Guest Post - Teaching Students to Write Visual Imagery

Today we have a guest from Harold Titus about teaching students to write visual imagery. If you're looking for a historical thriller to read then check out the details for his novel 'Crossing the River at the end of the post:

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Teaching Students to Write Visual Imagery
by Harold Titus

I enjoy authors that offer incisive social commentary, create well-rounded, authentic characters, and demonstrate a strong command of language. A component of the latter is the use of sensory detail. An English teacher of eighth grade students for many years, I can’t tell you how many times I wrote in the margins of their fictional writing “Show it!” Students, and poor writers, summarize far too frequently what they wish to narrate. To train my students to record with precise words what their eyes actually see of a particular event, I had them observe and record what unsuspecting students do when they are placed in stressful situations. I wanted my writers to present sharp visual evidence of the observed person’s emotional state. “Write what your eyes see, not what your mind interprets and generalizes,” I would say. “Don’t give me ‘He was nervous’ or ‘He looked angry.’”

One of my students would bring from another classroom the selected victim, a stable person I had carefully chosen, a student who was self-confident, strong in character, and well regarded by his peers, an individual, I believed, who would consider his selection, after his ordeal had concluded, a compliment.

When the chosen one entered my room, I would feign anger.

“You keep writing while I’m busy with Jack!’ I would shout at the class. “I don’t want to hear a sound out of any of you! Now’s not the time to get on my bad side!”

I would then turn to “Jack” or “Sarah,” who would already be displaying considerable apprehension.

“Jack, you know I keep a bag of Brach’s candy in my desk drawer, don’t you?”

Jack would respond, and several of my students would write down something about what he had just done with his hands or how specifically he had moved his feet.

“I suppose you’re wondering why I asked you that question.”

Jack, answering or nodding, would present something else for my students to record.

“Well, here it is!” I would then glare at a student in one of the rear seats. “Hensley, I told you I wanted no fooling around! Right?!” Hensley would answer. “Noon detention! Be here five minutes after the bell!” I would respond.

I would then confront Jack. “I’ll get right to the point. I was a bit surprised when one of my students told me he saw you looking into my desk drawer yesterday afternoon. I checked it out and found a bunch of my candy missing. I don’t want to jump to conclusions here. I want the truth.”

Jack would say something, professing his innocence; and I would then surprise him by offering him several candies. I would then tell him that he had been called into the room to be the subject of a writing assignment, that I had chosen him because he was a strong individual well-respected by his classmates, and that he was welcome to stay a few minutes to watch the next victim be interrogated and observed. I would have several students read their visual detail observations. I would suggest how some of their sentences could be tightened up and made more visual. I would then send my messenger off to bring back the next victim.

That night I would type some of the better observations that my students had made and print out copies. The next day I would have the students chose a particular observation they liked and give their reasons why they believed it to be superior. I would then assign them to write a brief scene featuring my interrogation of any one of the victims using both visual detail and dialogue. I would type several of their better passages, make copies, and again have them decide which one they preferred giving their reasons why.

I especially value writers that employ sharp sensory detail especially in scenes that have dialogue. I recognize that a writer doesn’t have that much time to observe and record in his mind, or even on paper, the many little things people do while they converse; but he or she should use precise sensory detail occasionally to convey both emotion and a sense of presence.

Harold Titus, author of Crossing the River

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Crossing the River
by Harold Titus

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Crossing the River brings to life General Thomas Gage's failed attempt, April 19, 1775, to seize and destroy military stores stockpiled at Concord by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Characters of high and ordinary station confront their worst fears. Illustrating the internal conflicts, hubris, stupidity, viciousness, valor, resiliency, and empathy of many of the day's participants, Crossing the River is both a study of man experiencing intense conflict and the resultant aspects of high-risk decision-taking.