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What Is Imagery?

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  • Written By: Meg Higa
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 22 October 2014
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Imagery is a technique of writing which uses descriptive language to engage the reader’s senses. The most common is visual. A good description can employ words of color, light and texture to conjure a mental image within the reader. Skillful writers can achieve the same effect with any of the human senses, eliciting both physical and emotional reactions to well chosen words. The objective is to tap the universal experiences of human beings, and by recalling them in the mind of a reader, to immerse him into the illusionary world created by the written word.

This descriptive language is used to activate the five human senses in a reader: vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch. A sentence that can give a reader a sense of touch might be, "Within seconds, her clothes were pasted to her damp skin." Other less conventional “senses” and emotional states can also be targeted with this writing technique. The term kinesthetic imagery has been used broadly to include descriptions which evoke movement, space, temperature and other physical senses. Organic imagery is another catch-all term applied to sensations of being, such as fatigue, nausea and hunger.

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There are many purposes for the use of imagery in addition to inducing a physical reaction in the reader. If the reader also has a past personal experience with the description, it may also recall the emotions associated with it. Effective descriptions establish an environment or circumstance, a setting or mood. Clever writers or those with exceptional skill in the technique can imbed depth and layers of additional meaning to a description that may even be beyond the awareness of a reader.

Poetry is a genre of literature that relies heavily on imagery. With a minimum of words, the poet must make an emotional connection with readers. It has often been said that a smell can trigger past memories and their emotional context. A good poet might be capable of describing a smell so convincingly that a reader’s brain is tricked into thinking the smell is real, eliciting deeply seated primal emotions. Whether for poetry or for prose, effective use of this literary technique requires attentive observation of nature and human behavior.

Closely related to imagery are figurative expressions. They include similes, metaphors, allusions, personification and more. A simile typically uses the words “like” or “as” to establish an analogy between two different ideas or things as having one characteristic or dimension in common. “My brother’s devious smile was like a hungry shark,” is an example. A metaphor is more direct and normally does not use such overt words of comparison. “Her smile was a tempting bait with unseen tripwires.”

Imagery is generally a literal description. Figurative expressions are, as a rule, never literal. One way to deploy the technique called personification is to endow an object with human traits, such as in, “The museum spoke of the events and progression of an ancient era.” An allusion is also an effective literary technique, but it often presumes a collective knowledge on the part of the reader. The descriptive comparison, “My third grade class was a Mongol horde at the museum,” is only effective if the reader has some evocative idea of how a Mongol horde might look and act.

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