Imagery in Literature: Tools for Imagination
Imagery is one of the most important techniques in fiction writing. It is how the author creates a mental image for the reader using descriptive language. This creates more engaging writing readers can’t put down. Imagery creates the mood or setting for the story. It’s important to understand imagery to build your writing skills. Learn how to use imagery in fiction and what you need to know about making the most of this technique.
What is imagery in literature?
Imagery is a lot like setting up a stage for a play. A writer sends his reader a series of cues that direct the reader’s attention to what story events mean. The cues are important because they act as motivation for the plot events. They also create an effect on the reading experience.
The images trigger an emotional reaction in the reader. Imagery does not only describe what something looks like or what a character feels. It also suggests and creates the context for understanding the rest of the story. For example, describing a dark and stormy afternoon sets the backdrop of conflict for any action that you have in your story. A simple conversation between two parents about their children on a stormy day seems to foreshadow trouble ahead. If the same conversation took place on a sunny day with freshly cut grass, the reader comes away with a totally different understanding. How is imagery used in literature?
Last Updated October 2020
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Imagery conveys an image that the reader can see and hear and feel. The portrayal of a character, place, or thing is so vivid that readers can not only see it but also almost smell it. How much detail determines what type of imagery you use in your writing. A few details create a specific image (a rose); many details paint a picture (a field of roses). The more details you include, the more effective the image becomes.
Types of imagery in literature
There are seven distinct types of imagery:
Many images 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. For instance, “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. For example, “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? The imagery here describes particular sounds. Readers imagine a man waking up in a quaint room in a log house and a rooster crowing at sunrise over a bright green field.
Olfactory imagery describes a particular scent. Let’s say you 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. The 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 almost to smell the scent coming off the pages. Describing the smell 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 wants to eat a delicious cupcake smothered in chocolate frosting. For example, “Jason took one look at the cupcake in front of him and couldn’t wait for 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 want 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 touch, you can describe 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 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. 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.
Examples of the types of imagery
|Visual imagery||The old book had water spots across its spine. Some of the pages yellowed.|
|Auditory imagery||The warden’s keys clanked as he walked past the cells.|
|Olfactory imagery||The air smelled salty, reminding me that the beach is nearby.|
|Gustatory imagery||The warm doughnut tasted sweet with hints of vanilla and strawberry.|
|Tactile imagery||The baby’s hair is soft and downy.|
|Kinesthetic imagery||The little boy ran down the street.|
|Organic imagery||The preschooler crossed his legs as he waited for his classmate to finish in the restroom.|
How to create imagery
Creating sensory imagery comes naturally to some authors and is extremely difficult for others. Take a look at some of your favorite books or poems and see how the author describes scenes or characters. If it’s easy to imagine what they’re describing, that author has mastered imagery. See if you can pick out examples of all seven types of imagery used in literature! The more concrete details you use, the easier it is for readers to create a vivid mental picture of what you wrote about.
Start by picking a scene or character and describing it in detail. You should include as many concrete details as possible, and avoid using general statements. For example, don’t say that a couple was sitting on the couch watching TV; instead, describe the scene. What is the couch made of? What color is it? How close do the people sit next to each other? Don’t say that a horse is brown; instead, describe the tail or mane of the horse.
A good description should include as many details as possible to give the reader a vivid image of what’s happening. Be descriptive. It’s too easy to skip over these details by relying on cliches and short common phrases to get across the meaning. A cliche is a phrase used so often that it stops being effective in writing and instead just blends into the background of the story.
For example, a common cliche is “happily ever after.” While a popular way to end a story, it doesn’t really give the reader an idea of what happened. Try to show the reader what happily ever after looks like:
- Do the characters get married?
- Do they bake warm cookies in their gorgeous home?
- Do they spend the rest of their lives together?
- Do their families support their relationship?
- Do they get a dog?
There are ways to convey happily ever after through imagery. You don’t need to actually use the words “happily ever after” to accomplish this.
Instead of relying on tired cliches, use concrete detail to create a vivid image of the scene. Be as detailed as possible to capture every aspect, smell, and feeling. You may want to consider using all seven types of imagery in your descriptions.
Using senses encourages readers to engage with what you write about, making it more personal and memorable for them. Remember, the more vivid the image you create, the easier it is for readers to see your scenes. The more descriptive you are in your writing, the better your writing tends to be.
Effects of imagery in literature
Imagery can have a big effect on your story. It can be used to describe characters, settings, and themes. Imagery can also be used to create a mood in your scenes and keep readers engaged. Fiction must keep its readers engaged and captivated if it is to be successful. Without this, readers will get bored and stop reading.
Literal vs. figurative imagery
Literal imagery describes something as it is. It’s word for word since there are no metaphors or similes used in the description. Figurative imagery, on the other hand, uses metaphors and similes to describe things. Instead of saying that someone is afraid, you could describe them as “the wind whistled past her ears like a low growl.” Obviously, the wind did not literally growl. In both cases, you must be descriptive.
Characteristics of effective imagery in literature
Good literature often shares certain qualities when it comes to imagery. This is part of what makes it effective. Effective imagery is:
- Capable of adding more information to the story
Examples of imagery in literature
Most of the iconic stories we know and love use imagery heavily. Here are some examples of imagery in literature to inspire you:
From Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein:
“I never saw a more interesting creature: his eyes have generally an expression of wildness, and even madness, but there are moments when, if anyone performs an act of kindness towards him or does him any the most trifling service, his whole countenance is lighted up, as it were, with a beam of benevolence and sweetness that I never saw equalled.”
In Shelley’s description of the creature, we can see its madness and lightness. Without the imagery, it would be difficult for the author to convey to readers how the narrator could tell the creature did not mean harm.
From Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:
“She went on growing, and growing, and very soon had to kneel down on the floor: in another minute there was not even room for this, and she tried the effect of lying down with one elbow against the door, and the other arm curled round her head. Still she went on growing, and, as a last resource, she put one arm out of the window, and one foot up the chimney.”
In this classic scene, readers feel like they’re with Alice as she grows to be enormous. The small details of how she had to put her arm out of a window only further describes the scene.
From Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes:
“A man entered who could hardly have been less than six feet six inches in height, with the chest and limbs of a Hercules. His dress was rich with a richness which would, in England, be looked upon as akin to bad taste. Heavy bands of astrakhan were slashed across the sleeves and fronts of his double-breasted coat, while the deep blue cloak which was thrown over his shoulders was lined with flame-coloured silk.”
In this example, it is easy to imagine the man that enters the room. We can see his clothing choice. This tells us a lot about the man, his economic status, and his style. It also tells us a lot about how the narrator views the world.
Related literary devices
Imagery is just one literary device that you can use. Other literary devices use imagery, too. These include:
- Flashbacks — a memory or a scene inserted into normal time. Flashbacks are often used to help readers understand the character’s past and the events that led up to the current point in time.
- Foreshadowing — hints or clues that lead to an event or character later in the story. Foreshadowing is frequently in mysteries and can create suspense and tension in your story.
- Symbolism — a means of expression or representation that has symbolic meanings. Symbols convey meaning and help readers connect with it.
- Simile — a comparison that uses a word such as “like” or “as” to make a point. For example, “My room was as clean as a whistle.”
- Metaphor — a comparison that uses a word such as “like” or “as” to make a point. For example, “My room was clean like a whistle.”
- Allusion — an implied reference to another piece of literature. They are often used in poetry or contain cultural references that speak to the time period when the author wrote the book.
- Personification — “to personify” means to give human characteristics to something that is not human.
- Onomatopoeia — a word that sounds like what it describes. For example, a cat meows and a mouse scurries.
- Juxtaposition — the placing of two or more things side-by-side to create a contrast. For example, a house in the middle of the desert surrounded by water.
Learn More About Literature from Udemy
Imagery is used in nearly all literature to some extent. Being the best writer that you can be requires the mastery of imagery. Doing so not only makes you a better writer, but it can also improve the experience for your readers. Learn more in our blog on sensory imagery.
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