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." Onomatopeia 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."