What is imagery?

what is imagery red text over lightened image of a paintbrush with red splatters on white background
Date Posted:
3/9/2022

Ok, writers. Let’s go back to basics. Voltaire famously said, “Writing is the painting of the voice,” meaning it is the task of the writer to show the reader something—a scene, an object, a view, a character, anything that can be described. We do that describing through imagery.

What is imagery?

Imagery is one of the most important literary devices or tools in the writer’s tool box.  Because literature (stories, poems, memoirs) is the written expression of a human condition, we as writers must draw on what makes us human to convey these experiences in the hopes of making a connection with the reader.

According to Literary Devices,

“Imagery is a literary device that refers to the use of figurative language to evoke a sensory experience or create a picture with words for a reader. By utilizing effective descriptive language and figures of speech, writers appeal to a reader’s senses of sight, taste, smell, touch, and sound, as well as internal emotion and feelings. Therefore, imagery is not limited to visual representations or mental images, but also includes physical sensations and internal emotions.”

To break that down: descriptive language + senses and emotions = imagery.

Now, I’m no math expert, but I like knowing what parts make up the whole. We probably know about senses and emotions, but what do we mean by figures of speech? 

At its core, a figure of speech is usually a simile, metaphor, or hyperbole, and can be literal or figurative.

Examples of figures of speech

An example: 

 

Literal Simile: Her hair was like the color of burnished copper.

Figurative Simile: Her hair was like a sunset on a desert.

 

In the previous examples, we have a figure of speech and senses, but what about emotion? 

 

Literal Simile: Her hair, like her Grandma Ruth’s, was like the color of this copper kettle, the one Mary would take with her whether Mom liked it or not. (emotion is nostalgia)

Figurative Simile: Her hair shimmered like a sunset in Death Valley, but he was sure she was just a mirage. (emotion is certainty, perhaps sadness or longing that she isn’t real or present)

 

Here are some more examples from one of the reigning champions of literary device, Shakespeare:

 

“There’s daggers in men’s smiles.” Macbeth

 

“And thus I clothe my naked villainy

With odd old ends stol’n out of holy writ;

And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” Richard III

 

“If I be waspish, best beware my sting.” The Taming of the Shrew

 

An imagery writing exercise

Choose a sentence below and add senses and emotion plus a figure of speech of your choice. Use that sentence to kickstart a poem or short story.

 

Jacob’s room smelled bad. 

My grandmother’s locket is old. 

I found a cat in the lane. 

She wished she could visit the ocean.

He would never get on a plane and no one could make him. 

They walked a mile together, then parted ways. 

I was late to work again. 

She forgot to catch fireflies. 

 

What did you think of this little lesson on imagery? Will you try the writing exercise? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: What is a prose poem?

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