What is imagery? Take a moment to conceptualize something in your mind: an object, a sound, a scent. Transcribe whatever you think about into language, transmitting to the reader the precise experience you had in your brain. This is imagery in literature—a powerful literary device that communicates our everyday sensory experiences.
Literature abounds with imagery examples, as authors have used this device to connect with their readers at a personal level. A precise image can form the basis of a powerful metaphor or symbol, so writers make their work resonate using imagery in poetry and prose.
Why do authors use imagery? In this article, we examine the 5 types of imagery in literature—visual, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, and auditory. We’ll also take a look at some imagery examples and writing exercises. But first, let’s properly examine what is imagery in literature.
Imagery Definition: What is Imagery?
Imagery refers to language that stimulates the reader’s senses. By evoking those senses through touch, taste, sound, smell, and sight, the writer imparts a deeper understanding of the human experience, connecting with the reader through a shared sensory experience.
Imagery definition: language that stimulates the reader’s senses.
For the most part, imagery in literature focuses on concrete senses—things you can physically experience. However, internal experiences and emotions also count, and later in this article, we dive into how to properly write organic imagery.
Of course, good imagery examples are not merely descriptive. I could tell you that “the wallpaper is yellow,” and yes, that counts as visual imagery, but it’s hardly describing the experience of that wallpaper. Is the wallpaper bright and cheerful? Does it lift your mood, or darken it?
Here’s a much more interesting description of that yellow wallpaper, from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”:
“The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.
It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others. No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long.”
Take note of how the visual imagery (bolded) shows you the wallpaper’s various colors and stains. When paired with the narrator’s tone (italicized), we form an image of bleak, depressing paper, far from the cheerful yellowness you might expect.
The best imagery examples will also form other literary devices. You’ll find that many images end up being metaphors, similes, and symbols, and many more images also rely on devices like juxtaposition. The interplay of these devices further strengthens the worldbuilding power of both the image and the author.
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Why do Authors Use Imagery?
Authors use imagery to do what Charlotte Perkins Gilman does in “The Yellow Paper”: to create rich, livable experiences using only the senses.
Think of imagery as a doorway into the world of the text. It allows the reader to see, smell, hear, taste, and feel everything that happens in the story.
Moreover, this device highlights the most important sensory descriptions. Consider where you are right now, as you’re reading this article. There are many different sensory experiences vying for your attention, but your brain filters those senses out because they’re not important. You might be ignoring the sounds of your neighbors and passing street cars, or the taste of a meal you just had, or the feeling of your chair pressing into your body.
Imagery in literature performs the same function: it highlights the most important sensory information that the reader needs to step inside the story. Great imagery examples set the stage for great storytelling, goading the reader into the world of the work.
For a more in-depth answer on “why do authors use imagery?”, check out our article on Show, Don’t Tell Writing.
Imagery in Poetry
What is imagery in poetry? Is it any different than in prose?
While this device is the same for both poetry and prose, you might notice that imagery in poetry is more economic—it relies on fewer words. Take the following excerpt from Louise Glück’s poem October:
“Daybreak. The low hills shine
ochre and fire, even the fields shine.
I know what I see; sun that could be
the August sun, returning
everything that was taken away —”
The images in this excerpt are stunning, particularly “the low hills shine ochre and fire.” The reader can imagine a roiling green landscape tinged like a flame in the early sunrise, contributing to the speaker’s sense of hope that one often feels at the start of a new day.
In poetry, as in prose, images are often juxtaposed next to feelings, creating a sensory and emotive experience. The language that each form uses to create those experiences is similar, but the poetic form encourages an economy of language, making imagery in poetry more concise.
5 Types of Imagery in Literature
Corresponding with the 5 senses, there are 5 types of imagery at a writer’s disposal. (Actually, there’s 7—but we’ll handle those last two separately.)
Every writer should have all 5 types of imagery in their toolkit. To create a rich, believable experience for the reader, appealing to each of the reader’s senses helps transport them into the world of the story. No, you shouldn’t focus on all 5 senses at the same time—in real life, nobody can pay attention to all of their senses at once. But, you should be able to use all 5 types of imagery when your writing calls for it.
What is imagery in literature? These excerpts will show you. Let’s look at each type and some more imagery examples.
1. Visual Imagery Definition
Visual imagery is description that stimulates the eyes. Specifically, your mind’s eye: when you can visualize the colors, shapes, forms, and aesthetics of something that’s described to you, the writer is employing visual imagery.
When you can visualize the colors, shapes, forms, and aesthetics of something that’s described to you, the writer is employing visual imagery.
This is the most common form of imagery in literature, as the writer relies on visual description to create a setting, describe characters, and show action. Without visual imagery, it is much harder to employ the other types of imagery (though writers have certainly done this in the event that a character is blind or blinded).
Visual Imagery Examples
In each example, the visual imagery examples have been bolded.
“A field of cotton—
as if the moon
—Matsuo Bashō, from Basho: The Complete Haiku, translated by Jane Reichhold.
“While talking to my mother I neaten things. Spines of books by the phone.
in a china dish. Fragments of eraser that dot the desk. She speaks
of death. I begin tilting all the paperclips in the other direction.”
—Anne Carson, from “Lines” in Decreation.
2. Auditory Imagery Definition
Auditory imagery is description that stimulates the ears. When you can hear the sounds of nature, machinery, or someone’s voice, it’s because of the description employed in the author’s auditory imagery.
When you can hear sounds like nature, machinery, or someone’s voice, it’s because of the description employed in the author’s auditory imagery.
Do note that, while you might be able to hear dialogue in your head, dialogue alone doesn’t count as auditory imagery. The sounds need to be described using adjectives, adverbs, and especially comparisons to other images.
Additionally, the literary device “onomatopoeia” does not count as auditory imagery. Onomatopoeias are wonderful devices that improve the sonic quality of your writing, but as devices, they are words that transliterate sounds into syllables; they don’t describe sounds in interesting or metaphorical ways.
Auditory Imagery Examples
In each example, the auditory imagery examples have been bolded.
“Few believe we’re in the middle of the end
because ruin can happen as slowly as plaque
blocking arteries, and only later feels as true
as your hand resting on my hip, both of us
quiet as roses waiting for the bees to arrive.”
—Julie Danho, excerpt from “I Want to Eat Bugs With You Underground” in Bennington Review.
“Our ears are stoppered
in the bee-hum. And Charlie,
beard stained purple
by the word juice,
goes to get a bigger pot.”
—Robert Hass, excerpt from “Picking Blackberries with a Friend Who Has Been Reading Jacques Lacan” originally published in Praise.
3. Tactile Imagery Definition
Tactile imagery is description that stimulates your sense of touch. Sensations like itching, stickiness, and the warmth of sunlight all count as tactile imagery, which appeals to the way your skin might feel in that moment.
Sensations like itching, stickiness, and the warmth of sunlight all count as tactile imagery, which appeals to the way your skin might feel in that moment.
Tactile experiences only refer to external sensations, primarily on the skin. When a writer describes internal sensations, they’re using organic imagery, which we’ll define later in this article.
Tactile Imagery Examples
In each example, the tactile imagery examples have been bolded.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, excerpt from Journal of My Other Self.
“Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?
If by real you mean as real as a shark tooth stuck
in your heel, the wetness of a finished lollipop stick,
the surprise of a thumbtack in your purse—
then Yes, every last page is true, every nuance,
bit, and bite.”
—Aimee Nezhukumatathil, excerpt from “Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?” in Poetry Foundation.
4. Olfactory Imagery Definition
Olfactory imagery is description that stimulates the nose. By describing the peculiarities of a scent—its richness, pungence, weight, distinctness, or physical effect—the author transports the reader through the use of olfactory imagery.
By describing the peculiarities of a scent—its richness, pungence, weight, distinctness, or physical effect—the author transports the reader through the use of olfactory imagery.
Olfactory looks like a strange word, but it comes from the Latin for “to smell,” and we have an olfactory bulb in our brains which processes smells. Fun fact: the olfactory bulb is situated just in front of the hippocampus, which processes memory. As a result, smells often stimulate stronger memories than the other senses, so you can use olfactory imagery to arouse both smell and memory.
Olfactory Imagery Examples
In each example, the olfactory imagery examples have been bolded.
—Patricia Hampl, excerpt from The Florist’s Daughter.
“Why is it that the poets tell
So little of the sense of smell?
These are the odors I love well:
The smell of coffee freshly ground;
Or rich plum pudding, holly crowned;
Or onions fried and deeply browned.”
—Christopher Morley, excerpt from “Smells”.
5. Gustatory Imagery Definition
Gustatory imagery is description that stimulates the tongue. If you’ve ever done a wine or coffee tasting, you know exactly how complex a flavor can be. Gustatory imagery captures a flavor’s richness, acidity, earthiness, sweetness, bitterness, harshness, etc.
Gustatory imagery captures a flavor’s richness, acidity, earthiness, sweetness, bitterness, harshness, etc.
This is perhaps the rarest of the 5 types of imagery, as authors don’t seem to dwell on tastes too much, but gustatory imagery can absolutely throw the reader into different cultures, cuisines, and histories.
Gustatory Imagery Examples
In each example, the gustatory imagery examples have been bolded.
—E.M. Forster, excerpt from A Room With a View.
“I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold.”
—William Carlos Williams, “This Is Just To Say”.
Kinesthetic Imagery and Organic Imagery
Writers have another 2 types of imagery at their disposal: kinesthetic imagery and organic imagery. We include these as separate types of imagery because they describe senses that are more abstract than the other 5.
Kinesthetic Imagery Definition
Kinesthetic imagery, also called kinesthesia, refers to descriptions of motion. The sensations one feels when on the move, like running against the wind or swimming through brisk waters, are examples of kinesthetic imagery.
The sensations one feels when on the move, like running against the wind or swimming through brisk waters, are examples of kinesthetic imagery.
Kinesthesia might seem similar to tactile imagery, but the difference is that kinesthesia always describes movement. So, a bee sting is tactile, but a bee whizzing past your arm is kinesthetic; the coldness of a wall is tactile, but the feeling of a cold wall moving against you is kinesthetic.
Kinesthetic Imagery Examples
—Charles Dickens, excerpt from A Tale of Two Cities.
—Brit Bennett, excerpt from The Mothers.
Organic Imagery Definition
Organic imagery refers to descriptions of internal sensation. When the writer uses concrete description to show an internal landscape of feelings, pains, emotions, and desires, they’re using organic imagery. And what is imagery, if not visceral or deeply felt?
When the writer uses concrete description to show an internal landscape of feelings, pains, emotions, and desires, they’re using organic imagery.
Organic imagery can be physical, like stomach pain or a headache, but it can also be emotional: the feeling of your heart dropping into your gut, or the burn of jealousy in your temples.
Organic Imagery Examples
—S. K. Osborn, excerpt from There’s A Lot of Good Reasons to Go Out West.
“So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood.”
—Robert Frost, excerpt from “Birches”.
Imagery Writing Exercises
The importance of descriptive, concrete imagery to creative writing cannot be understated. To master this literary device, try your hand at the following 5 writing exercises.
1. Show, Don’t Tell
“Show, don’t tell” writing is writing that uses concrete details to transmit an experience to the reader, rather than asserting the experience itself. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, you can learn about it (and find many more imagery examples) at this article.
Here’s an example of showing instead of telling:
- Telling: Mom stomped into the doorway, furious.
- Showing: The only thing chillier than the breeze from outside was mother herself, her bootsteps making the floorboards shake, her brow furrowed so tightly I worried her face might fall off.
In this exercise, rewrite the following phrases into complete “show, don’t tell” statements. The below sentences are “telling” sentences where the writer is chewing the reader’s food—asserting an experience without relying on the senses.
- The girl felt warm.
- The full moon was bright.
- Her heart dropped.
- His dinner wafted through the kitchen.
- The cat chased birds.
- The wind swept the trees.
- Her bike wouldn’t budge.
- The berries tasted fresh.
- Their socks got wet.
- The music echoed down the hall.
The development of precise images is essential to great poetry, storytelling, and “show, don’t tell” writing. While poetry writing can linger in description, story writing is best kept to action. This checklist from Writer’s Digest does a great job of explaining how to make this device action-focused.
2. Look At This Photograph
Find an interesting photograph. It can be a physical photo, it can sit somewhere in your camera roll, it can be a classical painting, or you can simply look for something unique on a site like Unsplash.
Now, describe that photograph using the different types of imagery—except for visual imagery. Try to convey the experience of the photograph without showing the reader what it actually looks like. The challenge of describing something visual without relying on visual images will help you sharpen your descriptive writing.
Here’s an example, using this landscape painting by John Wootton:
- Auditory: The men whistled over the crash of waves reaching the shore, and the horse whinnied along with the work.
- Tactile: Water lapped along the men’s ankles, as cold as a snake’s glistening eyes.
- Olfactory: The salty air perforated each man’s nostrils, punctuating the air with a briny sharpness.
- Gustatory: Salt water waves occasionally crashed into the men’s lips, acrid and mouth-puckering. While they worked they thought about home, the warm taste of dinner satiating a hard day’s work.
- Kinesthetic: The barely moving air graced each man’s legs like a cat brushing past, and all was still.
- Organic: The sun crept below the horizon, and in the dark the forest seemed like it might come to life, like it was harboring a dark and heady tomorrow.
When you have an example for each non-visual image, try to combine them into a singular effective description of the photograph.
Do all of these imagery examples make sense? Do they even come close to describing the painting? Absolutely not. But just the attempt at describing a landscape painting through taste or touch helps juice your creativity, and you might stumble upon some really beautiful writing in the process.
If you enjoyed this exercise, you might be interested in the Ekphrastic Poetry Challenge at Rattle.
3. Think Abstractly
Great imagery relies on the use of great concrete words, particularly nouns and verbs (though some adjectives, too). The opposite of a concrete word is an abstract word: a word which describes an idea, not an image.
Examples of abstract words are “satisfaction,” “mercantilism,” “love,” “envy,” “disgust,” and “bureaucracy.” None of those words have concrete images: they might have symbols (like “heart” for “love”), but no single image defines any of those words.
For this exercise, generate a list of abstract words. If you’re struggling to come up with good words, you can use a list of abstractions like this one. Once you’ve settled on a good list, select a word that particularly excites you.
Use this abstract word as the title of a poem or story. Now, write that poem or story, using concrete description to show the reader exactly how that abstraction feels and looks. Do not use the abstract word, or any synonyms or antonyms, in your writing—try to avoid abstractions altogether.
At the end of your exercise, you might end with a poem like “Love’s Philosophy” by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Synesthesia is a literary device in which the writer uses more than one sense to describe something. For example, we often use the phrase “cool colors” for blues and greens, and “warm colors” for reds and oranges. “Cool” and “warm” are tactile, and since a color itself cannot be warm or cold, we’re able to represent the color through synesthesia.
Synesthesia is also a rare psychological condition, in which a person involuntarily experiences something in multiple senses. For example, someone with synesthesia might say that the number 12 is reddish-orange, or that the sound of a guitar tastes like rain.
For this exercise, describe the following items using synesthesia. Describe sounds using colors or tastes, describe smells using memories or movements. Get creative! You don’t need to have synesthesia to write synesthesia, just try to break free from the conventional use of the different types of imagery in literature.
Describe the following using synesthesia:
- The sound of your best friend’s voice. (What color, shape, smell, taste, or feeling does it have?)
- The disaster girl meme.
- The taste of vanilla ice cream.
- The letter J.
- A freezing shower.
- The smell of the rain.
- The feeling of sandpaper against skin.
For example, I might write that the letter J is the color of a forest at dusk, blue-green and pregnant with night.
Does that make sense to anyone else but me? Probably not! But that’s the point: be creative, be weird, be synesthetic.
5. Use Only Metaphors and Similes
For this exercise, you are free to describe whatever you would like. Describe an inanimate object, a food you enjoy, your pet, your archnemesis, the wind, the sea, the sun, or really anything you want to write about.
Whatever you choose, you must only describe that object using metaphors and similes. For a primer on these two literary devices, check out our article Simile Vs Metaphor Vs Analogy.
Do not use adjectives or adverbs, and only use nouns in comparison with your object.
Try to generate a list of metaphors and similes. For example, if your object is a rubber ball, you can say it “moves like a sparrow,” “bounces like children on trampolines,” and “waits to be noticed, a planet in hiding.”
Try to write for 15-20 minutes, and if you’ve generated a long enough list, you might even consider organizing your metaphors and similes into a poem or flash story. As with our other exercises, use compelling imagery, and show us something new about your object!
What is Imagery in Literature? Master the Device at Writers.com
Why do authors use imagery? To transport their readers to new and believable worlds. To learn more about imagery and practice it in your writing, take a look at the upcoming courses at Writers.com.