What pulls a reader into a story? Is it strong, relatable characters? Fantastic settings? Or is it a deep, universal theme that hits your reader on a visceral level?
These literary devices are all super important for creating a work that people love to read, but often what really draws in a reader is imagery; the vivid way in which we show the reader the world of our story. Imagery is what brings your story from the distant somewhere else into the here and now.
What is imagery in writing?
Imagery is a literary device that uses descriptive language to create a mental snapshot for the reader. This can be used to give context to the events of your story, to immerse your reader in an unfamiliar setting, to communicate mood and tone for a particular scene, or to create an emotional response in your reader.
You can create imagery that activates all of the reader’s senses, not just the visual sense. Sound, smell, taste, touch, and movement all help to create vibrant scenes that make the reader feel as if they were there. When your reader begins to feel like they’re a part of the world of your story, that’s when they start to invest in the characters, events, and big picture themes that you’re working to communicate through your writing.
How is imagery different from symbolism?
Imagery and symbolism are two literary devices that sound kind of similar because they both use images to communicate with the reader. But they’re not quite the same. The biggest difference between imagery and symbolism is that imagery engages the reader on a sensory, emotional level, and symbolism engages the reader on a more intellectual level.
Imagery uses all of our senses to create a vivid picture of a person, place, object, or moment for the reader. For example, consider this use of imagery to describe a box:
The box full of letters is made of metal that’s painted bright red, heavier than it looks and cold to the touch. The metal is smooth except for one place near the lock, which is rough with scratches where someone once tried to pry it open. There’s a handle on top that squeaks when you try to lift it because of the rust that’s starting to form where the handle joins the lid.
Can you see the box clearly in your mind? That’s imagery at work.
Compare that to symbolism, which is when a writer attributes an underlying meaning to a person, place, or object. This brings depth to your story and helps communicate underlying themes and ideas. If you’re using symbolism, you might say that the letter box is a symbol of a couple’s growing resentment to each other—the vivid color makes it impossible to ignore, it weighs them down more than they’d like to admit, and their relationship is beginning to corrode because of it.
Using imagery and symbolism together like that is very effectively for create strong, emotional connections for the reader.
Literal vs. figurative imagery
When we talk about imagery, we’re really talking about two distinct devices: literal imagery and figurative imagery. Let’s look a little closer at each one.
1. Literal imagery
Literal imagery uses descriptive language to show something exactly the way it is, using ideas that we can see, hear, and touch. When we described the box above as red, cold, heavy, smooth, and squeaking, we were using literal imagery— straightforward, unadorned words to create a realistic idea in the reader’s head. This technique can be very powerful because it uses language that we already have a clear reference for. This makes the scene more real and tangible for the reader.
2. Figurative imagery
Figurative imagery uses descriptive literary devices like similes, metaphors, and hyperbole to create a vivid picture for the reader. Rather than telling them exactly what they’re seeing in the world of your story, figurative imagery allows them to create their own image out of your words. Using figurative imagery, we could describe the box as “red as a gaping wound,” or “heavy as an elephant,” or say that holding it is like “reaching into icy water.” This kind of language can create a strong emotional response in the reader.
Many authors favor one type of imagery over the other—what type of imagery you most resonate with is an important part of your writer’s voice. Finding a comfortable balance of both literal and figurative imagery in your writing is ultimately one of the things that makes a great writer.
Types of imagery to use in your story
Effective imagery uses all of the senses to create a detailed world for your story. Most of us rely mainly on our eyes to take in information, but as a writer, you have a whole range of senses to explore. Every one of them can be used to bring your reader deeper and deeper into your story world.
1. Visual imagery
Visual imagery encompasses everything that we can see. Colors, shapes, sizes, proportions, angles, edges, textures, and contrast are all different things you can communicate with visual imagery. Saying that a man stood half in and half out of shadow, his wool collar turned up against his face and his hair turned golden by the lamplight, is an example of using different aspects of visual imagery to create a clear scene.
2. Auditory imagery
Auditory imagery is everything that we hear. Next to our eyes, our ears tell us the most about our environment. Your characters might hear other voices, nearby traffic, music coming from a neighbor’s apartment, water dripping through pipes, the knocking of an air conditioner, branches rustling, distant machinery, a keyboard clattering, or the soft rustle of the turning pages of a book. Using auditory imagery can reveal surprising things about your story and convey new information to your characters, as well as immersing your readers deeper into the scene.
3. Gustatory imagery
Gustatory imagery is the imagery of taste. What and how we taste is one of the most important ways in which we define culture, and often one of the first things people become aware of when immersing themselves in cultures outside of their own. You can use gustatory imagery to describe the way food tastes, of course, but also the way the air tastes in a new environment, the way blood tastes if you accidentally bite your tongue, the taste of plastic and ink as you chew the end of your pen in thought. You can also use gustatory imagery in a metaphorical way, as well as in a literal one; for example, the way a new love affair might taste of honeyed sweetness but an argument might taste bitter and acidic.
4. Olfactory imagery
Olfactory imagery is the imagery of scent. More than any other sense, our sense of smell is deeply linked to the way we form and perceive memory. In your story, using olfactory imagery is an easy way to link different times and places. Olfactory memories can be pleasant, or they can be less so; your characters memories might be triggered by the smell of lavender like they used to smell in their childhood garden, by the smell of hot concrete in the sun as they remember the events of a particularly hot day, by the smell of burning toast that brings them back to a traumatic event, or by the fragrance that a loved one used to wear, even if your character hasn’t thought about them in decades.
5. Tactile imagery
Tactile imagery encompasses our sense of physical contact. For many people, touch is the sense we subconsciously trust the most; it’s easy to doubt the things you see and hear, but if it can be tangibly felt by your bare skin, it becomes real in an unequivocal way. Things like a baby’s skin, a man’s unshaven face, the rough fabric of a tweed coat, slimy cough medicine, a warm teacup, or the cold surface of a window are all ways to use tactile imagery to create an emotional impact. How do different textures bring back memories and elicit feelings?
6. Kinesthetic imagery
Kinesthetic imagery is related to tactile imagery, but it specifically refers to the feeling of movement. These can be things like hair blowing across your face in the wind, a rope slipping slowly from your grasp, the discomfort of shifting an aching muscle, the feeling of bread dough being kneaded in your hands, or the feeling of shoes beginning to drag across the sidewalk after a very long walk. This type of imagery reflects one state changing to another, and is often used in moments where something is being created, broken, found, or lost.
7. Composite imagery
Composite imagery is a device that uses contradictory senses to create an image or feeling. These are always figurative, rather than literal. For example, you could say, “kissing her tasted like sunlight,” mixing gustatory imagery with tactile and visual imagery; or, “his voice sounded like splintered wood,” mixing auditory imagery with tactile imagery. This literary device uses metaphors to create surprising connections and shows your reader what’s happening in a fresh way.
Examples of evocative imagery in literature
1. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
Something stung his left hand. He slapped at it, expecting to see an insect. He looked down to see a pale yellow leaf. It fell to the ground with a rustle. On the back of his hand, a veining of red, wet blood welled up. The wood whispered about them.
This moment opens with tactile imagery in the feeling of being stung and then the slapping of skin on skin. Then Gaiman shows us, through visual imagery, the conflict of what the character expected to see and what he really saw. The verbs “rustle” and “whispered” add a powerful auditory layer to this vibrant scene.
2. The Strawberry Thief, by Joanne Harris
The dry reek of cigarettes has become the scent of burning leaves; the sweet and simple bonfire scent of autumn nights by the fireside. The chocolate is cooler now: the silky consistency has returned. I return the pan to the burner. Tiny petals of steam lift from the glossy surface.
This author uses olfactory imagery to marvelous effect as she shows the subtle change from one moment to another. Then the moment moves into visual imagery as it explores the contrasting textures of the chocolate and the steam, taking us effectively from the negative “reek of cigarettes” to the more pleasant-sounding “tiny petals of steam.”
3. The Little Sister, by Raymond Chandler
I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights.
This is another example of an author who effectively uses imagery in juxtaposition, showing the city’s worst and best qualities side by side. He uses olfactory imagery to express the negative in a poetic and imaginative way, and then lays down the positive aspect through very simple visual imagery focusing on the brightness of the lights around him.
4. An Irish Country Girl, by Patrick Taylor
She smiled, but her smile soon fled when she heard a very different noise. It was wind howling through bare-branched trees. The walls of the kitchen became blurred, the range and stove vanished, there were no cooking smells, only a chill in her nostrils. Maureen saw flakes, whirling and flying, and small sheep huddled against a gale.
Here Taylor uses auditory imagery to take the character and the reader from a lighthearted moment into a much darker one. He uses olfactory imagery very powerfully by describing an lack of smells, rather than ones that are present, and visual imagery to pick out just a few poignant details that make the scene come to life.
5. The Wild Swans, by Jackie Morris
The lower floors were warm from the kitchen fires and rich with the scent of baking and roasting, bright with the bustle of busy working. The higher floors danced with the light that flooded in through the casement windows.
Morris blends different types of imagery to create a single moment full of light and life. She uses tactile imagery in showing us that the rooms are warm, olfactory imagery in the foods that are being prepared, kinesthetic imagery in the bustle of workers and the dancing light, and visual imagery in describing the fires and the way light falls through the windows. In this example, several types of imagery are effortlessly entwined at once. Can you feel the powerful effect of all of these types of imagery used simultaneously?
How increasing your sensory awareness will make you a better writer
Here’s a fun, easy exercise to help you develop your writer’s muscles and create stronger imagery for your story.
Go sit somewhere away from home, like a park, shopping mall, or café. Bring a notebook with you so you can record your observations. Get settled and make six headings in your notebook, one for each of the imagery types we looked at above. What you’re going to do is try to focus on your environment using only one sense at a time. Begin with any sense you feel like, except visual—because human beings are so reliant on their visual sense, it’s best to leave that one for the very end and challenge yourself to experience the world through your other senses first.
Close your eyes and use the sense you picked to pay attention to the world around you.
What do you hear? Are there people talking close by, fountains bubbling, espresso machines grinding, dogs barking, wind rustling the treetops, old pipes whispering behind walls?
What do you smell? Grass being cut, aromatics in soil released by the rain, hairspray straggling in the air, somebody’s takeout food?
What do you feel? The weight of your scarf around your neck, smooth wood from a park bench under your hands, a gentle breeze blowing stray hair across your forehead, vibrations under your feet from someone running nearby?
Go through every sense and after each one, open your eyes and record everything you remember.
You’ll be amazed at how much information there is around us all the time that our bodies are taking in without even realizing it. Every single one of these experiences can be used in your writing. Little details like these ones will make your stories more real and present for the reader as they immerse themselves in your world.
Imagery gives life and color to your writing
Imagery is around us all the time in the things we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. Using imagery in your writing is a great way to communicate new information with the reader, create a shift in tone from one moment to another, enhance the mood of a particular scene, and bring new life to your story. Once you begin experimenting with different types of imagery in your writing, you’ll find yourself looking at the world of your story—and the world around you—in a whole new way.