Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind 2nd Ed., (New York: McMillian. 1897), 97
6 Nigel J.T. Thomas, "Mental Imagery", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fall 2010. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/mental-imagery
7 John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, (New York: McMillian/Vintage. 1991), 37
8 Jerome Bruner, "The Narrative Construction of Reality", Critical Inquiry, 18:1,1991, 7
9 Richard Gerrig, Experiencing narrative worlds: On the psychological activities of reading, (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.1993), 46
10 John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, (New York: McMillian/Vintage. 1991), 42
11 Nigel J.T. Thomas, "Mental Imagery", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fall 2010. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/mental-imagery
12 John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, (New York: McMillian/Vintage. 1991), 27
13 Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, The invisable art, (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), 153-155

to top

Contents of 2011 Volume I | Directory of Volumes | Index | Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

© 2016 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute
Terms of Use Contact YNHTI