Imagery is a literary device in which words are used to describe something in the world in a way that creates an experience of it for the reader. It encompasses more than just the visual despite its name. To successfully invoke a powerful experience in the reader, a writer uses words related to all of the senses. Painting with words seems like a limited description, but paintings can elicit a full body experience.
To use imagery in your writing you must fully engage your imagination. To bring the reader into the world you are creating or writing about, you must first be present in it. Before you describe a scene, close your eyes and imagine being there. What do you see? What do you hear? Is the air warm or the wind blowing? Are their smells? Is there something to taste?
Once you’re fully in the scene, meaning you feel as though you are there, start writing. Write from the experience you’re having in your imagination. In an earlier post, “The Secret to Powerful Writing” I mention the secret is to feel what you are writing about. By doing this you more easily find the words you need to describe the scene. During the editing process you can go back and make the imagery even stronger if you need to.
Here are some tips for each of the senses to strengthen your imagery.
This is probably the easiest sense to describe. Take a memory of an experience you had or go into the world and have the experience now. Let’s say you are standing by a lake. You could say the lake was a mirror reflecting the green trees around it. Here is another way to describe it: It was crystal in sunshine and steel on cloudy days. You could simply say: The lake was an ever changing blue. The words mirror, crystal, steel, ever changing blue help you see the lake.
We are mainly visual beings, but sound plays a large role in our experience. We use phrases like: kids shouting in the distance, the annoying bark of the little dog or the jet roared overhead. Shouting, bark, roar are words denoting sounds.
There is another way to write about sound and that is to create a word that imitates a sound. This is called onomatopoeia. Grrrrrr is used to show a growl. Rat a tat tat is the sound of a drum. Humph for a person who is annoyed. Achoo is a sneeze.
Our skin tells us a lot about our environment and the things in it. Let’s say you’re writing about trying on a wedding dress. You could describe how the satin feels soft and smooth against the bride-to-be’s arms or how the waist line cut into her skin.
The air we breathe is also the air that touches our skin. Is it warm or cold? If cold, it might raise the hairs on one’s arms in goosebumps. If hot, the sweat may tickle as it runs down one’s face. Maybe the sweat carries sunscreen and when the sweat drips into the eyes of your character it burns.
Our taste buds detect five different tastes. Salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. Use these to describe the food your characters taste. You can also use comparison. For example: Her mother’s pea soup tasted like the sludge off a slimy river barge. This is much more interesting that just saying it tasted bad.
Smell is the most difficult sense to describe directly. Things smell good or bad. We may say sweet or stinky, but words like these are often synonyms of good or bad. We also use words like acrid or musky, but they are comparing the smell to something else and give a sense of the overall quality.
Comparison is often the best way to bring smell into your description. For example: The garbage stank like it had been sitting in the sun for a month. And this: The inside of her wrist smelled of roses and something more animal.
We don’t have to describe every single detail. It’s important to pick and choose those things that help you tell your story best. Give enough to create an atmosphere or elicit a deep feeling. Mention the things that tell you more about your characters or foreshadow something to come.
Powerful writing creates an experience for the reader and helps them enter your story or poem in order to join with you or the characters. As the reader vicariously lives through you or your characters, they will discover new experiences and want more of your words.
Would you like more helpful content like this to come directly to your email every week? Sign up for the Pro Writer Newsletter and also receive a number of free resources to help you get the writing done.