How to Use Imagery Effectively
This is a subject that I often get asked about by writers who want to understand the concept of imagery and why it’s important in fiction writing, but more importantly they want to know how they can use it effectively.
Imagery is about description, but it is the kind of description that brings depth to otherwise flat depiction. It brings the narrative to life. It is designed to enhance sensory experiences.
To use it effectively, writers need to understand the functionality of imagery.
Imagery in fiction isn’t just about describing actions or telling the reader what is happening. Instead the use of imagery allows the reader to identify with the story, the characters and the themes by making the reader see everything in their mind, just like a picture or a movie.
Good use of imagery allows the reader access to ‘see’ into the story on a different level.
How does it become effective?
It’s done through various techniques. Writers have so many tools at their disposal, but rarely use them to full effect. Visual prompts, senses, sounds, colours, metaphors and similes all help enhance description.
The idea is to convey the image in small brush strokes that results in something vivid.
The most often used imagery is visual, the direct heightening of basic description, and it encompasses so many elements within the narrative. This is the reader’s direct way of seeing the action and characters within the story through the writer’s use of enhanced description.
For example: “Moon glare poked through ruffled clouds” or something like “waves heaved and folded against the hull, beckoning the rush of the storm”.
Colours play an important part of creating the right visual imagery. Edgar Allen Poe is a master of imagery, for instance, “…black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled luster by the dwelling” is a simple but effective use of colours to evoke the imagery.
The senses play an important role in fiction writing because while the reader may be able to read and absorb the story, without senses to act upon, the narrative would remain featureless. Adding senses to description allows the reader to imagine them, too. And of course, where possible, use the character’s senses, their point of view.
Auditory imagery use sounds to enhance the narrative. For example, “a sound of broken shells underfoot”, “her voice sounded like a clanking chain” or “breezes whispered through trees like a chorus”. These create the kind of sensory images that help the reader build up a picture of the scene.
Olfactory imagery can also be suggestive because, if done correctly, it creates a sense of smell with the reader. With a bit of thought, they can become easy to construct.
For example, “The scent of roiled earth lingered on his fingertips” or “A heavy hint of dank moss and rotted flowers…”
Tactile imagery is about the sense of touch. Describing it is sometimes more difficult than the other senses, but the clever choice of words will help writers overcome this.
For example, “Grandpa’s skin felt like grains of sand between my fingers”, “Her lips pressed against mine, soft as velvety rose petals”. You get the idea.
Gustatory imagery refers of the sense of taste. This kind of imagery is quite easy to create, again with the right word choice, to make the description vivid. Something could taste sweet or sour, but rather than simply telling the reader, you could show it through imagery. For example:
“He winced as the vinegary liquid bristled against his tongue before sloping down his throat and leaving a brackish aftertaste…”
Kinesthetic imagery is all about conveying a sense of movement, whether it is physical, like an action made by a character, movements by objects etc, or non-physical, such as the passing of time.
The often quoted, “Tossing their heads in sprightly dance” is a great example of kinesthetic imagery from Wordsworth’s poem Daffodils.
Writers can also use metaphors and similes to create the right imagery as a way to imply comparisons for the right dramatic effect. For instance, “She drowned in her own tears”, “He lived in a gilded cage”, or ‘Living is easy; death is the burden.”
I love this example by Cynthia Ozick, from Rosa: “The streets were a furnace, the sun an executioner."
A simile is recognised by the use of ‘like’ or ‘as’. For instance, ‘Her eyes were like a waterfall,’ or ‘He was a hot as hell’.
Imagery doesn’t work if the writer forgets to add some of these elements. The descriptions end up flat and lacklustre. It also doesn’t work if writers over use imagery. Instead, lightly pepper your description, but don’t overdo it with great chunks, otherwise it will become ‘overwriting’.
If writers want to fully understand the beauty of imagery, then they should read as many novels as possible. There if never any shortage of examples.
This excellent excerpt is from one of my favourite novels, To Kill a Mockingbird. “Her face was the color of a dirty pillowcase, and the corners of her mouth glistened with wet, which inched like a glacier down the deep grooves enclosing her chin...”
It simply oozes imagery, from the ‘dirty pillowcase’ colour, the mouth ‘glistened with wet’ and ‘inched like a glacier’.
Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn also exudes imagery. “The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o'clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist.”
‘Backing wind’, ‘Granite sky’, ‘mizzling rain’ coupled with ‘pallor of winter’ and ‘cloaking them in mist’ evokes so many images, which heightens the description to great effect.
The idea with imagery is to find the right words, to create something intense and rich, something the reader will remember and enjoy. In other words, be different, be creative, be visceral. Above all, be imaginative.
Next week: How to avoid author intrusion.