Evocation: Bringing Your Reader into the Story

Why do we love reading stories?

There are certainly many answers to that question. But mine would be that we love reading stories because they transport us into another character’s life, and for however long we are reading, we are someone and somewhere else.

Good writing does that. It evokes in us as readers the story world and brings it to life.

Simple Definition of Evoke (from Merriam-Websters)

: to bring (a memory, feeling, image, etc.) into the mind

: to cause (a particular reaction or response) to happen

Evocation is important in writing fiction because we need our readers to be fully engaged with our story, to, for just a short while, be in our character’s head, feel what they are feeling, see what they are seeing. Evocation can bring to life setting, characters, mood, and even theme.

Consider this sentence:

Julia had a terrible morning.

Although it’s grammatically correct, it’s telling us what happened instead of evoking it in the reader’s mind. It’s vague. It doesn’t engage us.

Let’s try this one again.

At 8:00 a.m., Julia’s alarm finally went off, and she opened her sleep-caked eyes to a blaze of sunlight shooting through her window. Eight o’clock? She was supposed to already be leaving for work. In a breathless rush, she yanked her new pantsuit on, she dashed out the door, got into her Mini Cooper, and nearly took her foot off with the car door. “Dammit!”

As her foot throbbed, she screeched into the Quick Mart parking lot. Coffee, she needed coffee.

The line behind the self-serve coffee bar was five people deep. God, she was late enough as it was. She tapped her heel-clad foot on the linoleum until the construction worker in front of her let her go ahead.

“Let her through,” the man said. “She obviously needs that coffee.” He laughed a deep belly laugh that rumbled through Julia. On any other day, she would have laughed too. 

“Excuse me, excuse me,” she said, her voice terse as she slid her way through the crowd.

Amid dirty looks and huffs of annoyance, she finally made her way to the coffee stand, and as she pulled the lever to release that glorious brown liquid, it misfired, spraying scalding hot coffee all over her new white pantsuit. “Ugh,” she said, near tears now. “This is the worst morning ever.”

It’s a whole lot longer than Julia had a terrible morning, but it makes you feel more. It puts you smack dab in the middle of Julia’s horrific morning.

We evoke by adding details, dramatizing, being specific rather than general. It is vivid. When we evoke, we are drawing something from the reader’s imagination, calling upon their own experiences and images. With evocation, we draw out, rather than put in by simply telling. Both writer and reader use their imaginations.

Take this passage from Charles Dickens’s Bleak House:

Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable [sic] in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foothold at street corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at these points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest. 

Dickens could have said, “The street was muddy and soot drifted through the air” and left it at that. But instead, he evokes the setting for us. The details Dickens uses allows us to feel the mud, to see the bleak sky and the soot floating through the air. It pulls those images from our minds, allowing us to see and feel the setting and the dark mood. For the time we are reading, we are in the story.

The Dickens passage evokes setting, but what about character? Here’s a great example from Sherwood Anderson, thought by many to be a master at evoking character:

The knuckles of the doctor’s hands were extraordinarily large. When the hands were closed they looked like clusters of unpainted wooden balls as large as walnuts fastened together by steel rods. He smoked a cob pipe and after his wife’s death sat all day in his empty office close by a window that was covered with cobwebs. He never opened the window. Once on a hot day in August he tried but found it stuck fast and after that he forgot all about it. 

This passage evokes not only something about the doctor’s appearance, but something about his inner life, the way he thinks and feels, too.

As with all writing, try to be detailed but at the same time economical. Pages and pages of detail can get tedious, boring. Strive for balance. It’s better, however, to overwrite than to underwrite because you can always pare down in the revision stage. But it’s much harder to go back in and add.

Figurative Language

Using figurative language is another way to evoke. It adds richness, deepens meaning, and expresses feeling. Figurative language is like the brushstrokes in a painting. It adds yet another layer of artistry and enjoyment for the reader. But note that figurative language cannot just be plunked down into your prose, it needs to be woven into the story.

Metaphor: a word or phrase for one thing that is used to refer to another thing in order to show or suggest that they are similar (from Merriam-Websters).

: an object, activity, or idea that is used as a symbol of something else

Dying is a wild night and a new road. ~Emily Dickinson

Simile: a figure of speech comparing two unlike things that is often introduced by like or as (as in cheeks like roses)

 ” …flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes.” ~Charles Dickens

Personification:  attribution of personal qualities; especially:  representation of a thing or abstraction as a person or by the human form

“And farther west on the upper reaches the place of a monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.” ~Joseph Conrad

Allusion:  a statement that refers to something else

Don’t open up Pandora’s box.

So work with your reader. Call forth the images from their minds. Evoke. Because we read to be transported into a story; writers owe their readers the best experience they can give them.


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