Imagery in Literature: Tools for Imagination
Imagine the last book you read that you just couldn’t put down. Were you lost in another world? Did the author describe the characters and the scene so vividly that you felt as though you were a part of the story? This is all due to imagery, words, and phrases used to help the reader develop a mental image of the story throughout the novel. Imagery in literature is what helps draw readers in. Without descriptive phrases that allow you to picture a scene, how could you ever be engrossed in a story?
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Types of Imagery
There are seven distinct types of imagery: visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, kinesthetic and organic. Many of these deal with the five senses, which all work together to help us create mental images of whatever we are reading.
Visual imagery appeals to the sense of sight, and plays the largest role in imagery in literature. It describes what a scene or character looks like. If an author writes something such as, “The deep blue hues of twilight were reflected in the still water; the slight glint of moonlight peeked through the clouds just enough to make out the silhouette of a passing ship”, the reader can imagine a still, ocean scene at twilight as if they were standing on the edge of the water themselves.
Auditory imagery describes specific sounds that are happening within the story. This can be something like, “The rooster crowed at early dawn, a sign that it was time to start the day. John woke up, listening to the quiet murmurs of his children in the kitchen below; the clang of pots and pans signaled that breakfast was almost ready”. Can you hear the rooster? Are you imagining the clanging of pots and pans? How does this auditory imagery assist in your overall mental image of the scene? Even though the imagery here describes particular sounds, I’m imagining a man waking up in a quaint room in a log house and a rooster crowing at sunrise over a bright green field.
Auditory imagery could also appear in the form of onomatopoeia. Words such as “bang!” “achoo!” “cacaw!” all work to describe sounds that most people are familiar with.
Olfactory imagery describes a particular scent. Let’s say you’re about to bite into a warm, steaming plate of maple smoked bacon. How would that smell? An author may describe it as, “The sweet scent of maple wafted through the room, causing Stephanie to stop what she was doing and sniff the air. A second waft of scent carried the underlying smoky scent of bacon; a scent only bacon straight off the grill could have”. Is your mouth watering yet? Are you itching to get off of the computer and go cook up some bacon? Authors want you to be able to almost smell the scent coming off the pages. Describing the scent of a particular food can also help readers imagine how that food tastes, which brings us to the next type of imagery.
Gustatory imagery pertains to the sense of taste. Let’s say a fictional Jason is about to bite into a delicious cupcake, smothered in chocolate frosting. This experience may be described as, “Jason took one look at the cupcake in front of him and couldn’t wait another second – he stuffed it right into his mouth. The rich, sweet, sugary taste of chocolate ran over his taste buds as he chewed and swallowed the whole dessert in less than ten seconds”. I don’t know about you, but I’m really craving some chocolate now.
Tactile imagery appeals to the sense of touch. The feeling of a nice fuzzy blanket on a cold night, the smooth underside of a snake, the rough texture of tree bark. Anything you can touch can be described through imagery. The description of a bare hand on a mound of snow could be described as, “Sarah placed her bare hand on the cold snow. It was wet at first, then the frigid cold set in like a thousand needles, all pricking her palm at once”.
These last two types of imagery extend beyond the five senses. Kinesthetic imagery deals with the movement or action of objects or people. An example of kinesthetic imagery could be, “The birds flapped their wings in excitement, the promise of food so close. They sprung out of the tree, one by one, soaring through the branches and swooping down low to the pile of berries beneath the tree”. The flapping of the wings and the description of the way the birds fly down towards the ground helps the reader create an accurate visual image of the scene.
Organic imagery is the most difficult form of imagery to write, because it deals with creating a specific feeling or emotion within the reader. Phrases that make the reader feel sad, fearful, nostalgic, elated, even lost are all extremely effective organic imagery. Have you ever read a book that made you question your entire existence? Some authors have such a way with words that one simple sentence can resonate with you for years. A quote from Haruki Murakami has stuck with me for quite a while:
You might think you made a new world or a new self, but your old self is always gonna be there, just below the surface, and if something happens, it’ll stick its head out and say ‘Hi.’
– Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
The organic imagery in this quote is almost an indescribable feeling of your own sense of self. While organic imagery can certainly be simpler than this, it can be even more complex as well.
Creating the Story
A story simply cannot be told without imagery. How could you tell a story without evoking a particular emotion, setting the scene or describing a character? Every great author has known exactly what to say to help readers create visual images in their mind throughout the entire novel. Without the help of this literary device, readers would not find themselves immersed in another world; they would be left simply staring at words on a page.
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