The Importance of Imagery in Writing
What do we mean by "imagery"?
Any author writing for publication – electronic or otherwise – faces the challenge of communicating a message to a target audience. Descriptive writing is writing which utilizes imagery, or word pictures, to more fully engage the reader. While selected illustrations may work to an author’s advantage, they only do so much in terms of enhancing a written work. It therefore remains with the author of the composition to provide “sensory aids”.
Why is imagery so important?
Our senses are our most basic gateways to perception – everything we receive on a daily basis is linked to one or more of our senses. Science tells us that smell can be one of the strongest memory triggers we possess as human beings. Think about your own responses. What sense(s) do you believe you utilize most in the retention of memory?
Even those who are denied the use of one or more senses have been known to compensate by utilizing their remaining senses to function, and even to thrive. For instance, Helen Keller pursued and obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree by the age of twenty-four despite losing both hearing and sight before she was two years of age. Thanks to the intervention of Anne Sullivan, a governess who became a lifelong friend and companion, Keller grew up to become a well-traveled and capable speaker, author and public advocate for various causes. She understood her first word, “water”, through her sense of touch.
By appealing to the senses, a writer can give their message an impact it would otherwise lack. Sensory stimulation also enables the reader to feel more involved in the work. Which of the two examples below is more effective?
I found shaking his hand very unpleasant.
Shaking his hand felt like wringing a dead fish.
The first sentence does strike a slight emotional chord, but the second is much more memorable. With a simple alteration, what was formerly a rather flat description becomes a powerful image. It also contains a literary device known as a simile, which we will cover in the next section.
- Coffee Break Collection 001 : Various : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive
All of LibriVox's recordings are in the public domain in the United States and may be played online through the Internet Archive. Track 10 of this collection contains Mark Twain's "Journalism in Tennessee".
Literary devices and their uses in descriptive writing
You need not stuff your sentences with sense-based words to make your writing fully descriptive. There are a variety of devices – I like to think of them as tools – available to the writer who wants to engage the reader on a sensory level. The simile is but one of those devices listed below:
· Alliteration: The purposeful repetition of an initial consonant sound or cluster thereof in close proximity. I walk the winding road alone, / a wanderer without a home.
· Consonance: The repetition of final consonant sounds or clusters in close proximity. In poetry, this repetition occurs in stressed, unrhymed syllables. Stay soft, my love, for time is harsh: / Our time together means too much / to waste our days in bitterness. / Let us promise with a kiss/ to treasure moments others miss.
· Caesura: The deliberate and noticeable fracture of a phrase or sentence through punctuation. It is typically employed for dramatic effect – even though the punctuation “breaks” the flow of the line, the disparate parts are still linked as being parts of a complete thought. Driver, wait! – I hear a voice. Could it be hers?
· Dialect: In written works, the deliberate alteration of text to reflect an accent, idioms, or other language characteristics of a given region. Dialect is not noted for its “proper” grammar, but it adds incredible color to a written work. See the example given with the definition of “hyperbole” below.
· Hyperbole: Deliberate exaggeration – usually used for dramatic effect. In the following example, the hyperbole appears in bold with an underline; the dialect is in simple bold. “Margie, I swear to you on my grandaddy’s grave – his eyes got round as dinner plates when I said his little Janie been runnin’ around with that foreign fellow. I guess I ain’t ever seen anyone so shocked in all my life.”
· Internal rhyme: The use of perfect or near-rhyme within a single line of verse. I have used it in prose as well to good effect by way of sound echoes within a single sentence. The rumors flew around the town – people whispered, but dared not speak too loud.
· Irony: A statement with a literal meaning markedly different – even opposite – from the meaning which is implied. This literary device is growing increasingly misunderstood, which leads me to include it here. Track 10 of the attached Librivox recording will enable you to listen to Mark Twain’s “Journalism in Tennessee”. Twain was a master of irony; pay particular attention to the conversation between the journalist and his editor near the end of the piece.
· Metaphor: A device in which one thing or person is characterized by way of another to imply shared characteristics. “Yeah, Jim’s a regular Don Juan, all right. He gets all the ladies.”
· Simile. A literary device also used for drawing attention to shared characteristics, but containing the terms “like” or “as”. The fog was thick that night – the streetlights looked more like UFOs.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it hopefully gives you some idea of the various methods a writer can use to appeal to the senses in various ways. These and other devices will help you engage your reader to the fullest extent possible.
An additional note: although a particular literary device may appear more prominently in poetry, there is absolutely no reason for not employing it in your prose. Our field evolves through experimentation! Just as our voices are instruments, our language is music in its own right. Our words are musical notes – our sentences are measures. With proper emphasis and careful attention, your writing will be as music to the inner ear. You will be able to tune your writing as surely as you tune a fine instrument – and it will have as wondrous an effect.