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.
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.
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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 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.
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 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.