What Is the Function of Imagery in Literature?

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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  • Written By: Michael Smathers
  • Edited By: Jessica Seminara
  • Last Modified Date: 11 February 2015
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Written literature is the second-oldest method humans have of telling stories, second only to oral tradition. One of the most important functions of a work of literature is to tell a story and create a world that the reader can accept as real or plausible. Imagery in literature is a collection of techniques that appeal to the senses and bring a lifelike quality to characters or settings in a written work, aiding the reader's imagination. There are two main types of language used in literature: descriptive and figurative; descriptive language appeals directly to the senses, whereas figurative language uses more subtle descriptions and often invokes other meanings or themes of a work. Both types of language are used to create imagery in literature.

Descriptive language is 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. This form of imagery describes 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.


In addition to its use in description of characters, settings and objects, imagery is also used figuratively. Some figurative language techniques in which imagery is employed include sound-related techniques such as onomatopoeia, alliteration, assonance and consonance. In addition, it is used in figurative language that draws comparisons, such as simile, metaphor and personification.

Imagery in literature also covers sounds. One of the most powerful figurative language techniques used to convey sounds to the reader is onomatopoeia, or choosing words with a sound that imitates the real sounds they represent, such as "buzz." Onomatopoeia is used mostly in poetry, but has its function in prose. 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.

Simile and metaphor are other common techniques used to convey figurative imagery in literature. These are phrases intended to compare one object to another. A simile uses the terms "like" or "as" to compare; for example, "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." Metaphors are considered to be more authoritative and convey tighter word economy, but similes have their uses as well.

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 would be: "The lightning spread across the sky and reached for the ground with questing fingers."



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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.

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.

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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