Painting a Vivid Image: Imagery in Robert Shuster’s “The Existence of the Opposite”

by Elizabeth Howell

I’ve always appreciated reading vivid details within a story, those descriptive scenes or images that allow you to put yourself into the story. I think the ones in which I remember best, the stories I enjoyed most, were the ones that allowed me to see what was going on around the characters within the story. Whether I’m working on a story I plan to post on Fanfiction or I’m crafting an original story for my own pleasure or even a class, I find that I just can’t seem to help incorporating as much imagery as I can when I get the chance. I like to feed my readers little morsels of the real meat of the story. The scenes in which characters interact, even if it’s just through dialogue, can still be made into a scene for your audience. You can describe a person based on their appearance, their personality, their quirky little habits, their body language or facial expressions. I was often shocked to receive praise on Fanfiction for this very reason. The readers “just love” my portrayal of the characters in my stories because they could imagine it all playing out in their head.

In Shuster’s story, the author incorporates several instances of imagery. While some are rather gruesome, detailing the images of the corpses of those lost in an ongoing war, others help to describe the men who have passed on from their lives before the war. He writes this scene, portraying Savic’s character before the war: “… to be drunk, he always insisted, from snifters as big as vases which all but disappeared in the cradle of his huge, stupid hands.” Another scene we see him captured in is as follows: “… his lips shiny with grease, sloppy as a dog’s, and the sauce always dripping onto his sweater.” Savic is portrayed as being a character that has great pride and likes to think of himself as a “survivor of tragedy” – though the fact that he does not survive the tragedy of war is quite ironic – and a great lover of alcohol. Just a paragraph later, we see that the woman he was having an affair with imagined him as such: “He would be lying there like a butchered steer, as hard as freezer meat, in pieces maybe…” In these instances, we are shown what this man was like before the war and what he would be reduced to after the tragedy he couldn’t survive.

However, it is not simply the characters that we’re given vivid details of. Scenery is another part of the story that is painted quite descriptively. In the city where the women meet the Red Cross bus driver, the writer paints this picture of their surroundings: “The scorched roofs became black again, craters opened, and the remnants returned – a wristwatch, five cubes of chewing gum still wrapped, a torn umbrella, the unclaimed bone of a child’s finger.” Later, we see the gruesome account of one of the women helping clean up the streets after an attack: “She had helped scoop up intestines scattered across a roadway like streamers dropped in a parade, she’d touched skin made into paper from God-knows-what disease…” These scenes paint a very haunting image for the reader to understand just how brutal and horrific the war is. It allows them to picture things from the survivors’ perspectives.

The weather can also be a key element in toying with imagery. Shuster’s use of winter landscapes is rather unforgettable in this story. Two particular sentences stood out to me while reading this story: “A light spring snow was falling, wide flakes that descended so slowly as to make one feel drawn down, sleepy. The trees and the muddied road were becoming ghosts of themselves.” The imagery this writer uses here is quite fitting, considering the fact that these women are now stuck, desperately trying to find their lost loved ones to confirm that they are, in fact, dead and seek some form of closure. When the Red Cross driver stops the bus because he finds a sign posted, warning them that there are mines ahead on the road, they all climb out and take a look around. The bleak setting matched the overwhelming defeat the women felt.

Imagery is a very powerful tool that any writer can use to boost the mood of their story and hook their audience. While it might not always be rainbows and butterflies, the use of imagery helps encourage the readers to imagine the world that the characters are in. It allows them to go on a little journey with these characters and experience the scenes and surroundings within the story, making it one of the most essential elements of writing.