Whether you’re a writer or a reader, you probably know that the best writing can make you feel like you’re right there in the scene next to your favorite characters.
Authors who achieve this can make it look seamless, but it usually doesn’t just happen that way; to really grab readers and make them feel like part of the story, you’ll need to be precise with your word choice and learn to master imagery.
Great imagery is what gives readers a sensory experience they won’t soon forget. Read on for more on its definition and 5 different types, as well as examples from literature.
Definition of Imagery
Imagery is a literary device that uses figurative language to describe objects, actions, and ideas in a way that appeals to the physical senses and helps readers to picture the scene as if it were real.
The term imagery can be a bit misleading. Though figurative langauge can be used to describe the visual appearance of something, imagery also refers to vivid descriptions of sounds, tastes, physical sensations, and smells.
What Are the 5 Types of Imagery?
The 5 different types of imagery correspond with the five senses: visual, olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), tactile (touch), and auditory (sound).
Visual imagery is the most obvious and typical form of imagery. When you’re writing a scene, whether you’re describing a person, place, or thing, it’s best to show instead of tell.
That means using vivid imagery and sensory details to make your reader see the scene for themselves.
Example: The moonlight shone over the lake and reflected in her big, dark eyes.
Olfactory imagery appeals to our sense of smell. Don’t underestimate what the power of a good aromatic description can do—science tells us that smell is one of our strongest links to the past.
So if you’re writing a scene about food, for example, be sure to use descriptive words that will have your readers’ mouths watering.
Example: The sweet aroma of the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies wafted from the kitchen to the living room, causing Greg’s stomach to rumble.
Gustatory imagery describes taste. It often works hand in hand with olfactory imagery (what’s taste without smell after all?) and should appeal to reader’s tastebuds.
Example: As he bit into the juicy burger, a variety of spices danced upon his tongue.
Tactile imagery appeals to our sense of touch. From the softness of cashmere to the biting cold of a December night, good tactile imagery helps readers to feel that they are part of the scene, and makes the characters’ experiences more relatable.
Example: A gust of cold wind pierced her body.
Auditory imagery describes sounds, from shrill cries to whispering winds. Even the subtlest of sounds can help set the scene and place readers right in the middle of the action.
Example: She awoke to the chirping of birds and the soft whisper of a breeze as it passed through the tree outside her window.
What Are Some Examples of Imagery?
Below are several examples of imagery from famous works of literature.
Forrest Gump by Winston Groom
It commenced rainin one day an did not stop for two months. We went thru ever different kind of rain they is, cep’n maybe sleet or hail. It was little stingin rain sometimes, an big ole fat rain at others. It came sidewise an straight down an sometimes even seem to come up from the groun.
In this excerpt from the novel-turned-film by Winston Groom, Forrest describes the sting of the rain—and all the different ways it came down on them in Vietnam.
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
In the hard-packed dirt of the midway, after the glaring lights are out and the people have gone to bed, you will find a veritable treasure of popcorn fragments, frozen custard dribblings, candied apples abandoned by tired children, sugar fluff crystals, salted almonds, popsicles, partially gnawed ice cream cones and wooden sticks of lollipops.
In this excerpt from Charlotte’s Web, the narrator paints a vivid picture of the setting, appealing to a number of the senses, from “salted almonds” to the “glaring lights.”
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
“It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window… Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, … On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy; and the marsh-mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village—a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there—was invisible to me until I was quite close under it.”
This description from Great Expectations of a damp morning near a marsh appeals to the sense of sight and feel, allowing readers to feel like they’re arriving on the scene themselves.
How to Use Imagery
If you want to incorporate more imagery in your writing, you might try using the right selection of adjectives, figurative language, and even diction.
Although figurative language and literary devices like metaphors or similes are often used to create imagery, they’re not required. In fact, overwriting and piling on adjective after adjective is often a trademark of amateur writers; try to say as much as you can in fewer words.
The goal of imagery is to make readers feel like they’re seeing the scene for themselves, and not being told—so don’t forget that you can appeal to all of the senses, not just sight.
What are some of your favorite examples of imagery from literature? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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