Imagery in Writing: Examples of Imagery as a Literary Device

Parker Yamasaki

Have you ever read a passage about a sumptuous feast that made your mouth water, or felt your skin tingle while reading about the chill of a frigid winter night? Those reactions are the result of imagery. Imagery is language that appeals to the senses.

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What is imagery?

Imagery enhances writing by creating a physical response in the reader through sensory details. Language can elicit a psychological or intellectual reaction in a reader, and imagery is just one more tool a writer has to connect with their audience through sensation and emotion.

Take the following passage from a 1966 article by Joan Didion titled “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.” In this passage, Didion uses imagery to talk about the region’s wind:

“. . . a harsher California, haunted by the Mohave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the Eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves.”

A passage with less imagery might depict the winds as being “hot and dry,” but Didion’s rich description goes farther, creating for the reader a feeling of roughness (appealing to touch) in the winds.

Imagery in writing

Writers use imagery to generate a physical or emotional response in the reader. One way to do this is through evocative adjectives. For example, using “shimmering” or “blinding” instead of “bright,” or “piercing” instead of “loud.” There is also a lot of potential for imagery in verbs since those are the words that move your narrative forward. Poignant and direct verbs will bring your reader along for the ride.

Another way to create imagery is through amplification . Amplification is a literary device that exaggerates or emphasizes a certain point. For example, you can tell your reader that you had a long drive home. Or, using amplification, you can tell them the road before you stretched through space and time, jutting into a seemingly endless succession of nights and days that blurred together and deposited you collapsed on your doorstep. That might be a little dramatic, but amplification is all about drama. It also creates the feeling of weariness (which is another appeal to tactile imagery if you imagine the weight of your eyelids).

However, too much imagery can lessen the effectiveness of your writing. If every night is the deepest, blackest night the narrator has ever seen; if every mango is the most succulent they’ve ever eaten; if every wind is the iciest they’ve ever felt, then your reader might get fed up with the drama of it all; if everything is special, then nothing is special.

Imagery in poetry

Imagery doesn’t always require complicated descriptions. Sometimes it only takes a couple of precise words to tap into the reader’s senses. Often, imagery in a poem generates a strong reaction using just a few words. For example, the opening lines of Mary Oliver’s poem “At Black River” effectively send the reader’s imagination to the riverbank in a slim three lines:

“All day its dark, slick bronze soaks in a mossy place . .  .”

What are the types of imagery?

Although not everyone can experience all these senses themselves, writing that appeals to the senses can still spark their imagination:

Visual imagery

Visual imagery is imagery that you can see in your mind’s eye. It is the colors, brightness, shape, and movement of something. Visual imagery is the most common form of imagery in writing because it is the best way for a writer to describe settings and characters.

Auditory imagery

Auditory imagery evokes sounds. This might be the whir of machinery or the rush of a river. Any imagery that causes the reader to hear the scene is auditory imagery.

Tactile imagery

Tactile imagery is the imagery of touch. The roughness of a sweater, the coolness of fresh sheets, and the softness of a kitten’s fur are all examples of tactile imagery.

Gustatory imagery

Gustatory imagery makes your mouth water. It is imagery that concerns taste—think about books with recipes, grocery shopping scenes, and dinner descriptions.

Olfactory imagery

Olfactory imagery is the imagery of scent. When a writer describes the smell of freshly brewed coffee in the morning and the reader perks up, that’s an effective use of olfactory imagery. Alternatively, a writer can convey a sense of discomfort to the reader by describing the scent of rot or decay.

What’s the difference between literal and figurative imagery?

There are two types of imagery: literal and figurative.

Literal imagery appeals to the reader’s prior knowledge of something, describing it so precisely that the reader cannot help but feel (or see, hear, taste, or smell) the thing being described.

For example, look at this passage from Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro:

There was bright sunshine, but it must have been raining earlier that day because I can remember how the sun was glinting on the muddy surface of the grass.

The language is straightforward (literal), but it is descriptive in a way that gives the reader a very clear image of the scene. The reader can see the sheen of a damp sunny day.

Figurative imagery relies on language like simile and metaphors to evoke the senses. In this passage from Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin, the narrator uses personification in her description of lunch to generate a tactile effect:

I started to eat, chewing faster and faster, swirling the makgeolli in my bowl with the tips of my chopsticks. Gulping down long drafts. The dense whiteness of the alcohol cutting my throat as it slipped down toward my stomach.

The reader can almost feel the sharpness of the alcohol through the author’s use of figurative imagery.

Examples of imagery

You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise. —Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise”

“Not that I had any great feast in mind: I would be stir frying thin slices of beef, onions, green peppers, and bean sprouts with a little salt, pepper, soy sauce, and a splash of beer—a recipe from my single days. The rice was done, the miso soup was warm, and the vegetables were all sliced and arranged in separate piles in a large dish, ready for the wok.” —Haruki Murakami, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

“Adam went into the house and took off his black clothes. He could smell the sweet and now sickish odor of rum about himself. He removed all of his clothes and sponged his skin with yellow soap until the odor was gone from his pores.” —John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Imagery FAQs

Imagery is a literary device that evokes the five senses to create a mental image.

How is imagery used in writing?

Imagery engages the reader’s senses to draw them more deeply into the writing. Powerful imagery can even provoke an emotional response in the reader.

What are the different kinds of imagery?

Imagery can be literal or figurative. Literal imagery uses precise descriptions to generate the image. Figurative imagery relies on figurative language, like similes and metaphors, to engage the reader. Imagery can also correspond to the senses.

creative writing of imagery

creative writing of imagery

What is imagery?

what is imagery red text over lightened image of a paintbrush with red splatters on white background

Ok, writers. Let’s go back to basics. Voltaire famously said, “Writing is the painting of the voice,” meaning it is the task of the writer to show the reader something—a scene, an object, a view, a character, anything that can be described. We do that describing through imagery.

Imagery is one of the most important literary devices or tools in the writer’s tool box.  Because literature (stories, poems, memoirs) is the written expression of a human condition, we as writers must draw on what makes us human to convey these experiences in the hopes of making a connection with the reader.

According to Literary Devices,

“Imagery is a literary device that refers to the use of figurative language to evoke a sensory experience or create a picture with words for a reader. By utilizing effective descriptive language and figures of speech, writers appeal to a reader’s senses of sight, taste, smell, touch, and sound, as well as internal emotion and feelings. Therefore, imagery is not limited to visual representations or mental images, but also includes physical sensations and internal emotions.”

To break that down: descriptive language + senses and emotions = imagery.

Now, I’m no math expert, but I like knowing what parts make up the whole. We probably know about senses and emotions, but what do we mean by figures of speech? 

At its core, a figure of speech is usually a simile, metaphor, or hyperbole, and can be literal or figurative.

Examples of figures of speech

An example: 

Literal Simile: Her hair was like the color of burnished copper.

Figurative Simile: Her hair was like a sunset on a desert.

In the previous examples, we have a figure of speech and senses, but what about emotion? 

Literal Simile: Her hair, like her Grandma Ruth’s, was like the color of this copper kettle, the one Mary would take with her whether Mom liked it or not. (emotion is nostalgia)

Figurative Simile: Her hair shimmered like a sunset in Death Valley, but he was sure she was just a mirage. (emotion is certainty, perhaps sadness or longing that she isn’t real or present)

Here are some more examples from one of the reigning champions of literary device, Shakespeare:

“There’s daggers in men’s smiles.” Macbeth

“And thus I clothe my naked villainy

With odd old ends stol’n out of holy writ;

And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” Richard III

“If I be waspish, best beware my sting.” The Taming of the Shrew

An imagery writing exercise

Choose a sentence below and add senses and emotion plus a figure of speech of your choice. Use that sentence to kickstart a poem or short story.

Jacob’s room smelled bad. 

My grandmother’s locket is old. 

I found a cat in the lane. 

She wished she could visit the ocean.

He would never get on a plane and no one could make him. 

They walked a mile together, then parted ways. 

I was late to work again. 

She forgot to catch fireflies. 

What did you think of this little lesson on imagery? Will you try the writing exercise? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: What is a prose poem?

Want to receive tips and inspiration like this in your inbox every Sunday morning?  Join our email list community!  You will receive weekly advice, a year’s worth of weekly writing prompts as a FREE download, and be eligible to participate in our  monthly photo prompt contest  for a chance to share an original piece of writing with our community of nearly 2,100 writers.

Teneice Durrant

Teneice Durrant is a proud graduate of Spalding University’s MFA program, and The University of Toledo’s MA in English Literature program. She has published four chapbooks and one full-length poetry collection,  Glass Corset (2019). 

Copyright 2020 ~ Center for Creative Writing

Writing Forward

Creative Writing Prompts for Crafting Compelling Imagery

by Melissa Donovan | Dec 20, 2018 | Creative Writing Prompts | 6 comments

writing prompt imagery

Creative writing prompts for crafting stunning imagery.

Today I’d like to share a collection of prompts from 1200 Creative Writing Prompts , which contains a variety of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction writing prompts.

Some of the prompts in the book are story starters. Some are word lists. The prompts I’m sharing today are simple but provocative images that are designed to spark a writing session.

In writing, imagery is the key that can unlock a reader’s imagination. When an image is rendered with the right combination of words, it magically appears in the reader’s mind like a photograph or film clip.

Here’s an example:

A woman wearing a black dress is lying on the floor in a disheveled room.

Now look at the image above. Note the details that are missing from the sentence above: the tilting couch and mirror, the shiny hardwood floor, and the brightly colored plastic flower in the foreground. These details were left out of the example sentence to create a white space, which readers can fill in for themselves.

One reader might imagine clothing scattered across a carpet, a broken lamp, and a woman who has been injured lying on the floor, waiting for help. Another reader might picture the aftermath of a party: dirty dishes, empty bottles, and a woman passed out from drinking too much wine. One reader will imagine a wild and beautiful young woman, another will picture an older, more refined woman.

The perfect balance of description and white space provides just enough detail to make the image manifest, but not so much that the reader’s own imagination fails to be engaged. As a writer, it’s your job to know how much detail you need to include in your writing in order to bring out the most important elements of any image.

Creative Writing Prompts

Today’s creative writing prompts deal with creating imagery in writing. Each prompt consists of an item, which functions as the inspiration for a larger image. You’ll need to paint in the final strokes so the image and its emotional implications become clear.

As you work through these creative writing prompts, try asking questions about the prompt you’ve chosen and the image it evokes. Where is it? Who put it there? Why? Ask questions until the image comes into focus. Then use your words to paint the picture you have developed in your mind.

You can use these writing prompts to create an essay, a short story, a poem, or a quick freewrite. You can write a few paragraphs or a few pages. Follow the image wherever it takes you.

Once you’re done, come back and tell us how these creative writing prompts worked for you. And keep writing.

Creative Writing Prompts

Ooh, great prompts! Thanks for sharing those!

Melissa Donovan

Thanks! My pleasure.

James Thayer

Your comments on imagery are spot on. In my teaching and editing, I see a lot of default settings, where the writer has a good scene going, with tense dialogue and action, but hasn’t given any thought to the background, the setting. And so the setting will be bland, and contributes nothing to the story. The writer has put nothing in the setting for the reader to wonder about. A rusty handsaw or a pair of fishnet stockings or a torn photo would arrest the reader’s eye. If a scene is in an otherwise dull elementary school classroom, put on a counter a terrarium where two tarantulas are fighting. In a living room, put an antique Apache war club on the wall. It’s so important to give the reader something to look at.

I agree, James. I see a lot of work in which meaningful imagery is completely absent. Occasionally, I see the reverse, but this happens more with published works. I find long passages of description tedious. Also, too much imagery in writing disengages the imagination. There needs to be a delicate balance!

Hannah

I love writing prompts! Thank you so much. I will definitely write these down. I collect prompts and shuffle them. They’re fantastic for stirring up creative thoughts. Thanks again!

Awesome! Come back and let us know how these writing prompts worked out for you. Good luck!

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Imagery Definition

What is imagery? Here’s a quick and simple definition:

Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After Apple-Picking" contain imagery that engages the senses of touch, movement, and hearing: "I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend. / And I keep hearing from the cellar bin / The rumbling sound / Of load on load of apples coming in."

Some additional key details about imagery:

Imagery Pronunciation

Here's how to pronounce imagery: im -ij-ree

Types of Imagery

There are five main types of imagery, each related to one of the human senses:

Some people may also argue that imagery can be kinesthetic (related to movement) or organic (related to sensations within the body). Writers may focus descriptions in a particular passage on primarily one type of imagery, or multiple types of imagery.

Imagery and Figurative Language

Many people (and websites) confuse the relationship between imagery and figurative language. Usually this confusion involves one of two things:

Both are wrong.

A Quick Definition of Figurative Language

Figurative language is language that creates a meaning that is different from the literal interpretation of the words. For instance, the phrase "you are my sunshine" is figurative language (a metaphor , to be precise). It's not literally saying that you are a beam of light from the sun, but rather is creating an association between "you" and "sunshine" to say that you make the speaker feel warm and happy and also give the speaker life in the same way sunshine does.

Imagery can be Literal or Figurative

Imagery is neither a type of figurative language nor does it solely involve the use of figurative language to create descriptions for one simple reason: imagery can be totally literal. Take the lines from Robert Frost's "After-Apple Picking:"

I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend. And I keep hearing from the cellar bin The rumbling sound Of load on load of apples coming in.

These lines contain powerful imagery: you can feel the swaying ladder, see the bending boughs, and hear the rumbling of the apples going into the cellar bin. But it is also completely literal: every word means exactly what it typically means. So this imagery involves no figurative language at all.

Now, that doesn't mean imagery can't use figurative language. It can! You could write, for instance, "The apples rumbled into the cellar bin like a stampede of buffalo," using a simile to create a non-literal comparison that emphasizes just how loudly those apples were rumbling. To sum up, then: imagery can involve the use of figurative language, but it doesn't have to.

Imagery Examples

Imagery is found in all sorts of writing, from fiction to non-fiction to poetry to drama to essays.

Example of Imagery in Romeo and Juliet

In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet , Romeo describes his first sight of Juliet with rich visual imagery:

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! Her beauty hangs upon the cheek of night, Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear

This imagery does involve the use of figurative language, as Romeo describes Juliet's beauty in the nighttime by using a simile that compares her to a jewel shining against dark skin.

Example of Imagery in "Birches"

In the early lines of his poem "Birches," Robert Frost describes the birches that give his poem it's title. The language he uses in the description involves imagery of sight, movement, and sound.

When I see birches bend to left and right Across the lines of straighter darker trees, I like to think some boy's been swinging them. But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning After a rain. They click upon themselves As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Example of Imagery in The Road

The novelist Cormac McCarthy is known, among other things, for his powerful imagery. In this passage from his novel The Road , note how he uses imagery to describe the fire on the distant ridge, the feel of the air, and even the feeling inside that the man experiences.

A forest fire was making its way along the tinderbox ridges above them, flaring and shimmering against the overcast like the northern lights. Cold as it was he stood there a long time. The color of it moved something in him long forgotten.

Example of Imagery in Moby-Dick

The passage ago appears at the very end of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick and describes the ocean in the moments after a destroyed ship has sunk into it. Notice how Melville combines visual, auditory, and kinesthetic imagery ("small fowls flew"; "white surf beat"), and how the imagery allows you to almost feel the vortex created by the sinking ship and then the silence left behind when it closes.

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

Example of Imagery in Song of Solomon

In this passage from Song of Solomon , Toni Morrison uses visual imagery to capture the color and motion of the table cloth as it settles over the table. She also uses figurative language ("like a lighthouse keeper...") to describe the way that Ruth in the passage looks at the water stain on the table. The figurative language doesn't just describe the color or sound or smell of the scene, it captures the obsessive way that Ruth glances at the water stain, and the way that seeing it gives her a sense of ease. Here the figurative language deepens the imagery of the scene.

As she unfolded the white linen and let it billow over the fine mahogany table, she would look once more at the large water mark. She never set the table or passed through the dining room without looking at it. Like a lighthouse keeper drawn to his window to gaze once again at the sea, or a prisoner automatically searching out the sun as he steps into the yard for his hour of exercise, Ruth looked for the water mark several times during the day.

Example of Imagery in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

The main character of Patrick Suskind's novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer has a supernaturally powerful sense of smell. In this passage, which describes the smells of an 18th century city, the narrator captures the nature of 18th century cities—their grittiness and griminess—through the smell of their refuse, and how in such a world perfume might be not just a luxury but a necessity. Further, he makes readers aware of a world of smell of which they normally are only slightly aware, and how a super-sensitive sense of smell could both be powerful but also be overwhelmingly unpleasant. And finally, through smell the narrator is able to describe just how gross humans can be, how they are in some ways just another kind of animal, and how their bodies are always failing or dying. Through descriptions of smell, in other words, the novel also describes an overlooked aspect of the human condition.

In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease.

Why Do Writers Use Imagery?

Imagery is essential to nearly every form of writing, and writers use imagery for a wide variety of reasons:

Other Helpful Imagery Resources

The printed PDF version of the LitCharts literary term guide on Imagery

The LitCharts.com logo.

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  1. Sensory Imagery in Creative Writing: Types, Examples, and ...

    Writing Sensory Imagery in Creative Writing: Types, Examples, and Writing Tips Written by MasterClass Last updated: Sep 29, 2021 • 6 min read Sensory imagery is a literary device writers employ to engage a reader’s mind on multiple levels. Sensory imagery explores the five human senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.

  2. Create Powerful Imagery in Your Writing - Writer's Digest

    Paint the image in small bites. Never stop your story to describe. Keep it going, incorporating vivid images, enlarging the action, and putting the dialogue in context. A sponge carpet of pine needles covered the trail. It cushioned their soles and absorbed the sounds of their footsteps. Rhonda stopped short and whispered, “Something’s coming.

  3. Imagery in Writing: Definition and Examples | Grammarly

    Imagery enhances writing by creating a physical response in the reader through sensory details. Language can elicit a psychological or intellectual reaction in a reader, and imagery is just one more tool a writer has to connect with their audience through sensation and emotion.

  4. Imagery: How to Create Strong Visuals In Writing

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    If you’ve practiced or studied creative writing, chances are you’ve encountered the expression “paint a picture with words.” In poetry and literature, this is known as imagery: the use of figurative language to evoke a sensory experience in the reader. When a poet uses descriptive language well, they play to the reader’s senses, providing them with sights, tastes, smells, sounds ...

  6. What is imagery? | Center for Creative Writing

    An imagery writing exercise Choose a sentence below and add senses and emotion plus a figure of speech of your choice. Use that sentence to kickstart a poem or short story. Jacob’s room smelled bad. My grandmother’s locket is old. I found a cat in the lane. She wished she could visit the ocean.

  7. Creative Writing Prompts for Crafting Compelling Imagery

    You can use these writing prompts to create an essay, a short story, a poem, or a quick freewrite. You can write a few paragraphs or a few pages. Follow the image wherever it takes you. A pair of baby shoes. A torn photograph. A broken bottle and a guitar pick. A “no smoking” sign and a pair of fishnet stockings.

  8. Imagery - Definition and Examples | LitCharts

    Imagery includes language that appeals to all of the human senses, including sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. While imagery can and often does benefit from the use of figurative language such as metaphors and similes, imagery can also be written without using any figurative language at all. Imagery Pronunciation