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What Is the Function of Imagery in Literature?

Powerful imagery in books may allow a reader to be transported to a different world.
Imagery in literature can paint a more focused emotional picture of the characters.
Imagery in literature is meant to ignite the reader's imagination.
Use of imagery in a poem or other work may be for the purpose of conveying to the reader a full and thorough description of something, such as a landscape.
Metaphors and similes often contribute to figurative imagery within a text.
A vivid description of lightning might be used to lend a scene a more exciting and realistic feel.
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  • Originally Written By: Michael Smathers
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: Jessica Seminara
  • Last Modified Date: 23 August 2015
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The primary function of imagery in literature is to bring a lifelike quality to scenery, people, or circumstances. Imagery is generally viewed as a “literary device,” which basically means that it is a way of using language to achieve a specific end. Writers use imagery to give life to their words in a way that is both realistic and authentic; it enables them to evoke certain feelings and images in the reader’s mind that give the illusion of having originated from the reader him or herself. Experts sometimes refer to this sort of writing as “showing not telling,” which basically means that the writer is able to use language artfully enough to produce results without directly stating them or spelling them out. Imagery in literature is normally broken into two broad categories, namely descriptive and figurative language. There are many examples and variations, but all generally serve the same purpose, which is to add depth and a more vivid feel to the writing at hand.

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Understanding Literary Devices Generally

Literary devices are basically techniques that writers can use to make their words more interesting and their prose more effective. Sometimes the most direct way to get a point across is to simply write things in the most basic, straightforward way possible, but not always. Language can also be used very artfully, and can be a means of describing, persuading, and showing readers things they hadn’t considered before. Literary devices can be very helpful in these sorts of situations.

Imagery in particular is often really useful when it comes to describing certain experiences or drawing analogies between related things. When used properly, it can bring a great deal of context to the reader and can also make the scenes or situations described seem both lively and realistic. It can appeal to the senses and bring a lifelike quality to characters or settings in a written work, which often aids or at least stimulates the reader's imagination.

Descriptive Language

Descriptive language is often the most direct method of using imagery in literature. The goal of this type of imagery is to create a vivid, realistic description of the scene, appealing to as many of the reader's senses as possible. Writers often use it when they describe the appearance of characters and settings, and the sounds, smells, taste and feel of the fictional world. Striking a balance is important: giving too little information doesn't allow the reader to picture the scene as vividly, but too much information can slow the narrative and lessen the role of the reader's imagination.

Using Sound

In addition to its use in description of characters, settings and objects, imagery is also used figuratively. Some of the most common figurative language techniques include sound-related devices such as onomatopoeia, alliteration, assonance and consonance.

Onomatopoeia is the technique of choosing words that sound when spoken like the very sound they’re meant to imitate; the word "buzz" is one example. Onomatopoeia is used mostly in poetry, but has a function in prose, too. When coupled with alliteration, assonance and consonance — techniques involving the repetition of consonant and vowel sounds — it can create an atmosphere of sound via imitation. For example, in a passage about wind, the hissing sounds of the letter "s" can recreate the sound of wind blowing through tree leaves, which many say can bring it to life more than a simple description would.

Simile and Metaphor

Simile and metaphor are also frequently used to convey figurative imagery. Both are phrases intended to compare one object to another. A simile uses the terms "like" or "as" as the primary vehicles of comparison, as in the descriptive sentence "The bat hit the ball with a sound like gunfire." Metaphors, on the other hand, do not use the words "like" or "as" but instead use direct wording: "The fireworks were thunder in her ears." The idea here is not that the fireworks actually exploded in her ears, but rather that they sounded very loud — the same sentiment of the simile example above.

With both similes and metaphors, the imagery employed makes the writing more engaging and often more approachable. Metaphors are often considered to be more authoritative and convey tighter word economy, but similes can sometimes leave more room for imagination.

Personification

Personification is another form of figurative imagery in literature. This technique ascribes human qualities to an otherwise nonhuman subject to give it a sense of life. It can be effective when describing natural phenomena such as lightning, especially when combined with other imagery. An example of this might be a sentence like this: "The lightning spread across the sky and reached for the ground with questing fingers." Giving inanimate or otherwise inhuman things human qualities can make the writer’s meaning almost immediately recognizable.

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Discuss this Article

anon990374
Post 7

Descriptive language and the way that you use it is basically how you develop your "voice" when writing. Some authors are going to use a lot of description to convey a scene, while others are only going to paint it in broad strokes. If you want an example of the latter, you should probably read some of Hemingway's work. He manages to write stories that convey a great deal of emotion and meaning without giving very much description to his characters. Often they won't even have a name, but somehow you still manage to get a vivid picture of what is happening to them.

anon989508
Post 6

This talks about what imagery is and how it is used in most literature novels, but nothing about what the function of imagery is?

pastanaga
Post 5

Descriptive language and the way that you use it is basically how you develop your "voice" when writing. Some authors are going to use a lot of description to convey a scene, while others are only going to paint it in broad strokes. If you want an example of the latter, you should probably read some of Hemmingway's work. He manages to write stories that convey a great deal of emotion and meaning without giving very much description to his characters. Often they won't even have a name, but somehow you still manage to get a vivid picture of what is happening to them.

umbra21
Post 4

@MrsPramm - Another good one to recommend to people is that they try the Odyssey or the Iliad. There is some gorgeous imagery in those and they also have a lot of layers, although they can be a more difficult read. The imagery relies a lot on descriptions of the gods in nature, like the rosy fingers of Dawn meaning both the actual rising of the sun and the actual fingers of the goddess responsible for the dawn.

Plus I just think it's good for a lot of people to read these classics, because they are some of our most ancient literature and they deserve to be enjoyed.

MrsPramm
Post 3

If you want to see some amazing use of imagery in a modern novel, I would try reading Life of Pi. The entire book is basically a metaphor, which is amazing enough, but it also contains plenty of gorgeous imagery in almost all senses of the word.

I always recommend it to people who aren't sure whether they want to try reading literature, because it's relatively easy to read, but the techniques add so many layers that it can satisfy almost any kind of reader.

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