Imagery (ih-MUHJ-ree) is a literary device that allows writers to paint pictures in readers’ minds so they can more easily imagine a story’s situations, characters, emotions, and settings. A good way to understand imagery is to think of the word imagination. Writers form strong images by being specific and concrete and using language to appeal to the readers’ five senses.
The word imagery originates from the Old French imagerie, meaning “figure” (13 c). Imagery first appeared in English in the middle of the 14th century.
Types of Imagery
While people generally think of imagery as something that can be seen, literary imagery actually pertains to all five senses.
- Visual imagery: This draws on the sense of sight to create pictures in readers’ heads; for example, “Her lips glistened red like ripe cherries.” Writers invoke color, size, etc., to help readers visualize scenes more vividly.
- Auditory imagery: This evokes the sense of sound. It often involves the use of onomatopoeia, when words mimic the sound they represent: “The alarm clock beeped.” Sounds can help describe any auditory moment, such as dialogue in how one talks or a noisy setting like the roaring ocean. Depending on how the sound is expressed, it enhances mood, such as chaos, tension, or tranquility.
- Olfactory imagery: Phrasing that makes use of the sense of smell is olfactory imagery; for example, “He smelled like the ocean, salty and fresh.” Because smell is heavily linked to memory, writers may use olfactory imagery to recreate a certain mood or feeling for readers.
- Gustatory imagery: This involves the sense of taste; for example “The salty-sweet caramel melted on her tongue.” These images can be literal—for example, the taste of a food or beverage—or evoke an emotion (“metallic taste of fear”) or a situation’s mood (“honey-sweet kiss,” “sour bile in her mouth”).
- Tactile imagery: This style of imagery appeals to readers’ sense of touch; for example, “The velvety moss covered the forest floor.” Tactile imagery often involves textures and physical traits (rough, smooth, itchy, sharp, dull), temperature (warm, freezing, humid), and movement (galloping, swimming, hugging).
How Imagery Is Formed
Writers create imagery by adhering to the adage “Show, don’t tell.” Instead of using simplistic, dull exposition to explain a scene, writers use clear, descriptive language that appeals to readers’ five senses.
Take the following sentence:
- “The baby is cute.”
While this sentence provides information about the baby’s appearance, readers have no concrete details about what attributes the baby possesses that make it cute. Instead of being able to picture the baby, readers must trust the writer’s value judgement.
Now, consider this revised sentence:
- “The baby was as pudgy as a marshmallow and had giant brown eyes.”
Now, the writer uses visual imagery to describe the baby so readers can clearly picture it in their heads. As opposed to the original sentence’s vagueness, the new sentence is specific and detailed.
Adjectives can be a writer’s best friend when it comes to creating strong, vivid descriptions, including characteristics like age, texture, color, and scent. Writers present all this information so that readers can imagine exactly what they intend.
- No adjectives: “The apple is on the table”
- Specific adjectives: “The bruised, green apple is on the table.”
The Effects of Imagery
Because imagery involves the five senses, it allows readers to feel as if they are experiencing what the writer is describing. Therefore, readers can better connect with the characters and situations, as well as reflect on their own lives and experiences. This makes reading feel more vivid, active, and personal. Writing that uses strong imagery ensures readers will keep paying attention.
Imagery can often be symbolic. When a certain image or detail is repeated throughout a piece of writing, the writer may want readers to link it to a larger theme in the work.
- A burning candle to evoke how brief life is
- A setting sun to symbolize a death or ending
- A long road to suggest life’s journey
When images are frequently used, they can become clichés, overused phrases or imagery that is considered hackneyed or commonplace. Common clichés include:
- Red like a rose
- Sweet as honey
- Black like night
- Cold as ice
Readers lose interest when something is described in a way they have seen or heard many times before. Because of this, good writers avoid clichés. Instead, they create fresh, new images.
Literal Imagery vs. Figurative Imagery
In addition to evoking the five senses, imagery can fall into two general buckets: literal and figurative.
Literal imagery describes things exactly as they are without hidden or symbolic meaning. This is also called descriptive imagery. Writers often use adjectives to create literal imagery.
- “The sky was periwinkle blue with a few scattered, wispy clouds.”
- “Her strong perfume gave me a headache.”
- “The blanket was soft and”
Figurative language uses strong comparisons to go beyond words’ literal meanings and presents information in a new way. Imagery created using figurative language is also referred to as “poetic imagery.”
- “The sky was as blue as the ocean and the clouds sailed across it like white boats.”
- “Her perfume smelled like a garden of fresh roses in bloom.”
- “The blanket was as soft as cat’s fur.”
Figurative Imagery and Other Literary Devices
Figurative imagery is often associated with figures of speech—literary devices that intentional deviate from words’ literal meaning to embellish the language.
Common figures of speech that invoke powerful images include:
- Simile: A simile is an explicit comparison between two or more similar things. When constructing a simile, writers use the words like or as to make the comparison clear: “The sun was as yellow as an egg yolk.” The image of an egg yolk to describe the sun emphasizes its deep, strong color.
- Metaphor: A metaphor is an implicit comparison between two or more things. Metaphors do not require the use of like or as because they imply the compared objects are exactly the same. Consider these lines from Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Metaphors”: “An elephant, a ponderous house / A melon strolling on two tendrils.” Plath uses the images of an elephant, a house, and a melon walking to describe the uncomfortable sizes pregnant women experience.
- Synecdoche: A synecdoche is a figure of speech wherein a part stands in for the whole. For example, performers may refer to the stage as “the boards.” Theater stages are often made of wood, so while the synecdoche only invokes an image of the stage’s wooden boards, readers know the entire stage is being referenced.
- Personification: Personification is the representation of an abstract concept in human form. This literary device is frequently misunderstood. People often believe personification is when writers give human characteristics to a nonhuman thing (e.g., “the wind sighed sadly”), but that is only part of what personification encompasses. The Grim Reaper is an example of personifying a concept; it allows the reader to visualize death as an ominous person. Additionally, personification occurs when a writer gives an object more animation than it already possesses: “The yellow fog rubs its back upon the window-panes.” This example is both visual and tactile; readers can picture the fog as if it is an animal and therefore imagine how softly it touches the windows.
Examples of Imagery in Literature
1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
In the last sentence of the classic novel, narrator Nick Carraway tells the readers:
So we beat on, boats against the current, born ceaselessly back into the past.
Fitzgerald employs visual imagery through the use of metaphor, comparing people to boats. Like vessels in the water, people try to move forward in their lives, but the efforts and optimistic dreams of the future are ultimately futile because the powerful influence of the past push back harder, like a strong current.
2. Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring
In the Prologue to her dystopian novel, Hopkinson uses visual imagery to describe the setting by saying:
Imagine a cartwheel half-mired in muddy water, its hub just clearing the surface. The spokes are the satellite cities that form Metropolitan Toronto: Etobicoke and York to the west; North York in the north; Scarborough and East York to the east. The Toronto city core is the hub.
Hopkinson evokes the image of a cartwheel to allow readers to visualize the setting’s geographic layout. This imagery also connects to an older era of farming to set up the broader context of a dystopian future where Hopkinson’s characters have returned to an agrarian lifestyle to survive.
3. Sandra Cisneros, “Puro Amor”
In this short story, Cisneros uses tactile imagery to illustrate the close bond between the character Missus and her pets. While Missus sleeps, the dogs are:
[…] warming her back, radiating heat like meteorites […]
This simile compares the dogs’ warmth against Missus’s back to the heat of meteorites. This hyperbolic description also expands on the dogs’ warmth by lending an otherworldly quality to it. To Missus, the dogs are a heavenly presence.
4. William Shakespeare, Othello
In Act III, Scene iii, Iago tells Othello to beware of jealousy, calling it the:
green-eyed monster which doth mock
the meat it feeds upon.
This personification of jealousy makes the audience understand how powerful and dangerous the emotion truly is. When Othello eventually succumbs to his jealous rage, the audience can more easily understand how this monster of jealousy overcame his feelings of tenderness for his wife Desdemona.
Describing the monster as “green-eyed” does double duty. It allows the audience to imagine the monster more vividly, and the color green, commonly used to depict jealousy, helps reinforce the play’s central theme.
5. Helen Macdonald, H Is For Hawk
In this memoir about her father’s death, Macdonald describes a hawk she is taming with olfactory imagery:
The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills the house with scent.
This simile allows readers to understand how the hawk’s untamed nature permeates Macdonald’s house. Much like the scent of fresh lilies can take over an enclosed space, so too does the hawk’s primitiveness overwhelm her home’s civility.
6. Cecilia Ekbäck, Wolf Winter
In Part One of this historic novel about Swedish Lapland, teenage Frederika uses auditory imagery when she remembers going fishing with her father:
The river poured from his lifted oars with the sound of waterfalls.”
This description allows the reader to hear the water’s movement as her father rows. The word “waterfalls” also evokes a visual image of the water sliding off his oars.
7. Mary Oliver, “Mushrooms”
Near the opening of this poem, Oliver describes how mushrooms sprout in the wild:
red and yellow skulls
This metaphor compares mushroom caps to skulls, producing a strong image of the mushrooms’ round, smooth shape. This is also a symbolic warning of how dangerous wild mushrooms can be; since many mushrooms are poisonous, sampling them can be fatal.
Further Resources on Imagery
In “Learning Image and Description,” poet Rachel Richardson shows aspiring writers how to create strong images in their work.
Jack Smith demonstrates how to create deeper meaning and poetic beauty in his essay “Figurative language in fiction: putting words to work.”
Mary Oliver’s book A Poetry Handbook contains an excellent chapter on imagery.