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What Is Imagery?

By Meg Higa
Updated May 23, 2024
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Imagery is a technique of writing which uses descriptive language to engage the reader’s senses. The most common is visual. A good description can employ words of color, light and texture to conjure a mental image within the reader. Skillful writers can achieve the same effect with any of the human senses, eliciting both physical and emotional reactions to well chosen words. The objective is to tap the universal experiences of human beings, and by recalling them in the mind of a reader, to immerse him into the illusionary world created by the written word.

This descriptive language is used to activate the five human senses in a reader: vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch. A sentence that can give a reader a sense of touch might be, "Within seconds, her clothes were pasted to her damp skin." Other less conventional “senses” and emotional states can also be targeted with this writing technique. The term kinesthetic imagery has been used broadly to include descriptions which evoke movement, space, temperature and other physical senses. Organic imagery is another catch-all term applied to sensations of being, such as fatigue, nausea and hunger.

There are many purposes for the use of imagery in addition to inducing a physical reaction in the reader. If the reader also has a past personal experience with the description, it may also recall the emotions associated with it. Effective descriptions establish an environment or circumstance, a setting or mood. Clever writers or those with exceptional skill in the technique can imbed depth and layers of additional meaning to a description that may even be beyond the awareness of a reader.

Poetry is a genre of literature that relies heavily on imagery. With a minimum of words, the poet must make an emotional connection with readers. It has often been said that a smell can trigger past memories and their emotional context. A good poet might be capable of describing a smell so convincingly that a reader’s brain is tricked into thinking the smell is real, eliciting deeply seated primal emotions. Whether for poetry or for prose, effective use of this literary technique requires attentive observation of nature and human behavior.

Closely related to imagery are figurative expressions. They include similes, metaphors, allusions, personification and more. A simile typically uses the words “like” or “as” to establish an analogy between two different ideas or things as having one characteristic or dimension in common. “My brother’s devious smile was like a hungry shark,” is an example. A metaphor is more direct and normally does not use such overt words of comparison. “Her smile was a tempting bait with unseen tripwires.”

Imagery is generally a literal description. Figurative expressions are, as a rule, never literal. One way to deploy the technique called personification is to endow an object with human traits, such as in, “The museum spoke of the events and progression of an ancient era.” An allusion is also an effective literary technique, but it often presumes a collective knowledge on the part of the reader. The descriptive comparison, “My third grade class was a Mongol horde at the museum,” is only effective if the reader has some evocative idea of how a Mongol horde might look and act.

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Discussion Comments

By bluedolphin — On Jan 31, 2015

Imagery doesn't always have to be about describing things. There is also something called symbolic imagery, which is more like ironic imagery. This is when something turns out different than expected. The writer can use images that have double meanings or use images and symbols that are not outright apparent. We can come to know later that the author meant something else.

There can be a lot of excitement reading and understanding this type of imagery. It requires thought and analysis and a comprehension one step above the norm. It's mentally stimulating, I enjoy it a lot.

By SarahGen — On Jan 30, 2015

@turquoise-- Some imagery is nice, but if it's used too much, then it can be overwhelming. Imagine a line like "The blue waters desperately and fiercely attacked the vulnerable, gray rocks, tearing them away slowly and patiently like a beautiful mother awaits the birth of her heaven scented child." Yes, we get a lot of images in our mind about what this would look like. But imagine every sentence being like this? It would be unbearable to read.

I think imagery works best when it's used scarcely and only when it's really necessary.

By turquoise — On Jan 30, 2015

I'm an avid fiction reader and have read much of the fiction novels on the market. I've noticed that I am more fond of authors who use a lot of imagery in their writing. I think that imagery allows the reader to form a connection with the writer, and also the characters, places and events. It all seems so personal as though it is happening to me or has happened to me. It's sort of like the writer opens a window into a new realm and describes what exactly we're seeing, hearing, feeling.

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