Imagery is descriptive language used to create images in the mind of the reader. It can be used to bring a setting to life, to describe how a character is feeling, or any other use where you want to make something more vivid. It is very prevalent in poetry but can be of equal use and impact in prose.
Don’t overdo it though, particularly in prose. One or two well-placed sentences of beautiful description are often more than enough to express what you want to illustrate
Types of Imagery
There are seven types of imagery: visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, kinesthetic and organic. The first five deal with the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) while the last two are a bit more complicated. I’ll go through them in turn, with examples.
With the exception of two, the examples are all from Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter (Faber & Faber, 2015, hardback), which I recommend. Page numbers in brackets.
Examples: ‘they paused to gaze down at the village sitting neatly in the cupped hand of the valley’. (43)
‘Dad was spread-eagled like a broken toy and his mouth was slack grey and collapsed like a failed Yorkshire pudding’ (60)
Example: ‘He sounds old-fashioned, like Dad’s vinyl recording of Dylan Thomas.’ (23)
Examples: ‘There was a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast.’ (6)
‘The delicious aroma of raw shock and unexpected loss came wafting from the doors and windows of a widower’s sad home.’ (54)
Example: ‘the impossible hectic silent epidermis rejuvenating itself, never nervous, always kissable, even when scabbed, even so salty I made it…’ (100)
‘The aftertaste of burnt cinnamon lingered and warred with the suggestion of other spices.’ (my own example)
Example: ‘A coin fell down the back of the cinema seats and we both slipped our hands into the tight fuzzy gap of the chairs past popcorn kernels and sticky ticket stubs and our hands met, stroking the carpet feeling for the coin, and it was electric.’ (39)
Kinesthetic imagery deals with the movement or action of people, animals or objects.
Example: ‘They trudged up the steep hill mounting thin banks of chalk like swimmers moving out past breaking waves…’ (43)
‘The clothes flapped and cracked on the washing line, like wild horses bucking and rearing to free their bridles.’ (my own example)
Organic imagery is to do with representing internal feelings of the human body, whether an emotion or a feeling such as thirst or tiredness.
Examples: ‘I miss her so much it is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, a million cars, twenty million birds and more.’ (50)
‘I had to fall asleep crushed between what you’d said and what I thought’. (90)
‘our love was settling into the shape of our lives like cake mixture reaching the corners of the tin as it swells and bakes’. (39)
How to write imagery
Techniques you can use to create imagery include:
This is where you say that something is like something else, or something is as ….. as something else. For example: ‘The moon is like a ball of cheese’ or ‘My love is as deep as a river’.
Akin to simile but here you say that something is something else. For example ‘The moon is a ball of cheese’ or ‘My love is a river’.
The use of words that sound like their meaning. For example, ‘splash’, ‘plop, ‘crack’. And in a sentence: ‘Scrabbling over slate, cracking, smashing and skittering..’
The application of human characteristics to something that is not alive. For example, ‘The wind groaned among the branches’. ‘The cliffs loomed menacingly’.
See which of these techniques you can spot being used in the examples below and under ‘Types of Imagery’ above.
Now for some longer examples. These focus on weather:
Sinead Morrissey; Shostakovich
The wind and its instruments were my secret teachers.
In Poldalskaya Street I played music for my mother
-Note for note without a music sheet – while the wind
in the draughty flat kept up: tapping its flattened hand
against the glass, moaning through the stove, banging
a door repeatedly out on the landing…
Later I stood in a wheat field and heard the wind make music
from everything it touched. The top notes were the husks:
fractious but nervous, giddy, little-voiced, while underneath a strong strange melody pulsed
as though the grain was rigging, or a forest.
Rebecca Perry; Hungry
The sea is lonely at Christmas.
And when you watch the rain
hitting the sea it seems
like a great absence returning home,
but who can be sure of any of it –
the inscrutable sea, the sea
like a rusted mirror,
the sea turning its back on you
with a long, disapproving look.
Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below!