Valerie Lawhorn

Imaginary Snapshots

In my process as a writer, I use visual imagery to construct characters and the world around them. After characters have identities, the story begins to move. I record the character interactions and the entire landscapes in my head. It exists as more than what paper can hold and faster than I can type. While training to become an English teacher, I was introduced to use visual aids to stimulate writing. I was unaware of a theory connected with how effective this was or how it is learned. Using visuals create more than a way to gain interest. This exploration will encourage a connection between the importance of teaching creative writing with visual aids and the process of how it occurs in the mind. This paper explores the relationship of my experience as a writer and documented writing practices of published writers in parallel to Dual Coding Theory (DCT).

The roots of Dual Coding Theory stem from cognitivism and how information is processed. Allan Paivio developed the dual-coding theory, which suggests nonverbal and verbal information is processed in separate, yet specific compartments of the human brain (Paivio, 1971). The mental compartments are known as the verbal and nonverbal mental coding systems. The codes interact with one another when information activates both sectors (Paivio, 1971). The verbal coding system is comprised of linguistics: writing and speech (Paivio, 1971). The nonverbal coding system is also known as mental imagery as defined by Sadoski and Paivio (2001) as “the analysis of external scenes and generation of internal mental images” (p.43). It is comprised of sensory memories: visual, sounds, feel, taste, and smell. When the verbal and mental coding system interact, it is more valuable to memory and comprehension (Paivio, 1971). Sadoski (2001) uses the word “mental elaboration” to describe “the increased activation of both codes by concrete language” (p.264). For example, for a child to learn the concept of what a cat is, to provide a picture of what a cat looks like may not only help the child remember, but strengthen the understanding of cat as an animal being. For the already educated subject, cat is a concrete word and has the ability to provide both nonverbal and verbal information. Unlike other cognitive theories, Dual Coding Theory provides an explanation for both reading and writing (Sadoski & Paivio, 2001).


Figure 1. The two mental coding systems of Dual Coding Theory as two separate entities that interact (Paivio, 1971).

Vincent (2007) adds to DCT stating, “[T]here is plenty of evidence that, mentally [writers] may well be using multiple codes” (p.143). According to DCT, we take snapshots of the world using mental imagery (Sadoski & Paivio, 2001). Writers often hone this ability, similar to a catalogue, in memories of people and places. Vincent (2007) states, “Through experience, we develop the ability to understand and use language and remarkable ability to manipulate and transform the world around us mentally using a non-verbal code of images” (p.143). A writer looks through the lens to capture images on paper. These are often mundane, everyday moments, moments that most people would overlook, but to a writer, it is something to magnify.

Murray (1978) cites authors as using mental imagery in two distinct ways, images as “static,” or as “a moving picture in the writer’s mind” (p.379). William Faulkner is cited to have said, “It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands on his feet and begins to move, all I do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does” (as cited in as cited in Murray, 1978, p. 379). I felt a personal connection with his description. This is my experience as a writer, only written better.

Some authors identify the power of imagery to support the story they are trying to convey. Gabriel García Márquez uses imagery to send readers into his stories. He begins with a static image but it quickly transforms and drives his story. For instance, Gabriel Garcia Márquez is quoted as stating he begins his works with “[a] completely visual image” (as cited in Murray, 1978, p. 379). In his short story, The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” Márquez (1995) provides the reader with the image of a “dark and slinky bulge approaching,” which instantly set up the central idea of the story to discover what/who this bulge/man is (p.665).

As a reader, I get a mental picture from the words on the page; and as a writer, I try to recreate that experience for an audience. I encourage students to use all the senses to describe what is occurring in an important scene. For example, in this passage by J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, wrote this passage about Harry’s finding his wand from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:
Harry took the wand. He felt a sudden warmth in his fingers. He raised the wand above his head, brought it swishing down through the dusty air and a stream of red and gold sparks shot from the end like a firework, throwing dancing spots of light on to the walls (p. 85).

Using the senses help the reader to identify with the action as they are experiencing the action as well. Harry and the audience share the experience of feeling “warmth,” “hearing “swishing,” and seeing “red and gold sparks” and “dancing spots of light.” Using DCT sensory details add to the audience connection by using both verbal and nonverbal mental processing codes (Sadoski & Paivio, 2001). It is the three-dimensional reading involvement that increases reading abilities to replicate sensory details in a writing context. Also, the word choice of concrete words, or words that suggest mental imagery engages readers and (Goetz, Sadoski, Stricker, White, & Wang, 2007)

I use the writing process derived from Janet Emig’s writing process of brainstorming, drafting, revising, editing, and submitting, which I use to discuss the teaching process. The introduction of the topic, or objective, should be learned before the imagery can be functional in instruction (Sadoski & Paivio, 2001). For instance, understanding of the characteristics of setting and characters should be understood before forging a connection between the concepts and the image. In one example of creative writing instruction, learners are given an image to study and extract a setting. It is encouraged by Sadoski and Paivio (2001) that “specific instructions to visualize” are given to learners for the process to be utilized (p.195).


Figure 2. A sample photograph of countryside in Spain (Lawhorn, 2001).

In this example, writers are encouraged to focus on a portion of the image, or the image in its entirety. The setting should be established primarily through specific details using description words. Brainstorming ideas over setting could include the following characteristics: geographical location, landscape, housing, time period, and social environment (Harmon & Holman, 2000). Writers should be prompted to begin at the strength of what the image is trying to convey. In this photograph the strength lies in the geographical location and landscape (e.g., The winding road lead away from town and brought in strangers). Before writers work on their own, I often have writers brainstorm an example image in a group dynamic by listing descriptive words captured by the image. After brainstorming the setting character development can begin. Writers should design characters to subsist within the setting.

This approach can be modified with whatever visual stimulus is available: postcards of art and photographs, old catalogues like the Sears Roebuck catalogue (LeNoir, 2003). Another idea would be to use wordless picture books to write a picture book. Wordless books illustrate a story and provide a subjective view to the individual. Students can use the images to describe what is occurring or can isolate a frame to begin the writing process if the desired effect is not to constrict writer. Harmon & Holman (2000) support DCT and the ability of visuals to have “qualities found in images are particularity, concreteness, and an appeal to sensuous experience or memory—an appeal that seems to work best through specifically visual images” (p.263). LeNoir (2003) suggested using everyday signs to provoke creative thought. This is more of a writing exercise and not to write a story.

Figure 3. Weston (1937) photograph of Mojave Desert. This is an example of a thought provoking image.

In another example of creative writing instruction, learners are given images to study and extract characters. Brainstorming ideas over what each character thinks, feels, says, and does, as well as the physical appearance of the character (Lostracco & Wilkerson, 1992). Sketching complete characters will suggest what setting will complement them and writers can match these characters to images of settings. This example resembles what I do as a writer, but in my opinion it can overwhelm inexperienced writers to create characters first. Sometimes a setting is less pressure. Also, young writers tend to revert back to childhood stories like fairy tales, something that resembles a fantasy setting.

Figure 4. Cameron (ca.1865-1866) photograph of Mrs. Herbert Duckworth as Julia Jackson. Writers can make up a story of who this woman is. The physical appearance is provided so emphasize what the characters thinks, feels, says, and does.

These examples are to encourage better quality and stronger connections to writings, and to simulate how authors use imagery to write stories. It is not original in idea, rather an illustration of how visuals are supported by theory of Dual Coding. By reflecting on my writing practices, it allows me to craft an approach to teach creative writing, because I believe mental imagery inspires writing. My stories come from my imaginary snapshots.

Works cited

Harmon, W., & Holman, H. C. (2000). A Handbook to Literature (8th ed.). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Holcomb, P. J, Kounios, J., & Anderson, J.E. (1999). Dual-Coding, context-availability, and concreteness effects in sentence comprehension: An electrophysiological investigation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 25, 721-742.
Goetz, E. T., Sadoski, M., Stricker, A., White, T., & Wang, Z. (2007). The role of imagery in the production of written definitions. Reading Psychology, 28, 241-256.
Goetz, E.T, Kealy, W. A, Sadoski, M., & Paivio, A. (1997). Concreteness and imagery effects in the written composition of definitions. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89(3), 518-526.
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LeNoir, D. W. (2003). “There’s Nothing to Eat!” A half-dozen ways to find writing ideas. English Journal, 92(5), 25-29.
Lostracco, J., & Wilkerson, G. (1992). Analyzing Short Stories (2nd Ed.). Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.
Márquez, G. G., (1995). The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World. Cassill, R. V., The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction (5th ed.), pp. 665-670. New York: Norton.
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Rowling, J.K (1997). Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic.
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Sadoski, M. (1998). Mental imagery in reading: A sampler of some significant studies. Reading Online. Available online:
Sadoski, M. (2001). Resolving the effects of concreteness on interest, comprehension, and learning important ideas from text. Educational Psychology Review, 13(13), 263-281.
Sipe, L. R. (1998). How Picture books work: A Semiotically Frame Theory of Text-Picture Relationships. Children’s Literature in Education, 29(2), 97-108.
Vincent, J. (2007). Writing and coding: assisting writers to cross the modes. Language and Education, 21(2), 141-157.
Verkiri, I. (2002). What is the learning value of graphical displays in learning? Educational psychology Review, 14(3), 261-312.

Paivio, A. (1971). Imagery and Verbal Processes. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.
Figure 2.
Lawhorn, V. (2001). Spanish countryside. Photograph.
Figure 3.

Weston, E. (1937). Mojave Desert. Photograph.
Figure 4.
Cameron, J. M. (ca.1865-1866). Mrs. Herbert Duckworth as Julia Jackson. Photograph.