A Beginner’s Guide to Sensory Imagery: Types and Examples
Believe it or not, we all use and read sensory imagery every day. By sensory imagery, we mean descriptive language that engages the reader’s five senses: sight, taste, touch, sound, and smell.
The next time you listen to someone talk about something that happened to them, listen closely to their story. Do they use exaggeration to give you a sense of how something felt or looked? Do they compare a sound to something impossibly loud or soft in a simile or metaphor? Do they slow down when describing things so that you can put together a clear picture of the situation in your mind? All of that is sensory imagery at work. People use sensory imagery when they tell stories without even realizing it.
But if you want to write your first book, create a great short story, or even improve your skill as a nonfiction writer, you need to understand more about imagery. In this article, we’ll explain how imagery works. You’ll also learn about the types of imagery that writers use to make their work more engaging to readers.
Last Updated October 2022
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What is sensory imagery?
Sensory imagery appeals to the senses of sight, taste, smell, touch, and sound to create a vivid and evocative picture in the mind of the reader. It is the hallmark of successful writers and poets, and it has been for centuries. If you can master these techniques, your writing will stand out and transport the reader straight into your world.
How sensory imagery works
To better understand how sensory imagery works, let’s read a very short story about pie.
“I like pie a lot. I really wanted to make a pie one day, but I didn’t have the ingredients. So, I went to the store and bought what I needed. Then I went home to make the pie. After the pie was done, I tasted it and really liked it.”
Do you know what happens in the story? Yes. But do you really feel like you were there? Not really. One way we can solve the issue is by adding some details. I could write about what kind of pie I made and list the ingredients. Or I could mention how I got to the store and how long I had to wait in the checkout line. But none of that would help make the reader feel like they were there with me. What’s missing is sensory imagery.
There are two main ways to talk about things that happen. First, we can list events in the order that they happen. This is called a plot in fiction writing or a sequence in nonfiction writing. Plots and sequences are important, but they’re not how people actually experience the world around them. Instead, people experience things subjectively through their senses. And most importantly, people remember their experiences by how they felt. In other words, sensory imagery is how people can relate to events that happen in a plot or sequence.
Let’s look at a sentence from the story and see how we could make it better with sensory imagery:
“I like pie a lot.”
With sensory imagery:
“I love pie. Whenever I smell the sweet aroma of buttery crust and spiced fruit, my mouth waters.”
Chances are that you can already start to smell the pie yourself and experience what I do. That’s how sensory imagery works.
Why use sensory imagery?
Sensory imagery helps readers join the world of the writer on their own terms. Instead of writing what the reader should think or know, writers use sensory imagery to provide clues about what’s going on. The reader can then make their own judgments and come to their own conclusions.
Remember that new line about that pie with its sweet aroma and buttery crust? Well, if you love pie, then reading that line might make your mouth water too. But even if you hate pie, you’ll react to reading this sentence. You might react negatively, but you’ll still react. Either way, you’re now engaged in my world as a reader. That’s why writers use sensory imagery.
Types of sensory imagery
Most people rely on sight when interacting with the world, so it’s easy to focus too much on visual imagery when writing a story. But when you describe other parts of an experience — how a food tastes or how a car sounds — you really bring life to your scenes.
Here are six common types of sensory imagery that writers use.
6 types of sensory imagery
Most writers are comfortable with visual imagery, which includes what you can see. Visual imagery focuses on the physical attributes of an object, person, or scene. Also part of visual imagery are:
- Lightness or darkness
- Shade or hue
Everyone needs to eat, and everyone has their favorite foods. Gustatory imagery focuses on how that food tastes. As you add gustatory imagery to your writing, remember that there are five basic tastes:
- Umami (savory)
Also, keep in mind that texture is as much a part of tasting as the basic tastes. Examples of food textures include:
- Dry vs. moist
- Tough vs. tender
- Thick vs. watery (for liquids)
Auditory imagery engages the reader’s sense of hearing. One way to do this is to describe the sounds (or lack of sounds) of a certain place, person, or object in your story. Examples of this include:
- Sudden noises, such as from a slamming door or breaking glass
- Pleasant sounds, such as from music or birdsong
- Background noise, such as from traffic, people talking, or the weather
- Irritating noises, such as buzzing, tapping, or squealing
- Lack of noise, such as a peaceful calm or a creepy silence
Another way to evoke auditory imagery is to use interjections to show when someone might suddenly say something loudly. Finally, writers can use literary devices such as onomatopoeia or alliteration to create sounds in their work. Examples of onomatopoeia include:
People are sensitive to scents and smells when they remember experiences. But while olfactory imagery can be a powerful type of sensory imagery, it’s also hard to write about. That’s why many writers use descriptive similes and metaphors to appeal to readers’ sense of smell. Writers often compare smells to familiar things such as:
And speaking of food, smell and taste are closely related, which is why gustatory and olfactory imagery use a lot of the same words.
Tactile imagery refers to anything you feel through your sense of touch. Most people have certain textures that they either love or hate to touch, and this is all part of tactile imagery. Common tactile sensations include:
- Where you can feel it (hands, feet, head, stomach, and so on.)
- Temperature (hot, cold, or lukewarm)
- Smooth vs. rough
- Soft vs. hard
- Slimy vs. sticky
- Blunt vs. pointed
We can’t exactly feel movement with our senses, but we can certainly perceive movement. Kinesthetic imagery focuses on the full-body movements of people, animals, and things. Examples of kinesthetic imagery include:
- Flowing water
- Cars rushing past
- A fast-moving, blurry object
- Something moving too slowly to perceive
Choosing the right words
Of course, it’s not enough just to describe your setting and characters with vivid sensory details. Whenever possible, choose adjectives, figurative language, metaphors, and similes that complement the mood of your story. In “A Game of Thrones,” George R. R. Martin describes his character with this phrase: “slender as a knife.” Of course, he could have said any number of things to describe his character: “slender as a toothpick,” “skinny as a stray cat,” or “slim as a stick,” but he didn’t. He chose an item that was relevant to his setting: a knife. And in doing so, he subtly reminds us that the fantasy world he has created is a dangerous one. When you’re choosing between adjectives and metaphors, choose one that reinforces the mood and tone of your story.
Sensory imagery tools
When working with sensory imagery, it can help to employ the time-tested rhetorical tropes used for centuries to help create memorable imagery in literature. Here are a few of the most common and most powerful strategies for enhancing your point.
- Anaphora: The use of repetition to emphasize a point. “He knew they never offered to help with the medical bills. He knew they had plenty of money. He knew it only made him angry to think about it.”
- Hyperbole: The use of exaggeration to bring home a point. “The groceries weighed a ton.”
- Understatement: Deliberately treating something of critical importance with little emphasis. “The birth was rather uncomfortable.”
- Idioms: A common expression or turn of phrase. While most writers shun the use of idioms or clichés — for example, “the elephant in the room” — writers can still use idioms to evoke powerful emotions or bring some humor to the story.
- Personification: Giving an inanimate object the qualities of something human. “The lamp breathed life into the parlor.”
- Synesthesia: Describing one sensory experience in terms of another. “The mood was orange.” “His voice was red with rage.”
- Syllepsis/Zeugma: Using the verb of a phrase to apply to two distinct components of that phrase even though it only logically applies to one: “He switched off the light and his love for Erica.”
- Metonymy: Describing a whole by only a part, such as mentioning a finger to represent the body. “Lend me your ears.” “Give me a hand.”
Improve your writing with sensory imagery
Whether you’re not sure how to make your first novel more engaging or just want to improve your writing in general, using more sensory imagery, whether through similes and metaphors or one of the other strategies talked about here, will bring more life to your writing. And if you’re looking to bring your writing to the next level, try a creative writing online course and learn from the most successful writers around the world.
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