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The Importance of Imagery in Writing

Updated on June 19, 2013

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”.


Portrait of Helen Keller dated 1904.
Portrait of Helen Keller dated 1904. | Source

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.

or

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.


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.


A visual tip of the hat to irony.  While I DO NOT SUPPORT defacing stop signs, I must admit that this is one of the best visual representations of irony I have ever encountered.
A visual tip of the hat to irony. While I DO NOT SUPPORT defacing stop signs, I must admit that this is one of the best visual representations of irony I have ever encountered. | Source

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.

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Really excellent suggestions here. You are a very good writer and you speak with the voice of experience. Well done and sharing!

    • PoeticVine profile image
      Author

      Leanna Stead 4 years ago from North Carolina, United States

      Thank you so much, Billy! ^_^

    • ARUN KANTI profile image

      ARUN KANTI CHATTERJEE 4 years ago from KOLKATA

      As one trying to make forays into creative writing I find the hub excellent and useful.Thank you and wish you all the best.

    • PoeticVine profile image
      Author

      Leanna Stead 4 years ago from North Carolina, United States

      Arun, thank you! I am so glad you find this helpful, and I wish you the best of luck in your writing!

    • tammyswallow profile image

      Tammy 4 years ago from North Carolina

      Great look into imagery in writing. I love the stop sign. Reminds me of all the grammatically incorrect signs everywhere including: slow children at play and slow death in family. Sometimes imagery is accidental. :) Enjoyable read!

    • tksabresinos profile image

      Tim Abresinos 4 years ago from California

      Thanks very much for this. My writing has been getting bland and I sometimes forget about things like imagery.

    • frozenink profile image

      frozenink 4 years ago

      Very beautifully written. I think for me as well as for many others, these are things that we know but we do not or rarely practice. And the lack of practice and usage slowly drains these tools (as u described) away. Many thanks for the reminder! Great hub. Voted up!

    • PoeticVine profile image
      Author

      Leanna Stead 4 years ago from North Carolina, United States

      Hi, Tammy! I quite agree: sometimes imagery is purely accidental and highly entertaining. I included the "stop [defacing stop signs] image as a visual irony representation because I just couldn't resist. ^_^

      I am very pleased you enjoyed the read!

    • PoeticVine profile image
      Author

      Leanna Stead 4 years ago from North Carolina, United States

      I am very glad to help! This really helped me, too -- not only was it enjoyable to write, but it gave me the chance to review these literary devices as well. I think one of the most important things I've ever learned about writing is that imagery isn't purely visual -- it appeals to every single sense we possess. Good luck with your writing!

    • PoeticVine profile image
      Author

      Leanna Stead 4 years ago from North Carolina, United States

      Thank you, frozenink! We have so many tools at our very fingertips (pun definitely intended) to help with our writing. I've been practicing the use of imagery for at least twenty-three years now, and I am still amazed at how much I learn just from trying it from a different angle. I personally consider it one of the most valuable tools a writer can use.

    • frozenink profile image

      frozenink 4 years ago

      Twenty-three years. That's impressive. I shall start practising as well. Thanks!

    • PoeticVine profile image
      Author

      Leanna Stead 4 years ago from North Carolina, United States

      frozenink: I began writing short scenes -- vignettes, I guess you would call them -- at around age sixteen for the express purpose of describing an environment in as much sensory detail as I was capable. Even though I was also writing poetry at the time, I believe in hindsight that my prose technique developed more quickly than did my verse.

      When I first began writing poetry, I wrote pretty standard rhyming meter. With the exception of a very few, my earlier efforts now seem to me rather predictable and the word choices far too conventional. I switched from meter to free verse about thirteen years ago and have been using unusual words and unique word combinations to evoke emotional and sensory imagery in my reader. I'll be talking about about both factors in upcoming Hubs, since I've already gone through a reworking exercise and this discussion of imagery.

      Thank you again for your comments!

    • frozenink profile image

      frozenink 4 years ago

      Then I shall be looking forward to your next hub.

      =)

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 4 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Interesting information and a beautiful picture of Helen Keller. The stop sign was a great example to use.

    • PoeticVine profile image
      Author

      Leanna Stead 4 years ago from North Carolina, United States

      Thank you. :) I'm glad you like the stop sign -- I saw it and just couldn't resist.

    • profile image

      ben 3 years ago

      I think turles are cool.

    • profile image

      WHAT YA DOING 3 years ago

      Whoever wrote this was a jabrony.

    • profile image

      You are a nerd 3 years ago

      I like dolphins and chief keef.

    • profile image

      EY 3 years ago

      I love dogs, they sweet.

    • profile image

      woawdowaod 3 years ago

      fdgesgsdfgsdfgd

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 2 years ago from Nashville Tn.

      Thank you for opening the door to the importance of imagery in writing. Very well done!

    • sujaya venkatesh profile image

      sujaya venkatesh 2 years ago

      xllent

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