Imagery Literary Device: Definition, Types, and Examples

  in Research   Posted on January 8, 2021

Best-selling authors have one attribute in common—they have a knack for using imagery as a literary device. That is, they expertly use figurative language to vividly represent ideas, actions, and objects to grab readers’ attention and keep them engrossed in a story. But, weaving imagery in such a way that it creates a sense of vividness or particularity is not easy-peasy. It takes some doing and persistent practice.

But, you cannot practice what you do not know. So, the first step to learning the ropes is to gain a complete understanding of imagery literary devices or techniques. Imagery is the use of literal and figurative language to create an impression and activate the imagination (Tompkins, Campbell, Green, & Smith, 2014).

To help you learn more about successful literary devices, this post will dissect imagery to reveal what it is and the different types that exist. It will also discuss the reasons why you should use imagery and provide helpful tips on how to add imagery in literature.

Imagery Literary Device Table of Contents

  1. What is Imagery?
  2. Types of Imagery
  3. Why Use Imagery?
  4. Tips on Writing Imagery

What is Imagery?

As human beings, we are hardwired to intrinsically understand the world through the senses—what we hear, smell, see, touch, or taste. To evoke this instinctive nature and help readers better understand literary work, novelists, poets, and storytellers use descriptive language that nudges the five human senses. This language is called imagery.

Imagery, in any sort of writing, encompasses the use of literal or figurative language to add symbolism and enable the reader to imagine the world of the piece of literature. In other words, it engages the senses to deepen the reader’s comprehension of what is happening and how to feel about it.

Here is an example of imagery in fiction:

He watched her accept Jake’s proposal. Regret gnawed at him like a hungry tiger, and he stormed off, slamming three dozen red roses into the trash. Why hadn’t he made his move yesterday? (Kole, 2017).

The above melodramatic description serves to awaken specific emotions playing out inside the character. Here, the author leverages different types of imagery evocatively, to help the reader visualize the scene and paint a mental picture of the emotional moment.

Imagery and Figurative Language

Imagery often benefits a lot from the use of figurative language, and because of this, many people confuse the relationship between the two. Actually, it is not uncommon to find people (and websites) describing imagery as a type of figurative language. The confusion is further compounded by some articles that describe imagery as the use of figurative language to write descriptions that engage the human senses.

To set the record straight, imagery is not a type of figurative language. Besides, even though it largely entails the use of figurative language, imagery can also be totally non-figurative (literal). So that brings up the question of what is the difference between literal and figurative imagery.

Literal Imagery vs Figurative Imagery

Literal language is the use of words solely by their primary or defined meanings. Put simply, a literal phrase means exactly what it says. For example, imagine for a second you are fishing and a friend of yours says “The fish is off the hook.” The phrase “off the hook” literally means that the fish is detached from the hook.

Figurative language, on the other hand, uses similes, hyperbole, metaphor, symbolism, and personification to describe something often by comparing it to something else. For example, when a suspect is cleared of all charges, they can exclaim “Thank God, I’m off the hook!”. Here, the phrase “off the hook”  is used figuratively to mean that the person is released from a difficult situation.

Comparing the two closely, literal imagery can be something like “The red bulb was glowing.” In figurative form, this can be written as “The soft glow came from the tiny setting sun, firmly fixated on the wall.”

figurative vs literal imagery

Types of Imagery

Whenever you read a piece of content, the clarity and attractiveness of the story boil down to the types of imagery used, and how well they are leveraged. What is more, this is applied not only to content that is read. When a friend is sharing a story, the vividness of the meaning is also heavily reliant on the use of imagery.

There are seven types of imagery used in writing and everyday speech. Many of these types deal with the five basic human senses, namely touch, taste, sight, smell, and hearing. Authors use the following imagery to entwine these senses and help readers create mental images of the story they are reading:

1. Visual Imagery

Visual imagery is the experience of mentally visualizing the appearance of something, usually without it being present (Albutt, Ling, Rowley, & Shafiullah, 2011). It is the most common and paramount imagery as it helps authors construct striking images of the scenery and characters in a story.

Visual imagery appeals to the sense of sight and it includes:

  • Color
  • Size
  • Shape
  • Pattern

For example, when an author writes something like “together, they sat at the expansive shoreline. The shimmering sun was sinking into the sea and, as it disappeared, he went down on one knee and popped out the red ring case.” The statement helps the reader conjure up an inner image of the romantic scenery, the characters, and the emotions overriding the event.

2. Auditory Imagery

Auditory imagery appeals to the sense of hearing. It describes what we hear from noise, music, and even pure silence. In the auditory modality, it is indicated that auditory imagery represents perceptual attributes of sounds such as pitch and loudness (Wu, Yu, Mai, Wei, & Luo, 2010).

Auditory imagery encompasses the following:

  • Enjoyable sounds (Music)
  • Noise
  • Silence or lack of noise

For example, “the trees rustled in rhythm as the wind whistled gently through the leaves.” The words “rustle” and “whistled” evoke the sense of hearing, and transports you to a scene in the middle of a forest.

3. Olfactory Imagery

Olfactory imagery is described as the ability to experience the sensation of a smell when the appropriate stimulus is absent (Lin, Cross, Laczniak, & Childers, 2017). When a smell is described so clearly, it rings the bells, thus awakening a sensory cue that triggers vivid memories and emotions.

Olfactory imagery includes:

  • Fragrances
  • Scent
  • Odors

For example, “The aroma of brewed coffee whiffed through the room, causing Virgil to stop what he was doing and sniff the air.” The reader can smell the scent of coffee coming off the pages. It follows, then, that memories and emotions that are associated with this smell are stirred almost instantly.

4. Gustatory Imagery

Gustatory imagery draws the attention of the sense of taste. Basically, it deals with the use of specific words that trigger the taste buds, sending the reader down a sensory highway associated with food craving. Actually, beyond visual and olfactory imageries, gustatory imagery is also introduced as a key component of food cravings (Shahriari, Torres, Zuniga, & Alfayez, 2018).

Gustatory imagery includes:

  • Spiciness
  • Sweetness
  • Sourness
  • Savoriness
  • Saltiness

For example, “the familiar tang of his grandmother’s cranberry sauce reminded him of his youth.” The word “tang” awakens the taste buds, and the reader can already imagine the strong flavors of the cranberry sauce stuffed right into the mouth.

5. Tactile Imagery

Tactile imagery is used to describe something by focusing on aspects that can be felt or touched. As such, it appeals to the sense of touch, and like other imagery devices, it is hugely significant in descriptive writing.

Tactile imagery includes:

  • Feelings of touch
  • Temperatures
  • Feeling of movement
  • Texture

For example, “while resting in the hammock strapped between two trees, John was enjoying the warmth of the soft, fuzzy blanket on a cold night….” Here, the mention of “cold night” most probably triggers goosebumps on the reader’s skin, but then, the “soft, fuzzy blanket” brings a mental simulation of the warmth enjoyed by the character.

The types of imagery mentioned above deal with the five senses. Beyond that, there are two forms of imagery that are not related to human senses but are also used in descriptive writing.

6. Kinesthetic Imagery

Kinesthetic is derived from the word kinetic, which means movement or motion. Kinesthetic imagery, therefore, is a type of imagery that describes the actions and movements of people or objects.

Kinesthetic imagery includes:

  • Actions that lead to touch (e.g., running fingers on soft, silk fabric)
  • Physical movement (e.g., fiddling with his car keys)
  • Temperature (e.g., the warm sunlight kissed her face)

For example, “She rummaged through the trash, tossing pieces of garbage out of the bin until she finally found the letter that her father accidentally threw away.” The phrases “rummaged through the trash” and “tossing pieces of garbage” are kinesthetic imageries used to describe the act of physical movement. It is used as a graphic technique to help the reader create an accurate visual image of the scene.

7. Organic Imagery

Finally, organic imagery is arguably the most difficult and complex form of imagery. This is primarily because it is subjective and it deals with directly creating specific emotions or feelings within the reader. In other words, organic imagery entails the use of words and phrases that make the reader feel elated, nostalgic, fearful, sad, hungry, tired, thirsty, and more.

Organic imagery includes:

  • Personal experiences of a character’s body
  • Internal sensations and emotions

The poignant moment below, in Robert Frost’s 1916 poem called Birches, shows how organic imagery can be used:

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.

And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

types of imagery

Why Use Imagery?

Any sort of writing—fiction or non-fiction, requires multiple ingredients to be coherent and deep yet lucid. One of the critical ingredients is imagery in the description.

The imagery brings better dialogues, plot, and right placing to your story. It allows you to furnish the reader with a photograph (about the story) in words to dispel insipidity. And without it, a work of fiction would be difficult to imagine, harder to put on paper, and almost impossible to connect with the readers. This partly explains the reasons why novelists, storytellers, and poets use imagery in literary works.

The sections below explore in great depth some of the pertinent reasons why people use imagery:

To Bring the Reader Into Your Story

Stephen King—a distinguished American author—once wrote, “imagery does not occur on the writer’s page; it occurs in the reader’s mind” (King, n.d). King’s statement encapsulates the first essence of using imagery, which is to create images in the reader’s mind.

Authors use imagery to transport the reader to a perceptual location where the story is taking place and become part of it. But, how is this achieved?

The human senses are the most basic gateway to perception—everything people perceive is entirely tied to one or more senses. This humanistic nature gives storytellers an opportunity to bring the reader to their stories through imagery—one of the strongest senses triggers.

Authors that have perfected the use of imagery, exceptionally strike the right chords using words and phrases. They know when and how to use an imagery literary device to engage the reader physically, mentally, and emotionally. In doing so, they capture the readers’ attention and keep them buckled up to the end of the story.

To Provide a More Vivid Description to Your Readers

Every literary work thrives on two elements: the scenery and the characters. Without proper descriptive words and phrases, the two are bland and stories built around them are insipid. But with imagery, authors can carve the perfect picture of the characters, settings, and situations.

Most importantly, imagery helps present this image so vividly that it triggers the reader’s imagination. Primarily, authors can use literal and figurative imagery to offer intrinsic details such as texture, color, background, positioning, and expression of the character, and weather. With the details, it becomes easy for the reader to understand who the characters are, visualize what they are doing, where they are, and even foreshadow the direction that the story might take.

Besides adding clarity to the fictive world, imagery sets the mode and tone of every scene. Literary devices such as simile, metaphor, onomatopoeia, and personification help beautify a piece of literature. With imagery, you can make a story tense, suspenseful, thrilling, and more. This way, the reader will have the tools to fully immerse into the story and experience it in a unique way.

Tips on Writing Imagery

As mentioned earlier, imagery helps you paint a clear picture in the reader’s mind. But, for this to happen, you must first learn when and how to use the imagery in writing. Whether you are a first time writer or a seasoned novelist, the following tips will help you use more vivid imagery in your manuscript.

Leverage sensory details

First and most importantly, learn how to leverage sensory details. Imagery is fantastic when used in literary work, there is no doubt about this, but if it does not nudge the reader’s senses, it is as good as lethargic. To bring the story to life and help the readers imagine your writing better, you should endeavor to tickle their senses.

Take for example this statement, “The girl rode her bike down the road.” Does this paint a clear picture in your mind? What about “The pony-tailed toddler rode her blue, plastic tricycle down the murram road.” The second statement paints a better picture of the character and the scene for the reader.

Further, instead of seeking to pique the reader’s senses, help the reader ride on the character’s senses. Using the character’s senses is an amazing concept that can add taste to the story. So, where possible, always try to hear through the character’s ears or see through his/her eyes.

Incorporate action-bearing words into your description

To make the story more interesting, you should spice it up with words that show the action by their true nature. Precisely, action-bearing verbs such as absorbed, cushioned, pointed, leaped, grasped, whispered, stabbed, slapped, cursed, and more, help convey the action better. In addition, one may also consider using action-bearing non-verbs (nouns or adjectives) as these can help infiltrate the readers’ minds and create images that hold them prisoners of your story.

action-bearing and non-action bearing words

Paint large pictures detail by detail

Another trick that works wonders is painting large pictures in small, crisp details. In other words, to help the reader’s brain process information faster and more precisely, paint verbal pictures in nibbles. The rule of thumb is to use no more than two sentences when describing your scenes. Most importantly, resist, by all means possible, writing long descriptions that draw the reader’s attention away from the main story.

Describe ordinary things through a different lens

Moreover, if you want to be a great novelist or storyteller, you should be ready to invest fresh viewpoints. Ordinary things described casually or using cliches make a story sound dull and flat. To create vivid imagery and capture the reader’s attention better, use descriptors that are totally unexpected.

For example, comparing a toothache with a fireworks display or perhaps describing the tastes of different food as if they were places you can visit. Alternatively, you can use words to describe something to probe senses that are not usually associated with it. For example, describing a lady’s hair as “mellow” or a baby as “brawny.”

Moreover, you can use exaggerations and overstatements that are not meant to be taken literally. Phrases such as “he is older than the hills” or “she was as skinny as a toothpick” help the reader understand how strongly you feel about something.

Specify descriptions to immerse your reader

The whole essence of using imagery in literary work is to help the reader paint a clear picture of events and characters in the story. To boost clarity, you must specify every description and take note of the finest details in the settings. Describe everything as is, leaving nothing to chance. Make the reader take note of the tiny indentation at the bottom of a wine glass, the scratches on a smartphone screen, or the small nubs of the treads of a new car tire.

Learn to Use Imagery to Show Your Story

William Shakespeare is inarguably the bestselling author of all time. It is estimated that 4 billion copies of his work are in circulation (Brown, 2020). Famous for his plays and sonnets, Shakespeare mastered imagery and applied it in books such as Macbeth and Merchant of Venice.

There is no doubt, the legendary bard of Avon is a familiar figure many authors look up to and want to emulate. To tread his way, you need to reach the dizzy heights of discipline, attention to detail, clarity, strong vocabulary, and creativity. For your stories to be clear and concise, however, you should learn how to use imagery.

Fortunately, by now, you already know the basics, imagery definition, types of imagery, and why authors use imagery. This information gives you a sterling headstart, which you can use to carve a name for yourself in writing. You do not have to be the best, but with practice, everything will finally fall into place and the use of imagery will become second nature.

Imagery may be the gateway to stunning and epic work of literature. It will beautify your work, and add particularity to every setting and character. This way, it will help you connect with the readers better and engross them in the story with ease.

References:

  1. Albutt, J., Ling, J., Rowley, M., & Shafiullah, M. (2011). The vividness of visual imagery and social desirable responding: correlations of the vividness of visual imagery questionnaire with the balanced inventory of desirable responding and the Marlowe–Crowne scale. Behavior Research Methods, 43, 791. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13428-011-0086-8
  2. Brown, J. R. (2020). William Shakespeare: English author. Britannica.
  3. King, S. (n.d). Imagery and the third eye. WordPlayer.com.
  4. Kole, M. (2017, May 2019). Imagery in writing to attract readers and deepen emotion. Kidlit.com.
  5. Lin, M., Cross, S. N., Laczniak, r. N., & Childers, T. L. (2017). The sniffing effect: olfactory sensitivity and olfactory imagery in advertising. Journal of Advertising, 47 (2), 97-111. https://doi.org/10.1080/00913367.2017.1410739
  6. Tompkins, G., Campbell, R., Green, D., & Smith, C. (2014). Literacy for the 21st Century (pp.430). Melbourne, Victoria: Pearson Australia. Google Books.
  7. Shahriari, E., Torres, I. M., Zuniga, M. A., & Alfayez, N. (2018). Picture this: the role of mental imagery in induction of food craving – a theoretical framework based on the elaborated intrusion theory. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 37 (1), 31-42.  https://doi.org/10.1108/JCM-02-2018-2553
  8. Wu, J., Yu, Z., Mai, X., Wei, J., & Luo, Y. (2010). Pitch and loudness information encode in auditory imagery as revealed by event-related potentials. Psychophysiology, 48 (30), 415-419. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-8986.2010.01070.x