How to Use Imagery

silhouette of mountains during dawn

You might have heard that imagery is pivotal to writing a story. It truly makes a scene come alive, but many sources I’ve seen that talked about imagery have just said “Use the five senses!” and then moved on. The five senses are touch, tasting, smell, seeing, and hearing, but writing imagery isn’t just using these senses. Of course, they’re very important, but there’s more to it than that.

When you create a new scene, or a character interacts in a new surrounding, you don’t just list every detail you need to include all the senses like a checklist and move on. Imagery elevates your description, and there’s a creative process behind bringing a scene and a setting to life. Ready to find out the different ways you can use imagery? Check below to find out!

brook among tall trees in autumn forest
Photo by Marta Wave on

A great way to bring your description to life is through the five senses. These details stick out most in your writing because they describe the tangible details your characters interact with and your readers can identify. Your readers, when placed in the minds of your character’s POV or an omniscient narrator, imagine what they see and hear as you build up your description. The clearer these mental pictures are, the more invested your readers become in your world. A good descriptive scene builds off of imagery, and while the five senses are a huge part of the description, it’s important to use these senses effectively.

Of course, there’s no magical order these senses should be placed in. If you just wrote every sensory detail off like a checklist in the same order every time, and all at once, that would quickly get very repetitive and frustrating. There would be no way for your readers to ever get into the scene. When using imagery, think of what readers need to know then decide which sense is most important to start off with. What if your character walks into their kitchen where their mother is baking? The first sense you would describe would be the smell of the cupcakes fresh out of the oven that your character notices. Then maybe they would hear the loud clatter of the pans as their mother begins washing the dishes. Keep track of what’s important, then tie these details together to bring the beginnings of the scene to life.

Like the senses, imagery also utilizes movement and direction in a scene. This not only establishes the dimensions of what your readers need to picture but also how the objects and characters in your story are moving in that scene. Suppose you were trying to describe the way a horse runs through the pasture on a farm, or you wanted to explain how a bowling ball spins down the lane. How do you help your readers gain a mental picture of the movement and direction?

Adjectives are your friend here. For movement, the way you describe how something moves provides mental clarity. For direction, you should describe where something is happening. As another example, the sentence:

“John scurried around the tight, dusty corner and leaped into the dark narrow room”

conveys more than if the sentence was just:

“John walked around the corner and entered the room.”

With the first sentence, we not only understand what the setting looks like but also how John moves through it. Both John’s actions and the description of the places give the readers a feeling that something sinister is going on. This is the imagery we wanted! The imagery isn’t as easy to tell in the second sentence. John moves, but we don’t understand how he moves. We also can’t accurately picture what the room or corner should look like without the adjectives that convey the imagery.

The different details in your imagery should also create the right feeling. Here, adjectives are also your friends, because they help your readers understand what something should feel like. These feelings could either be physical feelings that readers will recognize or emotional feelings that readers can draw from the piece. Usually, physical sensations are used in poetry, such as using “thirst” or “hunger” as a type of metaphor, or figurative language. (More on that later though).

For emotion, however, there are lots of ways to describe emotion. This could be through pain, anger, sadness, or any other emotion the character might be experiencing. With imagery, readers learn what a character is currently feeling, instead of you just telling them what the character is feeling. For example:

“Maggie’s stomach did a flip when she tripped up the stage to make her speech.”

This conveys more than just:

“Maggie was nervous when she walked up the stage to give her speech.”

The first sentence describes the emotions Maggie feels, and her actions add to her nervousness. We don’t even need to read the word “nervous” to understand what Maggie feels! In the second sentence, the writer just tells the reader that Maggie is nervous. With the imagery, we can squeeze so much more out of the sentence.

Lastly, imagery often employs figurative language. This is when you use words and phrases to describe something without using a word or phrase’s strict meaning. This could be a simile, hyperbole, a figure of speech, and more. Basically, you take the literal meaning of a word or phrase and use it as something else for your imagery. For example:

“The silence sank through the room like a capsized ship.”

The phrase “like a sinking ship” is a simile.” An odd example, maybe. But here the sinking ship reflects how the silence has affected the characters. And we don’t even know who the characters are in this sentence! We just learn from the figurative language that an ominous silence has descended, and something bad might be about to happen. This conveys much more than “There was an ominous silence in the room.”

Note that this doesn’t mean using a figure of speech as a cliche. Phrases such as “out of the blue” or “in a flash” might be used to describe something appearing out of nowhere or quickly. However, both of these phrases have been used so often that using them in your writing is boring. Why? Because these phrases are overdone. Try to think of new and creative ways to describe something with metaphor rather than rely on what’s already been said.

Imagery takes practice like every aspect of writing. But there’s plenty of ways to be creative with it! If you have a section of imagery you’re really passionate about, feel free to talk about it in the comments! Happy writing!

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