Captivate Your Readers With Imagery: Definition, Examples, and Tips
If you're writing a book, screenplay, or short story, you want to draw your readers deep into the world of your story. Imagery is a powerful literary device you can use to give your readers a vivid experience of your scenes. In this article, I provide the definition of imagery, examples, and tips for applying it in your story.
What is imagery in writing?
Imagery is a literary device in which writers engage readers via language that evokes any of the five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Imagery is often applied to the descriptions of characters, settings, and plot events.
Why is imagery important?
Imagery is a literary device that creates a sensory connection between the reader and the physical world of the story. Scenes become more immersive because of this connection. After a reader finishes a scene, an effective use of imagery can make him say, "I felt like I was there."
The writing technique can also build empathy with characters, a key part of storytelling. If a reader is able to sense what a character is experiencing, the reader can better empathize with that character.
Below are two examples of a plot event, the first described without an emphasis on imagery, and the second with an emphasis on it. Which do you feel is stronger?
Becca walks through the woods to meet her friends at the campsite. She believes a killer is following her, so she takes off running. She runs for about a mile, reaches a street in a small town, and hides out in a diner.
Becca walks through a dark forest toward the campsite. Footsteps thud behind her. She looks over her shoulder, but sees nothing but the gnarled barks of trees. She heard a rumor about some weirdo who lives out here, but figured it was just an urban legend.
She keeps walking, the November air cold on her neck. The footsteps behind her return. She takes off running through the close-together trees. Her heart pounds. The branch of a pine tree hits her in the face. She spits a few pine needles out of her mouth.
Up ahead, the lights of a small town glisten beyond the evergreens. She dashes onto the street and rushes into the first building she sees, a diner. The place smells like apple pie. However, Becca is too nervous to eat. Shaking and huffing, she sinks onto a stool at the counter.
The 5 types of imagery in writing
Though the word imagery relates to sight, as a writing technique, imagery does not just apply to the visual - it relates to all five senses. Below are examples of the five types of imagery in writing:
With visual imagery, a writer uses language that lets readers imagine specific images. For example:
Over the silhouette of the mountaintops, a bolt of lightning rips through the sky. The rain, coming down at a sideways angle, smashes the body of Bill's car.
With sound imagery, a writer uses language that lets readers imagine specific sounds. For example:
Nick swings the crowbar into the department store's window. The glass shatters. Shards shower down on the pavement at his feet. He runs inside while the alarm wails.
With scent imagery, a writer uses language that lets readers imagine specific scents. For example:
Kayla looks away from the TV. She sniffs the air. It smells like burnt wood. She swings open her bedroom door. The scent grows stronger. She notices smoke.
With taste imagery, a writer uses language that lets readers imagine specific tastes. For example:
Gary watches the waiter carry over the entrees at his favorite restaurant, Forge Steakhouse. He grabs his fork and knife and looks down at the twenty-four-ounce porterhouse set in front of him. He slices off a piece. It warms his entire mouth. He bites into it, the juice seeping out.
With tactile imagery, a writer uses language that lets readers imagine specific sensations of touch. For example:
The bullet tears through Scott's thigh. The hot metal shreds his muscle. His entire leg flames with pain.
Tips for applying imagery in your writing
Imagery can enhance almost any scene. However, you need to be careful about when and how to apply it. Here are some tips to follow:
#1 Avoid excessive adjective use
Imagery is a type of descriptive writing. When trying to be descriptive, some writers make the mistake of loading their sentences with adjectives. Feel free to use adjectives in your imagery, but don't overdo it.
A combination of vivid nouns and verbs can often make a point stronger, and in fewer words, than a series of adjectives.
#2 Use more imagery for more important story elements
Important characters, settings, and plot events warrant more detailed descriptions - and thus, more imagery.
When you describe a setting that will go on to play a major role in your story, feel free to go into detail about it. For instance, let's say you're telling a crime story and the villain and his crew often hang out at his auto body. The place will later serve as the setting for the climactic shootout.
You should go into specifics about things like the sounds of the mechanics' machines, the splotches of grease on the floor, the taste of the candy in the vending machine out in the hallway.
In the same story, your protagonist happens to stop at a coffee shop. The shop is only in one scene, just briefly. Spending five paragraphs describing the coffee shop wouldn't be warranted - the setting isn't important enough to the overall story.
#3 Vary the types of imagery
Giving the reader a visual sense of a scene is critical. Thus, you'll likely find yourself using visual imagery more than the other kinds. That's okay. However, be sure to work in the four other types.
That being said, you never want imagery to feel forced. Let's say you've used all the types of imagery in a certain scene except taste. If the scene doesn't call for a character to be tasting something, don't worry about getting in taste imagery.
You should never create additional imagery at the risk of your story events feeling unnatural.
What genres use imagery?
Imagery is used across fiction and narrative non-fiction. Some examples of genres that use imagery:
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