Definition of Imagery

Imagery is a literary device that refers to the use of figurative language to evoke a sensory experience or create a picture with words for a reader. By utilizing effective descriptive language and figures of speech , writers appeal to a reader’s senses of sight, taste, smell, touch, and sound, as well as internal emotion and feelings. Therefore, imagery is not limited to visual representations or mental images, but also includes physical sensations and internal emotions.

For example, in his novel   The Scarlet Letter , Nathaniel Hawthorne utilizes imagery as a literary device to create a sensation for the reader as a means of understanding the love felt by the protagonist , Hester Prynne.

Love, whether newly born or aroused from a deathlike slumber, must always create sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world.

By using descriptive language in an effective and unique way, Hawthorne evokes feelings and allows the reader an internal emotional response in reaction to his description of love. This image is especially poignant and effective for readers of this novel since Hester’s love, in the story , results in darkness , shame, and isolation–the opposite of sunshine and radiance. However, Hawthorne’s imagery appeals to the reader’s understanding of love and subsequent empathy for Hester’s emotions and actions, despite her transgression of societal norms, morals , and laws.

Common Examples of Imagery in Everyday Speech

People frequently use imagery as a means of communicating feelings, thoughts, and ideas through descriptive language. Here are some common examples of imagery in everyday speech:

  • The autumn leaves are a blanket on the ground.
  • Her lips tasted as sweet as sugar.
  • His words felt like a dagger in my heart.
  • My head is pounding like a drum.
  • The kitten’s fur is milky.
  • The siren turned into a whisper as it ended.
  • His coat felt like a velvet curtain.
  • The houses look like frosted cakes in winter .
  • The light under the door looked buttery.
  • I came inside because the house smells like a chocolate brownie.

Types of Poetic Imagery

For poetic imagery, there are seven primary types. These types of imagery often feature figures of speech such as similes and metaphors to make comparisons . Overall, poetic imagery provides sensory details to create clear and vibrant descriptions. This appeals to a reader’s imagination and emotions as well as their senses.

Here are the main types of poetic imagery:

  • Visual : appeals to the sense of sight through the description of color, light, size, pattern, etc.
  • Auditory : appeals to the sense of hearing or sound by including melodic sounds, silence , harsh noises, and even onomatopoeia .
  • Gustatory : appeals to the sense of taste by describing whether something is sweet, salty, savory, spicy, or sour.
  • Tactile : appeals to the sense of touch by describing how something physically feels, such as its temperature, texture, or other sensation.
  • Olfactory : appeals to the sense of smell by describing something’s fragrance or odor.
  • Kinesthetic : appeals to a reader’s sense of motion or movement through describing the sensations of moving or the movements of an object .
  • Organic : appeals to and communicates internal sensations, feelings, and emotions, such as fatigue, thirst, fear, love, loneliness, despair, etc.

Famous Examples of Imagery in Shakespearean Works

Writers use imagery to create pictures in the minds of readers, often with words and phrases that are uniquely descriptive and emotionally charged to emphasize an idea. William Shakespeare ’s works feature imagery as a literary device for readers and audiences as a means to enhance their experience of his plays. Shakespeare’s artistic use of language and imagery is considered to be some of the greatest in literature.

Here are some famous examples of imagery in Shakespearean works:

  • “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, My love as deep.”  Romeo and Juliet
  • “There’s daggers in men’s smiles.”  Macbeth
  • “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, Men were deceivers ever,- One foot in sea and one on shore, To one thing constant never.”  Much Ado About Nothing
  • “If I be waspish, best beware my sting.”  The Taming of the Shrew
  • “Good- night , sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”  Hamlet
  • “Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, Such shaping fantasies , that apprehend More than cool reason ever comprehends.”  A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”  The Tempest
  • “And thus I clothe my naked villainy With odd old ends stol’n out of holy writ; And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”  Richard III
  • “By heaven, me thinks it were an easy leap, To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon”  Henry IV
  • “If music be the food of love, play on, Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die.”  Twelfth Night

Writing Imagery

Writers use imagery to evoke emotion in readers. In this way, the reader’s understanding of the poetic subject , setting , plot , characters , etc., is deepened and they have a sense of how to feel about it. Ideally, as a literary device, imagery should enhance a literary work. Unfortunately, some writers try to use this literary device too often, which can lessen the impact of the description and figurative language.

For imagery to be effective and significant, whether, in poetry or a story, it should add depth and meaning to the literary work. Overuse of imagery can feel tedious for readers and limit their access to and understanding of the writer’s purpose. Therefore, it’s essential for writers to balance presenting information in a straightforward manner and using imagery as a literary device.

Difference between Literal Imagery and Figurative Imagery

There is a slight difference in literal and figurative imagery. Literal imagery, as the name applies, is near in meanings and almost the same thing or exactly what the description says. For example, color like the red rose implies the same thing. However, in figurative imagery, a thing is often not what it implies. There is often the use of hyperbole , simile , or metaphors that construct an image that could be different from the actual thing or person. For example, his cries moved the sky is not an example of literal imagery but of figurative imagery as the skies do not move with cries.

Tips to Analyze Imagery

Analysis of imagery is often done in poetry and short stories. However, imagery is present in every literary work where description becomes of some significance. Whenever there is a description in a literary work, a reader first analyses different figures of speech such as metaphors, similes, personifications , images, and hyperbole, etc. There are four major steps in analyzing imagery in a specific description.

  • Identify the type of figures of speech, types of images, and their roles in the description.
  • Compare and contrast the types of images and their accuracy in the description.
  • Compare and contrast the role of the specific figures of speech, their meanings, their roles, and their end product.
  • Critique the description and see how it demonstrates its actual meanings in the context and setting.

Use of Imagery in Sentences

  • Iwan’s sweaty gym clothes left a stale odor in the locker room; so they had to keep the windows open.
  • The tasty, salty broth soothed her sore throat as Simran ate the warm soup.
  • Glittering white, the blanket of snow -covered everything in sight and also blocked the street.
  • The tree bark was rough against the deer’s skin but it did satisfy its itch.
  • Kids could hear the popping and crackling as their mom dropped the bacon into the frying pan, and soon the salty, greasy smell wafted toward me.

Examples of Imagery in Literature

Though imagery is often associated with poetry, it is an effective literary device in all forms of writing. Writers utilize imagery as a means of communicating their thoughts and perceptions on a deeper and more memorable level with readers. Imagery helps a reader formulate a visual picture and sensory impression of what the writer is describing as well as the emotions attached to the description. In addition, imagery is a means of showcasing a writer’s mastery of artistic and figurative language, which also enhances the meaning and enjoyment of a literary work for a reader.

Here are some examples of imagery in literature:

Example 1:  Goblin Market (Christina Rossetti)

Early in the morning When the first cock crow’d his warning, Neat like bees, as sweet and busy, Laura rose with Lizzie: Fetch’d in honey, milk’d the cows, Air’d and set to rights the house, Kneaded cakes of whitest wheat, Cakes for dainty mouths to eat, Next churn’d butter, whipp’d up cream, Fed their poultry, sat and sew’d; Talk’d as modest maidens should: Lizzie with an open heart, Laura in an absent dream, One content, one sick in part; One warbling for the mere bright day’s delight, One longing for the night.

In this passage of her poem , Rossetti uses all forms of poetic imagery to appeal to the reader’s physical senses as well as their experience of motion and internal emotions. The reader can visualize the actions taking place in the poem along with a sense of orderly movement paired with disordered emotion. As the sisters Lizzie and Laura go about their maidenly and pastoral tasks, the poet’s description of their divergent mindsets and feelings creates an imagery of the tension between darkness and light, innocence and temptation. These contrasting images evoke unsettled and contradictory feelings for the reader, undermining the appearance of the sisters’ idyllic lives with a sense of foreboding.

Example 2:  The Yellow Wallpaper  (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)

The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others. No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long.

In this passage of Gilman’s short story , the narrator uses poetic imagery to describe the yellow wallpaper which eventually ensnares her mind and body. The narrator’s imagery effectively appeals to the reader’s sense of sight, smell, and touch so that the reader is as repulsed by the wallpaper as the story’s protagonist. By utilizing imagery as a literary device, Gilman is able to evoke the same feelings of sickness, despair, fear, claustrophobia, etc., for the reader as she does for the narrator. In addition to this emotional effect, the artistic language used to describe the yellow wallpaper also enhances its symbolic presence in the story.

Example 3:  The Red Wheelbarrow  (William Carlos Williams)

so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens

This poem by William Carlos Williams features imagery and, in fact, is an example of Imagist poetry. Imagism was a poetic movement of the early twentieth century that veered away from the heavy description that was characteristic of Romantic and Victorian poems. Instead, the purpose of Imagism was to create an accurate image or presentation of a subject that would be visually concrete for the reader. Imagist poets achieved this through succinct, direct, and specific language, favoring precise phrasing over set poetic meter .

In Williams’s poem, the poet uses simple language and clear expression to create imagery for the reader of a red wheelbarrow, lending beauty , and symbolism to an ordinary object. By describing the wheelbarrow with sparse but precise language, the reader can picture an exact visual image of what the poet is trying to convey which, in turn, evokes an emotional response to the image. This imagery enhances the meaning of the poem’s phrasing such that each word becomes essential, and the poem and its imagery are nearly indistinguishable.

Synonyms of Imagery

Imagery has several synonyms with slightly different meanings. They are imagination, picturing, mental imagery, vision, imaging, and dreaming are almost near in meanings but evocation, chimera, pretense, and mind’s eyes.

Related posts:

  • Auditory Imagery
  • Visual Imagery
  • Gustatory Imagery
  • Tactile Imagery
  • Olfactory Imagery
  • Kinesthetic Imagery
  • Examples of Imagery in Poetry

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imagery examples in an essay

Imagery Definition

What is imagery? Here’s a quick and simple definition:

Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After Apple-Picking" contain imagery that engages the senses of touch, movement, and hearing: "I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend. / And I keep hearing from the cellar bin / The rumbling sound / Of load on load of apples coming in."

Some additional key details about imagery:

  • Though imagery contains the word "image," it does not only refer to descriptive language that appeals to the sense of sight. Imagery includes language that appeals to all of the human senses, including sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell.
  • While imagery can and often does benefit from the use of figurative language such as metaphors and similes, imagery can also be written without using any figurative language at all.

Imagery Pronunciation

Here's how to pronounce imagery: im -ij-ree

Types of Imagery

There are five main types of imagery, each related to one of the human senses:

  • Visual imagery (sight)
  • Auditory imagery (hearing)
  • Olfactory imagery (smell)
  • Gustatory imagery (taste)
  • Tactile imagery (touch)

Some people may also argue that imagery can be kinesthetic (related to movement) or organic (related to sensations within the body). Writers may focus descriptions in a particular passage on primarily one type of imagery, or multiple types of imagery.

Imagery and Figurative Language

Many people (and websites) confuse the relationship between imagery and figurative language. Usually this confusion involves one of two things:

  • Describing imagery as a type of figurative language.
  • Describing imagery as the use of figurative language to create descriptions that engage the physical senses.

Both are wrong.

A Quick Definition of Figurative Language

Figurative language is language that creates a meaning that is different from the literal interpretation of the words. For instance, the phrase "you are my sunshine" is figurative language (a metaphor , to be precise). It's not literally saying that you are a beam of light from the sun, but rather is creating an association between "you" and "sunshine" to say that you make the speaker feel warm and happy and also give the speaker life in the same way sunshine does.

Imagery can be Literal or Figurative

Imagery is neither a type of figurative language nor does it solely involve the use of figurative language to create descriptions for one simple reason: imagery can be totally literal. Take the lines from Robert Frost's "After-Apple Picking:"

I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend. And I keep hearing from the cellar bin The rumbling sound Of load on load of apples coming in.

These lines contain powerful imagery: you can feel the swaying ladder, see the bending boughs, and hear the rumbling of the apples going into the cellar bin. But it is also completely literal: every word means exactly what it typically means. So this imagery involves no figurative language at all.

Now, that doesn't mean imagery can't use figurative language. It can! You could write, for instance, "The apples rumbled into the cellar bin like a stampede of buffalo," using a simile to create a non-literal comparison that emphasizes just how loudly those apples were rumbling. To sum up, then: imagery can involve the use of figurative language, but it doesn't have to.

Imagery Examples

Imagery is found in all sorts of writing, from fiction to non-fiction to poetry to drama to essays.

Example of Imagery in Romeo and Juliet

In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet , Romeo describes his first sight of Juliet with rich visual imagery:

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! Her beauty hangs upon the cheek of night, Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear

This imagery does involve the use of figurative language, as Romeo describes Juliet's beauty in the nighttime by using a simile that compares her to a jewel shining against dark skin.

Example of Imagery in "Birches"

In the early lines of his poem "Birches," Robert Frost describes the birches that give his poem it's title. The language he uses in the description involves imagery of sight, movement, and sound.

When I see birches bend to left and right Across the lines of straighter darker trees, I like to think some boy's been swinging them. But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning After a rain. They click upon themselves As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Example of Imagery in The Road

The novelist Cormac McCarthy is known, among other things, for his powerful imagery. In this passage from his novel The Road , note how he uses imagery to describe the fire on the distant ridge, the feel of the air, and even the feeling inside that the man experiences.

A forest fire was making its way along the tinderbox ridges above them, flaring and shimmering against the overcast like the northern lights. Cold as it was he stood there a long time. The color of it moved something in him long forgotten.

Example of Imagery in Moby-Dick

The passage ago appears at the very end of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick and describes the ocean in the moments after a destroyed ship has sunk into it. Notice how Melville combines visual, auditory, and kinesthetic imagery ("small fowls flew"; "white surf beat"), and how the imagery allows you to almost feel the vortex created by the sinking ship and then the silence left behind when it closes.

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

Example of Imagery in Song of Solomon

In this passage from Song of Solomon , Toni Morrison uses visual imagery to capture the color and motion of the table cloth as it settles over the table. She also uses figurative language ("like a lighthouse keeper...") to describe the way that Ruth in the passage looks at the water stain on the table. The figurative language doesn't just describe the color or sound or smell of the scene, it captures the obsessive way that Ruth glances at the water stain, and the way that seeing it gives her a sense of ease. Here the figurative language deepens the imagery of the scene.

As she unfolded the white linen and let it billow over the fine mahogany table, she would look once more at the large water mark. She never set the table or passed through the dining room without looking at it. Like a lighthouse keeper drawn to his window to gaze once again at the sea, or a prisoner automatically searching out the sun as he steps into the yard for his hour of exercise, Ruth looked for the water mark several times during the day.

Example of Imagery in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

The main character of Patrick Suskind's novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer has a supernaturally powerful sense of smell. In this passage, which describes the smells of an 18th century city, the narrator captures the nature of 18th century cities—their grittiness and griminess—through the smell of their refuse, and how in such a world perfume might be not just a luxury but a necessity. Further, he makes readers aware of a world of smell of which they normally are only slightly aware, and how a super-sensitive sense of smell could both be powerful but also be overwhelmingly unpleasant. And finally, through smell the narrator is able to describe just how gross humans can be, how they are in some ways just another kind of animal, and how their bodies are always failing or dying. Through descriptions of smell, in other words, the novel also describes an overlooked aspect of the human condition.

In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease.

Why Do Writers Use Imagery?

Imagery is essential to nearly every form of writing, and writers use imagery for a wide variety of reasons:

  • It engages readers: Imagery allows readers to see and feel what's going on in a story. It fully engages the reader's imagination, and brings them into the story.
  • It's interesting: Writing without imagery would be dry and dull, while writing with imagery can be vibrant and gripping.
  • It can set the scene and communicate character: The description of how a person or place looks, moves, sounds, smells, does as much to tell you about that person or place as any explanation can. Imagery is not just "window dressing," it is the necessary sensory detail that allows a reader to understand the world and people being described, from their fundamental traits to their mood.
  • It can be symbolic: Imagery can both describe the world and establish symbolic meanings that deepen the impact of the text. Such symbolism can range from the weather (rain occurring in moments of sadness) to symbolism that is even deeper or more complex, such as the way that Moby-Dick layers multiple meanings through his descriptions of the whiteness of the whale.

Other Helpful Imagery Resources

  • Wikipedia entry on imagery : A concise, no nonsense entry on imagery.
  • Imagery in Robert Frost's poetry : A page that picks out different kinds of imagery in poems by Robert Frost.
  • Imagery in John Keats's poetry : A page that identifies imagery in poems by John Keats.

The printed PDF version of the LitCharts literary term guide on Imagery

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  • Explanations and citation info for 39,263 quotes across 1868 books
  • Downloadable (PDF) line-by-line translations of every Shakespeare play
  • Figurative Language
  • Climax (Plot)
  • Personification
  • End-Stopped Line
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A literary device is a technique a writer uses to convey ideas and messages to their readers. That means that as readers, we need to understand and use literary devices to fully understand a work’s major themes!

Today, we’re going to take a closer look at how to use imagery to analyze a text. We’ll start by giving you the imagery definition before talking about why it’s an important tool for analyzing a text. Then we’ll walk you through some imagery examples in poetry and fiction and show you exactly how to analyze the imagery in each.

By the end of this article, you’ll be able to talk about imagery in literature like a pro, so let’s get started.


What Is Imagery? Definition and Explanation

Have you ever read a book that makes you feel like you’re seeing, feeling, smelling, or tasting the same thing as the character you’re reading about? (We had that experience the first time Harry Potter tries butterbeer in Hogsmeade .) If you have, you can thank imagery for that experience!

Imagery is the act of using language to create images in the reader’s mind . Writers use descriptive words and phrases to help the reader feel like they’re...well, wherever the writer wants them to be! Basically, the writer is trying to create a “mental image” for the reader through the words they choose. Here’s how one of the greatest horror writers of all time, Stephen King , describes imagery :

Imagery does not occur on the writer’s page; it occurs in the reader’s mind. To describe everything is to supply a photograph in words; to indicate the points which seem the most vivid and important to you, the writer, is to allow the reader to flesh out your sketch into a portrait.

In other words: you can think of imagery as painting with words in order to fuel the reader’s imagination!

An easy way to spot imagery in a text is to pay attention to words, phrases, and sentences that connect with your five senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound). That’s because writers know that in order to capture a reader’s attention, they need to engage with them mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Since imagery is designed to connect a reader to a text, it’s one of the most powerful tools a writer has to communicate their themes and messages.


The 2 Types of Imagery

Any time a writer engages a reader’s senses, they’re using imagery...which means imagery is a really broad literary device. In general, however , imagery fits into two big categories: literal and figurative.

Literal Imagery: Examples and Explanation

With literal imagery, a writer is literally describing things to the reader. (Pretty straightforward, huh?)

Writers often use literal imagery to describe the setting, characters, and situation for a reader. Literal imagery helps the reader picture where characters are, understand what characters are doing, and even foreshadow what might happen next. (For example, if the character is in a dark, dirty alley, they’re probably in a more dangerous situation than if the character is skipping through a field of daisies.)

Let’s take a look at an example of literal imagery from Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park so you can see what we mean. In this scene, Dr. Alan Grant, Lex Murphy, and Tim Murphy are trying to hide from a tyrannosaurus rex:

The tyrannosaur was still looking downstream, its back turned to them. They hurried along the path to the waterfall, and had almost moved behind the sheet of falling water when Grant saw the tyrannosaur turn. Then they were completely behind the waterfall, and Grant was unable to see out through the silver sheet.

Now that you’ve read this passage, close your eyes and picture the scene. You’re probably picturing a giant waterfall, a hungry tyrannosaurus rex, and a lot of danger, right? That’s because the literal imagery in this passage paints a very specific, literal picture that helps you imagine what’s happening in this moment!

Magic, right? Not quite. Imagery works because the writer uses descriptive words and phrases to help paint a picture. Let’s take a look at the first few lines again and pick out some of the descriptive language that helps shape the scene:  

They were closer to the waterfall now, the roar much louder. The rocks became slippery, the path muddy. There was a constant hanging mist. It was like moving through a cloud.

These lines are almost exclusively description, and Crichton uses phrases like “rocks became slippery” and “constant hanging mist” to help you imagine exactly what’s happening. A good way to pick out literal imagery is to look for nouns, then see how they’re described. For example, the noun “waterfall” is described as having a “roar” that gets “louder” the closer the characters get!

From an analysis perspective, these literal images all work together to help build the mood , or tone , of the scene. In this case, the imagery of the scene contributes to its tense and suspenseful tone. The environment is treacherous--not only are the rocks slick, but the characters have trouble seeing through the mist and water. One false move, and they’ll be a tasty snack for a hungry dinosaur!


  Use this picture as inspiration for finding connotation! (This will all make sense in a second.)

Figurative Imagery: Examples and Explanation  

Unlike literal imagery, figurative imagery uses on the non-literal--or metaphorical--meaning of words to paint a picture for the reader. Almost all words have two meanings: their denotation and connotation. The denotation of a word is its literal, dictionary definition. Figurative imagery, on the other hand, relies on the connotation —or implied meaning—of words and phrases to help shape a text’s themes and ideas.

To see how figurative imagery works, let’s look at the first line of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130,” where the speaker is describing his lady love:  

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Okay. Let’s zero in on the word “sun” here. According to Merriam-Webster, the literal definition of the word “sun” is “the luminous celestial body around which the earth and other planets revolve, from which they receive heat and light, which is composed mainly of hydrogen and helium.” But the speaker doesn’t literally mean that his mistress’ eyes aren’t like a ball of gas!

So what does he mean? To figure this out, let’s look at the figurative imagery here. Take a minute and think of some of the implied or metaphorical meanings of the word “sun.” The word might make you think of warmth and happiness. It also might make you think of other images like burning, blazing, or fiery brightness.

With this figurative imagery in mind, this line is better read as “my mistress’s eyes aren’t bright, warm, or happy.” Not only does figurative imagery help this line make more sense, it also clues readers into the message of the poem: that you can recognize someone’s faults and still love them and find them beautiful.

One more quick note: because you’re a savvy reader , you’ve probably realized that this line from Shakespeare is also a metaphor , which is a comparison between two seemingly unrelated objects (in this case, “eyes” and “sun”). Writers often use other literary devices like metaphor, simile, and personification to help create vivid imagery for the reader. So don’t be surprised if you see imagery overlapping with other literary techniques!

Can an Example of Imagery be Both Literal and Figurative at the Same Time?

Absolutely! In fact, it’s quite common to see writers use literal and figurative imagery simultaneously. Take the first stanza of William Wordsworth’s poem, “Daffodils” :

That floats on high o’er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

This stanza combines literal and figurative imagery. Literally, the images in this stanza help us see the speaker wandering around alone until he stumbles upon a patch of daffodils that are growing by a lake. This imagery is important to understanding Wordsworth’s poetry, which often explores the relationship between nature and man.  

The figurative imagery helps us learn a little more about the speaker, who’s an outsider. We can infer this because of the imagery he gives us; he imagines himself as a cloud floating over everything, able to see what’s going on but unable to participate. The daffodils, on the other hand, represent society. The imagery here is happy (the daffodils are “golden” and “dancing”), which is how the speaker views society as someone on the outside looking in.


 Imagery in Poetry: “Hope is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson

Now that you know more about imagery, let’s look at a poem that uses imagery to portray its major themes:

That perches in the soul - And sings the tune without the words - And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard - And sore must be the storm - That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land - And on the strangest Sea - Yet - never - in Extremity, It asked a crumb - of me.

Imagery can make something abstract, like an emotion or theory, seem more concrete and tangible to the reader. By using imagery, writers can evoke the feeling they want to talk about in their readers...and by making their readers feel, writers can also help readers connect to the messages in their work.

In this example, Emily Dickinson takes the abstract idea of “hope” and compares it to a bird. Dickinson paints images of hope doing all the same things a bird does: it “perches,” “sings,” and keeps “so many warm” with its feathers. And despite all these gifts, hope never “asked a crumb” of anything in return. By using imagery to take an abstract idea (hope) and make it concrete (a bird), Dickinson helps readers understand the nature of hope. For Dickinson, hope is something that costs little to have and yet offers us comfort in all of life’s toughest situations.


Imagery in Fiction: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Imagery can be an equally powerful tool for fiction writers, too. In Dracula, Bram Stoker uses imagery to drive home the horror of the novel. Let’s take a look at one particularly stand-out scene, where Arthur Holmwood has to kill his former fiancee, Lucy Westenra, who has been turned into a vampire:

Remember how we talked about how imagery can set a tone or mood? That’s certainly the case here. Lucy is visually described not as a woman but as a “thing,” and the “blood-curdling screech” she lets out is a great example of how auditory imagery--or the sound of a scene--can contribute to its overall effect. (In this case, it amps up the horror of a once-delicate Englishwoman being transformed into a bloodthirsty beast.) It's the imagery associated with Lucy that shows readers how vicious and animalistic she’s become, which is no surprise: she’s joined Dracula’s army of the undead.

Now, take a look at the imagery surrounding Arthur, Lucy’s former fiancee, and see how it compares to Lucy’s description. Even as he’s killing Lucy, Arthur is described as “a figure of Thor”--meaning he’s strong, heroic, and good with a hammer. Stoker specifically says Arthur is “untrembling” in his task; despite its grisly nature, his steadiness showcases his commitment to protecting his country from the vampire threat...even when it means driving a stake in his lover’s heart. Additionally, his face has the “shine” of duty, which is a nod to the glowing, angelic halos of angels. Arthur’s bravery and light stands in contrast to Lucy’s dark, demonic nature, and Stoker specifically uses imagery to show readers how good can triumph over evil.


3 Questions to Ask When Analyzing Imagery

These examples have shown you how to find and analyze imagery, but you’ll have to do this all by yourself when you take the AP Literature exam. But don’t worry--now that you’re an expert, finding and analyzing imagery will be a breeze! But just in case you get stuck, here are three questions you can ask yourself to help you better analyze imagery in literature and poetry.

Question 1: What Did I Imagine While I Was Reading?  

The hardest part about analyzing imagery is finding it in the first place. Like we mentioned earlier, a good way to do this is to look for nouns and search for words that describe them. Then you can start asking yourself if those descriptions are figurative imagery (i.e., do those words have any implied or metaphorical meaning).

But when you’re crunched for time, you can go back to the tried-and-true method of using your imagination. Which parts of the text made you picture something in your mind? Since imagery is designed to spark your imagination, there’s a great chance that section contains some sort of imagery!

Question 2: What Does the Imagery Reveal About the Situation?

This question helps you get to the meat-and-potatoes of your analysis really quickly. Once you find a piece of imagery, ask yourself what it’s showing you . It could be describing an important setting, plot point, or character. Make sure you’re asking yourself if there’s figurative imagery at work, too.

If you’re struggling here, you can always go back to the “mental picture” we talked about with the first question. What do you see in that image? There’s a good chance that whatever you’re imagining matters in some way. Once you have that image in your mind, you can start to ask yourself why that particular image is important.

Here’s what we mean: think about the Jurassic Park example we talked about earlier. The imagery there tells us some literal things about what’s happening in the scene, but it also adds to the danger and suspense of the main characters’ predicament. The same can be said for the excerpt from “Daffodils,” only instead of revealing a plot point, the imagery gives readers important insight into the narrator of the poem.

Question 3: How Does the Imagery Affect the Mood of the Text?

Once you find a good piece of imagery, ask yourself how it makes you feel. Is it hopeful? Scary? Depressed? Angry? The feelings associated with the imagery in a work can often reveal the theme of a text.

Take Emily Dickinson’s poem. What feelings are associated with the imagery surrounding “hope”? Well, birds are tame and delicate, and the bird Dickinson describes sings sweetly through life’s fierce storms. Hope is clearly a reassuring, gentle, uplifting thing. By asking yourself why Dickinson thinks hope is good, you can start to figure out some of the messages of the poem!


What's Next?

Test out your new-found imagery chops by analyzing a poem on your own! We think that Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” is a great place to start. Y ou can find the full text of the poem, as well as additional analysis, here .

There’s more to literary analysis than just knowing your way around imagery! Make sure you’re familiar with the most important literary devices, like personification, before you head into your AP test.

There are two parts to the AP Literature test: the multiple choice section and the essay section. Some students worry about the written portion of the test so much that they forget to study for the multiple choice questions! Don’t let this be your situation. Make sure you’re preparing for the whole test by reading through this guide to mastering the AP Literature exam’s multiple choice portion, too .

Need more help with this topic? Check out Tutorbase!

Our vetted tutor database includes a range of experienced educators who can help you polish an essay for English or explain how derivatives work for Calculus. You can use dozens of filters and search criteria to find the perfect person for your needs.

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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.

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What is Imagery — Definition - Examples in Literature - Poetry - StudioBinder

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What is Imagery — Definition & Examples in Literature & Poetry

D escribing sensory experiences through the medium of writing and text can be difficult. By enlisting the use of imagery, writers are able to vividly describe experiences, actions, characters, and places through written language. What is imagery exactly. How is imagery in poetry and literature used? In this article, we’ll take a look at the imagery definition, seven different types of imagery and how each can be used to further immerse a reader into the work of a writer. 

Imagery definition

First, let’s define imagery.

Although there are several types of imagery, they all generally serve a similar function. To better understand the function of imagery in poetry and literature and how it can be achieved through various other literary devices, let’s take a look at the imagery definition. 


What is imagery.

Imagery is a literary device used in poetry, novels, and other writing that uses vivid description that appeals to a readers’ senses to create an image or idea in their head. Through language, imagery does not only paint a picture, but aims to portray the sensational and emotional experience within text. 

Imagery can improve a reader’s experience of the text by immersing them more deeply by appealing to their senses. Imagery in writing can aim at a reader’s sense of taste, smell, touch, hearing, or sight through vivid descriptions. Imagery can be created using other literary devices like similes, metaphors, or onomatopoeia. 

What is imagery used for?

  • Establishing a world or setting
  • Creating empathy for a character’s experience
  • Immersing a character into a situation

There are seven different types of imagery that writer’s use. All are in one way or another dependent on the reader’s senses. Let’s take a look at the types of imagery that are most commonly used in literature. 

What is imagery in poetry

1. visual imagery.

Visual imagery is most likely what people think of when they hear the term imagery. It uses qualities of how something looks visually to best create an image in the reader’s head. These visual qualities can be shapes, color, light, shadow, or even patterns. 

It is one of the most common types of imagery as it allows readers to better describe the world and characters of a novel or poem. Visual imagery is often used in screenplays when first introducing characters. Take a look at how Quentin Tarantino uses this type of imagery to introduce characters and places in the Pulp Fiction screenplay .

What is Imagery - Pulp Fiction Example - StudioBinder Screenwriting Software

Pulp Fiction screenplay  •  Imagery examples

Visual imagery is often achieved through the use of other literary devices like metaphors and similes . To say a woman looks like Helen of Troy is both imagery, a simile, and an allusion. 

It can be frequently found in screenplays when a character is first introduced. 

Related Posts

  • Read More: What is a Simile? Definition and Examples →
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  • FREE: Write and create professionally formatted screenplays →

What’s imagery used for?

2. auditory imagery.

Our next type of imagery is auditory imagery. This type of imagery appeals to a reader’s sense of hearing. Creating an auditory experience through text can be difficult. But it can also be necessary for a story or plot. For example, the sound of war can be necessary to immerse the reader into a war novel. This may be used to describe gunfire, explosions, screams, and helicopters. 

Let’s take a look at William Shakespeare’s Macbeth , auditory imagery is used for a physical action that affects the actions of the characters. 

Macbeth - Imagery examples

Auditory imagery.

“Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of

hell-gate, he should have old turning the key. Knock

Knock, knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ the name of

Belzebub? Here’s a farmer that hanged himself on th’

expectation of plenty. Come in time! Have napkins

enow about you; here you’ll sweat for’t. Knock

Knock, knock! Who’s there, in th’ other devil’s name?”

As you can see from this example, writers will also enlist the use of onomatopoeia to create the actual sound of an action or effect through text. This can make reading a story more experiential. 

What does imagery mean?

3. gustatory imagery.

Gustatory imagery is a type of imagery that aims at a reader’s sense of taste. This would most commonly be used to describe food as a character eats it. A great example of this can be found in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. As the Queen creates Turkish Delight for Edmund, C.S. Lewis uses gustatory imagery to describe its taste.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - Imagery examples

Gustatory imagery.

“The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious. He was quite warm now, and very comfortable.”

Describing food as sweet, salty, or even spicy can immerse a reader further into a character’s simple action of eating. Gustatory imagery can be incredibly effective when describing unpleasant tastes as well. 

4. Olfactory Imagery

Olfactory imagery is used when writers’ want to appeal to a reader’s sense of smell. Olfactory imagery is a great way to better describe both what a character is experiencing as well as the world of the novel, poem, or other writing. 

The smell of fresh rain, smoke from a fire, or gasoline can be described through olfactory imagery. A great example of this can be found in the novel The Dead Path by Stephen M. Irwin. Note the comparisons Irwin used to create the olfactory imagery and paint a picture of the smell. 

The Death Path - What is imagery in literature?

Olfactory imagery.

“But a smell shivered him awake.

It was a scent as old as the world. It was a hundred aromas of a thousand places. It was the tang of pine needles. It was the musk of sex. It was the muscular rot of mushrooms. It was the spice of oak. Meaty and redolent of soil and bark and herb. It was bats and husks and burrows and moss. It was solid and alive - so alive! And it was close.”

Olfactory imagery can also be used in a screenplay as a plot point and to suggest to actor’s what they are smelling and how they are reacting.

5. Tactile Imagery

To create the sensory experience of touch through text, writers utilize tactile imagery. This type of imagery can be used to describe how something feels such as texture, temperature, wetness, dryness, etc. 

In Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger , Camus uses this type of imagery to describe the heat of the sun pressing down on a man at the beach. 

The Stranger - What is imagery in literature?

Tactile imagery.

“Seeing the rows of cypress trees leading up to the hills next to the sky, and the houses standing out here and there against that red and green earth, I was able to understand Maman better. Evenings in that part of the country must have been a kind of sad relief. But today, with the sun bearing down, making the whole landscape shimmer with heat, it was inhuman and oppressive.”

As you can see from this example, this can be tremendously effective when characters are undergoing some type of turmoil. Tactile imagery appeals to a reader’s sense of touch and allows them to better empathize with a character. 

  • Read More: Ultimate guide to Literary Devices →
  • Read More: What is a Motif? Definition and Examples →

Kinesthetic imagery definition

6. kinesthetic imagery.

Kinesthetic imagery is used to describe the sensory experience of motion. Speed, slowness, falling, or even fighting can be written with kinesthetic imagery. 

In the world of screenwriting, kinesthetic imagery is perhaps most important in the genre of action films. How else can you write an epic fight scene other than by using kinesthetic imagery to paint the picture? 

In our breakdown of one of the many epic fight scenes in John Wick , we take a look at how kinesthetic imagery can tell the story of action on the page. Using words like “slam” and “snap” create the imagery of the fight scene. 

What is Imagery in Fight scenes?  •   Subscribe on YouTube

Kinesthetic imagery is also great when writing about topics like sports, driving, and other intense action. 

Organic imagery meaning

7. organic imagery.

Last, but not least on our list is organic imagery. Organic imagery appeals to the most primitive sensations in the human experience such as hunger, fatigue, fear and even emotion. 

It can be quite difficult to describe the emotions of a sorrowful character or desperate character. But organic imagery aims to do just that. When done effectively, organic imagery can be the best tool to move a reader to tears of either joy or sadness. 

What is a Simile? 

One of the most common devices writers use to create imagery is a simile. It is both efficient and effective because it uses less words to relate more deeply to a reader. In our next article, we take a look at the simile definition and some examples of how similes are used in both literature and screenwriting. 

Up Next: What is a Simile? →

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What is Imagery? Literary Definition of Imagery With Examples

Home » The Writer’s Dictionary » What is Imagery? Literary Definition of Imagery With Examples

Imagery definition: Imagery is language that appeals to one or more of the five senses.

What is Imagery? Imagery Literary Definition

What does imagery mean? Imagery is descriptive language used to appeal to a reader’s senses: touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight. By adding these details, it makes our writing more interesting.

Here is an example of how adding imagery enhances your writing.

  • Original sentence: She drank water on a hot day.
  • Added imagery: The cool, refreshing water quenched her thirst as the scorching sun radiated on her.

Types of Imagery

what is the definition of imagery

Literary Imagery Examples

  • The crimson apple glistened in her hand.
  • The roaring thunder frightened the little boy.
  • The athlete’s sweaty gym clothes left a musty odor in the laundry room.
  • The warm, salty broth soothed her sore throat as she ate the soup.
  • Prickly cactus posed as an obstacle to the men as hiked.

The Importance and Function of imagery

imagery english definition

Let’s take a look at how a description can clarify the meaning.

  • The image in the reader’s mind could change depending on if the author describes this as a crimson apple or a mold-infested apple .

Examples of Imagery in Literature

Imagery is very important when writing fiction because the authors are required to use their words in order for the reader to imagine their stories.

Here are some examples of imagery being used in literature:

To Kill a Mockingbird , Harper Lee:

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then; a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’ clock naps, and by nightfall were like stiff teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. (6)

In this example, Lee uses various forms of imagery, including visual and tactile.

Fahrenheit 451 , Ray Bradbury:

It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed . With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatter and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. (3)

In this example, Bradbury utilizes tactile imagery.

Both of these renowned authors employed imagery in order to effectively describe the settings in which their stories take place.

Summary: Imagery Definition Literature

Imagery English Definition: To re-cap, imagery is descriptive language that appeals to one or more of our senses.

Imagery allows the writer to use words to paint an image for readers as they enter the worlds created through words on a page.

Literary Devices

Literary devices, terms, and elements, definition of imagery.

As a literary device, imagery consists of descriptive language that can function as a way for the reader to better imagine the world of the piece of literature and also add symbolism to the work. Imagery draws on the five senses, namely the details of taste , touch , sight , smell , and sound . Imagery can also pertain to details about movement or a sense of a body in motion (kinesthetic imagery) or the emotions or sensations of a person, such as fear or hunger (organic imagery or subjective imagery). Using imagery helps the reader develop a more fully realized understanding of the imaginary world that the author has created.

Common Examples of Imagery

We use imagery in everyday speech to convey our meaning. Here are some examples of imagery from each of the five senses:

  • Taste : The familiar tang of his grandmother’s cranberry sauce reminded him of his youth.
  • Sound : The concert was so loud that her ears rang for days afterward.
  • Sight : The sunset was the most gorgeous they’d ever seen; the clouds were edged with pink and gold.
  • Smell : After eating the curry, his breath reeked of garlic.
  • Touch : The tree bark was rough against her skin.

Significance of Imagery in Literature

Imagery examples are prevalent in all types of literature from cultures around the world. Poets, novelists, and playwrights use imagery for many reasons. One of the key usages is that the imagery in a piece can help create mood, such as the cliché d opening “It was a dark and stormy night.” While this line is too hackneyed for any author to actually use it, it is a good example of imagery in that the reader immediately pictures the kind of setting in which the story may take place. This particular imagery also creates a mood of foreboding. Indeed, even Shakespeare used this type of opening for his famous play MacBeth : the three witches in the beginning speak of the “thunder, lightning [and] rain” and the “fog and filthy air.”

While an author may use imagery just to help readers understand the fictive world, details of imagery often can be read symbolically. In the previous example of MacBeth , the thunder and lightning that open the play symbolize both the storm that is already taking place in Scotland and the one that is about to begin once MacBeth takes over the throne. Thus, when analyzing literature it is important to consider the imagery used so as to understand both the mood and the symbolism in the piece.

Examples of Imagery in Literature

Example #1: taste.

On rainy afternoons, embroidering with a group of friends on the begonia porch, she would lose the thread of the conversation and a tear of nostalgia would salt her palate when she saw the strips of damp earth and the piles of mud that the earthworms had pushed up in the garden. Those secret tastes, defeated in the past by oranges and rhubarb, broke out into an irrepressible urge when she began to weep. She went back to eating earth. The first time she did it almost out of curiosity, sure that the bad taste would be the best cure for the temptation. And, in fact, she could not bear the earth in her mouth. But she persevered, overcome by the growing anxiety, and little by little she was getting back her ancestral appetite, the taste of primary minerals, the unbridled satisfaction of what was the original food.

( One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez)

This passage from Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude discusses one of the character’s pica eating disorder. There are many examples of imagery using the sense of taste, including “a tear would salt her palate,” “oranges and rhubarb,” and “the taste of primary minerals.” The imagery in this excerpt makes the experience of an eating disorder much more vivid and imaginable to the reader.

Example #2: Sound

My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year. He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound’s the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.

(“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost)

When most people think of Robert Frost’s famous poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the final refrain comes to mind: “And miles to go before I sleep.” Yet the short poem contains many imagery examples that are simple yet set the scene well. In this excerpt, there is a juxtaposition of two sounds: the bright noise of the horse’s harness bells and the nearly silent sound of wind and snowflake. While the reader knows that this is a dark night, the sense of sound makes the scene even more realistic.

Example #3: Sight

Outside, even through the shut window-pane, the world looked cold. Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no colour in anything, except the posters that were plastered everywhere. The black mustachioed face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house-front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston’s own. Down at street level another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind, alternately covering and uncovering the single word INGSOC. In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a bluebottle, and darted away again with a curving flight.

( 1984 by George Orwell)

One of the central conceits of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984 is the all-pervasive surveillance of this society. This is a world that has its eyes constantly open—“Big Brother is watching you” is the motto of the society—yet the world itself is almost colorless. All that the main character, Winston, sees is “whirling dust,” “torn paper,” and posters of a “black mustachioed face” with “dark eyes.” These sensory details contribute to a general feeling of unease and foreshadow the way in which the world appears more chilling as the novel goes on.

Example #4: Smell

In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease.

( Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind)

Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer focuses on a character who has a very acute sense of smell. The novel, therefore, has numerous examples of imagery using descriptions of smell. This excerpt comes from the beginning of the novel where Suskind sets up the general palate of smells in eighteenth-century Paris. Using these smells as a backdrop, the reader is better able to understand the importance of the main character’s skill as a perfumer. The reader is forced to imagine the range of smells in this novel’s era and setting that no longer assault us on a daily basis.

Test Your Knowledge of Imagery

1. Choose the best imagery definition:

A. A technique using descriptive details from the five senses. B. A way of seeing things in a new light. C. A way to describe a character’s emotions.

2. What effect does the imagery produce in this opening passage from George Orwell’s novel 1984 ?

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him. The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.

A. Since the opening line is in April, this passage sets up expectations for Winston Smith to better his situation throughout the spring. B. The contradictory details of Winston’s building being named Victory Mansions and it smelling of boiled cabbage and old rag mats creates a feeling of unease in the reader. C. The fact that most of these details are unpleasant—the vile wind, the gritty dust, and old rag mats—makes the reader understand that Winston is a pessimistic man.

3. Which of the following lines from Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” contains imagery?

A. The woods are lovely, dark and deep B. But I have promises to keep C. And miles to go before I sleep

What Is Imagery? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Imagery definition.

Imagery  (ih-MUHJ-ree) is a literary device that allows writers to paint pictures in readers’ minds so they can more easily imagine a story’s situations, characters, emotions, and  settings . A good way to understand imagery is to think of the word  imagination . Writers form strong images by being specific and concrete and using language to appeal to the readers’ five senses.

The word  imagery  originates from the Old French  imagerie,  meaning “figure” (13 c).  Imagery  first appeared in English in the middle of the 14th century.

Types of Imagery

While people generally think of imagery as something that can be seen, literary imagery actually pertains to all five senses.

  • Visual imagery : This draws on the sense of sight to create pictures in readers’ heads; for example, “Her lips  glistened red like ripe cherries .” Writers invoke color, size, etc., to help readers visualize scenes more vividly.
  • Auditory imagery : This evokes the sense of sound. It often involves the use of  onomatopoeia , when words mimic the sound they represent: “The alarm clock  beeped .” Sounds can help describe any auditory moment, such as dialogue in how one talks or a noisy setting like the roaring ocean. Depending on how the sound is expressed, it enhances mood, such as chaos, tension, or tranquility.
  • Olfactory imagery : Phrasing that makes use of the sense of smell is olfactory imagery; for example, “He smelled  like the ocean, salty and fresh .” Because smell is heavily linked to memory, writers may use olfactory imagery to recreate a certain mood or feeling for readers.
  • Gustatory imagery : This involves the sense of taste; for example “The  salty-sweet  caramel melted on her tongue.” These images can be literal—for example, the taste of a food or beverage—or evoke an emotion (“ metallic taste  of fear”) or a situation’s mood (“ honey-sweet  kiss,” “ sour bile  in her mouth”).
  • Tactile imagery : This style of imagery appeals to readers’ sense of touch; for example, “The  velvety moss  covered the forest floor.” Tactile imagery often involves textures and physical traits (rough, smooth, itchy, sharp, dull), temperature (warm, freezing, humid), and movement (galloping, swimming, hugging).

How Imagery Is Formed

Writers create imagery by adhering to the adage “Show, don’t tell.” Instead of using simplistic, dull exposition to explain a scene, writers use clear, descriptive language that appeals to readers’ five senses.

Take the following sentence:

  • “The baby is cute.”

While this sentence provides information about the baby’s appearance, readers have no concrete details about what attributes the baby possesses that make it cute. Instead of being able to picture the baby, readers must trust the writer’s value judgement.

Now, consider this revised sentence:

  • “The baby was  as pudgy as a marshmallow  and had  giant brown eyes .”

Now, the writer uses visual imagery to describe the baby so readers can clearly picture it in their heads. As opposed to the original sentence’s vagueness, the new sentence is specific and detailed.

Adjectives can be a writer’s best friend when it comes to creating strong, vivid descriptions, including characteristics like age, texture, color, and scent. Writers present all this information so that readers can imagine exactly what they intend.

  • No adjectives: “The apple is on the table”
  • Specific adjectives: “The  bruised, green  apple is on the table.”

The Effects of Imagery

Because imagery involves the five senses, it allows readers to feel as if they are experiencing what the writer is describing. Therefore, readers can better connect with the characters and situations, as well as reflect on their own lives and experiences. This makes reading feel more vivid, active, and personal. Writing that uses strong imagery ensures readers will keep paying attention.

Imagery can often be symbolic. When a certain image or detail is repeated throughout a piece of writing, the writer may want readers to link it to a larger theme in the work.

Examples include:

  • A burning candle to evoke how brief life is
  • A setting sun to symbolize a death or ending
  • A long road to suggest life’s journey

When images are frequently used, they can become  clichés , overused phrases or imagery that is considered hackneyed or commonplace. Common clichés include:

  • Red like a rose
  • Sweet as honey
  • Black like night
  • Cold as ice

Readers lose interest when something is described in a way they have seen or heard many times before. Because of this, good writers avoid clichés. Instead, they create fresh, new images.

Literal Imagery vs. Figurative Imagery

In addition to evoking the five senses, imagery can fall into two general buckets: literal and figurative.

Literal imagery describes things exactly as they are without hidden or symbolic meaning. This is also called descriptive imagery. Writers often use adjectives to create literal imagery.

  • “The sky was  periwinkle blue  with a few  scattered, wispy clouds .”
  • “Her  strong  perfume gave me a headache.”
  • “The blanket was  soft  and”

Figurative language  uses strong comparisons to go beyond words’ literal meanings and presents information in a new way. Imagery created using figurative language is also referred to as “poetic imagery.”

  • “The sky was  as blue as the ocean  and the clouds  sailed across it like white boats. ”
  • “Her perfume  smelled like a garden of fresh roses in bloom. ”
  • “The blanket was  as soft as cat’s fur. ”

Figurative Imagery and Other Literary Devices

Figurative imagery is often associated with  figures of speech —literary devices that intentional deviate from words’ literal meaning to embellish the language.

Common figures of speech that invoke powerful images include:

  • Simile : A simile is an explicit comparison between two or more similar things. When constructing a simile, writers use the words  like  or  as  to make the comparison clear: “The sun was  as yellow as an egg yolk .” The image of an egg yolk to describe the sun emphasizes its deep, strong color.
  • Metaphor : A metaphor is an implicit comparison between two or more things. Metaphors do not require the use of  like  or  as  because they imply the compared objects are exactly the same. Consider these lines from Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Metaphors”: “An elephant, a ponderous house / A melon strolling on two tendrils.” Plath uses the images of an elephant, a house, and a melon walking to describe the uncomfortable sizes pregnant women experience.
  • Synecdoche : A synecdoche is a figure of speech wherein a part stands in for the whole. For example, performers may refer to the stage as “the boards.” Theater stages are often made of wood, so while the synecdoche only invokes an image of the stage’s wooden boards, readers know the entire stage is being referenced.
  • Personification : Personification is the representation of an abstract concept in human form. This literary device is frequently misunderstood. People often believe personification is when writers give human characteristics to a nonhuman thing (e.g., “the wind sighed sadly”), but that is only part of what personification encompasses. The Grim Reaper is an example of personifying a concept; it allows the reader to visualize death as an ominous person. Additionally, personification occurs when a writer gives an object more animation than it already possesses: “The yellow  fog rubs its back  upon the window-panes.” This example is both visual and tactile; readers can picture the fog as if it is an animal and therefore imagine how softly it touches the windows.

Examples of Imagery in Literature

1. F. Scott Fitzgerald,  The Great Gatsby

In the last sentence of the classic novel, narrator Nick Carraway tells the readers:

So  we beat on, boats against the current,  born ceaselessly back into the past.

Fitzgerald employs visual imagery through the use of metaphor, comparing people to boats. Like vessels in the water, people try to move forward in their lives, but the efforts and optimistic dreams of the future are ultimately futile because the powerful influence of the past push back harder, like a strong current.

2. Nalo Hopkinson,  Brown Girl in the Ring

In the Prologue to her dystopian novel, Hopkinson uses visual imagery to describe the  setting  by saying:

Imagine a cartwheel half-mired in muddy water, its hub just clearing the surface. The spokes are the satellite cities  that form Metropolitan Toronto: Etobicoke and York to the west; North York in the north; Scarborough and East York to the east.  The Toronto city core is the hub.

Hopkinson evokes the image of a cartwheel to allow readers to visualize the setting’s geographic layout. This imagery also connects to an older era of farming to set up the broader context of a dystopian future where Hopkinson’s characters have returned to an agrarian lifestyle to survive.

3. Sandra Cisneros, “Puro Amor”

In this short story, Cisneros uses tactile imagery to illustrate the close bond between the character Missus and her pets. While Missus sleeps, the dogs are:

[…] warming her back,  radiating heat like meteorites  […]

This simile compares the dogs’ warmth against Missus’s back to the heat of meteorites. This  hyperbolic  description also expands on the dogs’ warmth by lending an otherworldly quality to it. To Missus, the dogs are a heavenly presence.

4. William Shakespeare,  Othello

In Act III, Scene iii, Iago tells Othello to beware of jealousy, calling it the:

green-eyed monster  which doth mock
the meat it feeds upon.

This personification of jealousy makes the audience understand how powerful and dangerous the emotion truly is. When Othello eventually succumbs to his jealous rage, the audience can more easily understand how this monster of jealousy overcame his feelings of tenderness for his wife Desdemona.

Describing the monster as “green-eyed” does double duty. It allows the audience to imagine the monster more vividly, and the color green, commonly used to depict jealousy, helps reinforce the play’s central theme.

5. Helen Macdonald,  H Is For Hawk

In this memoir about her father’s death, Macdonald describes a hawk she is taming with olfactory imagery:

The hawk had filled the house with wildness  as a bowl of lilies fills the house with scent.

This simile allows readers to understand how the hawk’s untamed nature permeates Macdonald’s house. Much like the scent of fresh lilies can take over an enclosed space, so too does the hawk’s primitiveness overwhelm her home’s civility.

6. Cecilia Ekbäck , Wolf Winter

In Part One of this historic novel about Swedish Lapland, teenage Frederika uses auditory imagery when she remembers going fishing with her father:

The river poured from his lifted oars with the sound of waterfalls.”

This description allows the reader to hear the water’s movement as her father rows. The word “waterfalls” also evokes a visual image of the water sliding off his oars.

7. Mary Oliver, “Mushrooms”

Near the opening of this poem, Oliver describes how mushrooms sprout in the wild:

red and yellow skulls
pummeling upward
through leaves

This metaphor compares mushroom caps to skulls, producing a strong image of the mushrooms’ round, smooth shape. This is also a symbolic warning of how dangerous wild mushrooms can be; since many mushrooms are poisonous, sampling them can be fatal.

Further Resources on Imagery

In  “Learning Image and Description,”  poet Rachel Richardson shows aspiring writers how to create strong images in their work.

Jack Smith demonstrates how to create deeper meaning and poetic beauty in his essay  “Figurative language in fiction: putting words to work.”

Mary Oliver’s book  A Poetry Handbook  contains an excellent chapter on imagery.

SuperSummary's library of resources and content , such as " A Beginner's Guide to Literary Analysis " and " How to Write a Summary ."

Related Terms

  • Onomatopoeia

imagery examples in an essay

  • Literary Terms
  • Definition & Examples
  • When & How to use Imagery

I. What is Imagery?

Imagery is language used by poets, novelists and other writers to create images in the mind of the reader. Imagery includes figurative and metaphorical language to improve the reader’s experience through their senses.

II. Examples of Imagery

Imagery using  visuals:

The night was black as ever, but bright stars lit up the sky in beautiful and varied constellations which were sprinkled across the astronomical landscape.

In this example, the experience of the night sky is described in depth with color (black as ever, bright), shape (varied constellations), and pattern (sprinkled).

Imagery using sounds:

Silence was broken by the peal of piano keys as Shannon began practicing her concerto .

Here, auditory imagery breaks silence with the beautiful sound of piano keys.

Imagery using scent:

She smelled the scent of sweet hibiscus wafting through the air, its tropical smell a reminder that she was on vacation in a beautiful place.

The scent of hibiscus helps describe a scene which is relaxing, warm, and welcoming.

Imagery using taste:

The candy melted in her mouth and swirls of bittersweet chocolate and slightly sweet but salty caramel blended together on her tongue.

Thanks to an in-depth description of the candy’s various flavors, the reader can almost experience the deliciousness directly.

Imagery using touch:

After the long run, he collapsed in the grass with tired and burning muscles. The grass tickled his skin and sweat cooled on his brow.

In this example, imagery is used to describe the feeling of strained muscles, grass’s tickle, and sweat cooling on skin.

III. Types of Imagery

Here are the five most common types of imagery used in creative writing:


a. Visual Imagery

Visual imagery describes what we see: comic book images, paintings, or images directly experienced through the narrator’s eyes. Visual imagery may include:

  • Color, such as: burnt red, bright orange, dull yellow, verdant green, and Robin’s egg blue.
  • Shapes, such as: square, circular, tubular, rectangular, and conical.
  • Size, such as: miniscule, tiny, small, medium-sized, large, and gigantic.
  • Pattern, such as: polka-dotted, striped, zig-zagged, jagged, and straight.

b. Auditory Imagery

Auditory imagery describes what we hear, from music to noise to pure silence. Auditory imagery may include:

  • Enjoyable sounds, such as: beautiful music, birdsong, and the voices of a chorus.
  • Noises, such as: the bang of a gun, the sound of a broom moving across the floor, and the sound of broken glass shattering on the hard floor.
  • The lack of noise, describing a peaceful calm or eerie silence.

c. Olfactory Imagery

Olfactory imagery describes what we smell. Olfactory imagery may include:

  • Fragrances, such as perfumes, enticing food and drink, and blooming flowers.
  • Odors, such as rotting trash, body odors, or a stinky wet dog.

d. Gustatory Imagery

Gustatory imagery describes what we taste. Gustatory imagery can include:

  • Sweetness, such as candies, cookies, and desserts.
  • Sourness, bitterness, and tartness, such as lemons and limes.
  • Saltiness, such as pretzels, French fries, and pepperonis.
  • Spiciness, such as salsas and curries.
  • Savoriness, such as a steak dinner or thick soup.

e. Tactile Imagery

Lastly, tactile imagery describes what we feel or touch. Tactile imagery includes:

  • Temperature, such as bitter cold, humidity, mildness, and stifling heat.
  • Texture, such as rough, ragged, seamless, and smooth.
  • Touch, such as hand-holding, one’s in the grass, or the feeling of starched fabric on one’s skin.
  • Movement, such as burning muscles from exertion, swimming in cold water, or kicking a soccer ball.

IV. The Importance of Using Imagery

Because we experience life through our senses, a strong composition should appeal to them through the use of imagery. Descriptive imagery launches the reader into the experience of a warm spring day, scorching hot summer, crisp fall, or harsh winter. It allows readers to directly sympathize with characters and narrators as they imagine having the same sense experiences. Imagery commonly helps build compelling poetry, convincing narratives , vivid plays, well-designed film sets, and descriptive songs.

V. Imagery in Literature

Imagery is found throughout literature in poems, plays, stories, novels, and other creative compositions. Here are a few examples of imagery in literature:

Excerpt describing a fish :

his brown skin hung in strips like ancient wallpaper, and its pattern of darker brown was like wallpaper: shapes like full-blown roses stained and lost through age .

This excerpt from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” is brimming with visual imagery. It beautifies and complicates the image of a fish that has just been caught. You can imagine the fish with tattered, dark brown skin “like ancient wallpaper” covered in barnacles, lime deposits, and sea lice. In just a few lines, Bishop mentions many colors including brown, rose, white, and green.

Another example :

A taste for the miniature was one aspect of an orderly spirit. Another was a passion for secrets: in a prized varnished cabinet, a secret drawer was opened by pushing against the grain of a cleverly turned dovetail joint , and here she kept a diary locked by a clasp , and a notebook written in a code of her own invention. … An old tin petty cash box was hidden under a removable floorboard beneath her bed.

In this excerpt from Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement , we can almost feel the cabinet and its varnished texture or the joint that is specifically in a dovetail shape. We can also imagine the clasp detailing on the diary and the tin cash box that’s hidden under a floorboard. Various items are described in-depth, so much so that the reader can easily visualize them.

VI. Imagery in Pop Culture

Imagery can be found throughout pop culture in descriptive songs, colorful plays, and in exciting movie and television scenes.

Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox:

FANTASTIC MR. FOX - Official Theatrical Trailer

Wes Anderson is known for his colorful, imaginative, and vivid movie making. The imagery in this film is filled with detail, action, and excitement.

Louis Armstrong’s “ What a Wonderful World. ”

Louis Armstrong - What A Wonderful World Lyrics

Armstrong’s classic song is an example of simple yet beautiful imagery in song. For instance, the colors are emphasized in the green trees, red blooming roses, blue skies, and white clouds from the bright day to the dark night.

VII. Related Terms

(Terms: metaphor,  onomatopoeia and personification)

Metaphor is often used as a type of imagery. Specifically, metaphor is the direct comparison of two distinct things. Here are a few examples of metaphor as imagery:

  • Her smiling face is the sun .
  • His temper was a hurricane whipping through the school, scaring and amazing his classmates .
  • We were penguins standing in our black and white coats in the bitter cold .
  • Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia is also a common tool used for imagery. Onomatopoeia is a form of auditory imagery in which the word used sounds like the thing it describes. Here are a few examples of onomatopoeia as imagery:

  • The fire crackled and popped .
  • She rudely slurped and gulped down her soup .
  • The pigs happily oinked when the farmer gave them their slop to eat .
  • Personification

Personification is another tool used for imagery. Personification provides animals and objects with human-like characteristics. Here are a few examples of personification as imagery:

  • The wind whistled and hissed through the stormy night .
  • The tired tree’s branches moaned in the gusts of wind.
  • The ocean waves slapped the shore and whispered in a fizz as they withdrew again.

List of Terms

  • Alliteration
  • Amplification
  • Anachronism
  • Anthropomorphism
  • Antonomasia
  • APA Citation
  • Aposiopesis
  • Autobiography
  • Bildungsroman
  • Characterization
  • Circumlocution
  • Cliffhanger
  • Comic Relief
  • Connotation
  • Deus ex machina
  • Deuteragonist
  • Doppelganger
  • Double Entendre
  • Dramatic irony
  • Equivocation
  • Extended Metaphor
  • Figures of Speech
  • Flash-forward
  • Foreshadowing
  • Intertextuality
  • Juxtaposition
  • Literary Device
  • Malapropism
  • Parallelism
  • Pathetic Fallacy
  • Point of View
  • Polysyndeton
  • Protagonist
  • Red Herring
  • Rhetorical Device
  • Rhetorical Question
  • Science Fiction
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
  • Synesthesia
  • Turning Point
  • Understatement
  • Urban Legend
  • Verisimilitude
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What is Imagery? || Definition & Examples

"what is imagery" a guide for english essays.

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What is Imagery? Transcript (English and Spanish Subtitles Available, Click HERE for Spanish Transcript.)

By Raymond Malewitz , Oregon State University Associate Professor of American Literature

As human beings, we understand the world through our senses—what we see, what we hear, what we smell, what we taste, and what we touch.  To represent this process in their literary works, storytellers and poets use vivid language designed to appeal to these senses.  This language is called imagery.   Let me give you one example.

In Kate Chopin’s short story “The Story of an Hour,” a woman named Mrs. Mallard is told that her husband has just been killed in a railroad accident.  After retreating to her room to grieve, she looks out her window.  Chopin writes:

"She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with new spring life.  The delicious breath of rain was in the air.  In the street below a peddler was crying his wares.  The notes of a distant song which someone was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves."


Imagery Kate Chopin The Story of an Hour

In this passage, Chopin’s imagery appeals to a variety of senses: the sight of quivering trees, the smell of rain, the sound of twittering sparrows, and so on.

As this passage suggests, imagery often does more than simply present sensory impressions of the world: it also conveys tone , or the attitude of a character or narrator towards a given subject.  By concentrating on what Mrs. Mallard experiences at this moment-- quivering trees, singing birds, and smells of rain –Chopin’s narrator allows readers to understand the complex way in which Mrs. Mallard views her husband’s death—as both a tragic event and a rebirth of sorts in which the spring imagery conveys the freedom she imagines beyond the confines of her marriage. 

Instead of telling us these thoughts through exposition or explanation, Chopin’s narrator shows us the worldview of her character and encourages us to interpret what this imagery means.  This difference is crucial for students interested using the term “imagery” in their literary essays.  Rather than writing that imagery is good or bad, vivid or dull, students should instead try to connect imagery to the thoughts of a character, narrator, or speaker. 

Further Resources for Teachers:

H.D.'s short poem "Oread" and Leslie Marmon Silko's short story "The Man to Send Rain Clouds" offer students two different good opportunities to practice linking imagery to the worldview of certain speaker. 

Writing Prompt #1: In H.D.'s poem, a forest nymph sees the waves of the sea as "pointed pines," which is a very strange metaphor. How does this imagery provide insight into ways that that creature experiences the world?

Writing Prompt #2: In Silko's story (which was published under the name Leslie Chapman), the fourth section drops into what might be called a "close" third-person aligned with the priest's perspective on the ritual he is performs. But instead of providing his actual thoughts, Silko chooses to present how he sees the world through detailed imagery.  What does this imagery convey about his thoughts on the ritual and why might Silko has chosen this oblique or indirect style to convey it?

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The Types of Imagery in Essay Writing

Imagery has its root in the word image, but as an idea it encompasses so much more than just our visual senses. Imagery in writing is capable of communicating to all five of our senses. When placed in the appropriate order, words can evoke sensations like the heat of the sun on our bodies, the smell of fresh bread or the sound of a subway station.

Visual imagery is the most comfortable form of imagery for most writers. Describing that particular shade of pink found at the eraser tip of your pencil, or the blinding white you see when you look directly at the sun easily brings forth the images described.

Olfactory imagery -- or that which connects to the sense of smell -- tickles your nose like pepper. Describing the simplest of things like a dirty gym sock, or a cup of mint tea can create truly powerful imagery as our sense of smell is one of the strongest and longest lasting forms of memory we possess.

Auditory imagery is another of the more powerful forms of imagery. The sound of raindrops on your window or a sweetly-sung nursery rhyme can bring back feelings of nostalgia. Or, if you so choose, you can write about a rocket breaking the sound barrier, the powerful and delayed boom of the engines roaring overhead as the rocket flies out of sight.

Gustatory imagery -- or that which relates to taste -- can be a bit tricky, because you never know what your writer likes or dislikes in terms of specific foods. However, these images can be relatively potent if chosen carefully. Mint is a taste that most people are familiar with, especially people who brush their teeth with mint toothpaste. However, there are also tastes that have little to do with food. For example, the taste of copper will bring images of blood to most people.


Kinesthetic imagery is the broadest of the five. Kinesthetics encompasses any physical interaction with our body, such as touch, heat or cold transfer, movement and internal emotions. Describing the feeling of an ice cube being dropped down the back of your shirt, slowly migrating down to your waist in a swerving line, getting colder and colder the farther it goes or that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you descend a roller coaster will evoke kinesthetic imagery.

  • Dr. Wheeler's Website: Literary Terminology -- Imagery

Richard Kyori has been writing professionally since 2006. He has been teaching design and technology courses at colleges and universities since 2005. Kyori holds a Bachelor of Arts in art history from Boston University and is working toward a Master of Architecture.

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What is imagery?

In terms of writing, imagery is more than creating a pretty picture for the reader. Imagery pertains to a technique for the writer to appeal to the reader’s five senses as a means to convey the essence of an event. The five senses include sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. The writer does not need to employ all five senses, only those senses that most effectively convey, transport the reader into that event.

Why use imagery?

Imagery engages the reader with specific sensory details. Imagery creates atmosphere/mood, causing the reader to feel a certain emotion. For example, a scary scene includes details that cause a reader to be frightened.

Example from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”

The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. And yet all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood — and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.

Imagery can be used throughout an entire essay, such as a description essay that focuses on a particular event. Writers should first decide what atmosphere/mood they want to create for their readers and then focus solely on the sensory details that convey that particular atmosphere/mood. For example, if a writer wanted to share the experience of a favorite holiday meal, then s/he would focus on the smells and tastes of all the food and the memories that those smells and tastes conjure. The hectic grocery shopping for all the ingredients would be omitted since that would not express the nostalgia of the meal.

Imagery can also be used per individual paragraph as a means to illustrate a point. For example, in an essay arguing for a ban on smoking, one paragraph could detail the damage to lungs caused by smoking.

A pine tree with pigs instead of pinecones, reading: "The majestic porky pine tree of North America defies categorization."

A brainstorming technique for imagery involves drawing a picture by focusing on one sense at a time. So, find a blank sheet of paper and various colored pencils.

First and easiest would be sight. Slow down to mentally picture every object, shape, color, person, and so on in the scene. Draw, as best you can, representations of each of those visual details. (Only you will see this drawing; no need to stress over perfection.)

Next, take a different sense, such as sounds, and record those sounds on paper with various colors, symbols, or onomatopoeia. (Again, do the best you can to represent what you heard. Your goal is to remind yourself of the sounds, not create a work of art.)

Next, take a different sense and record that particular sense on paper with various colors and symbols.

The objective is to slow down and focus on each sense individually rather than trying to remember the scene all at once. By slowing down and envisioning each sense on paper, you can determine which senses most accurately create the atmosphere/mood for the essay and then apply only those senses in the essay.

Further Reading

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What Are the Best Tips for Writing an Essay on Imagery?

Imagery is one of the most commonly used and most effective literary techniques to really transport the reader into the story. As a result, it is common for teachers to assign students to write essays on imagery to be sure they understand this important concept. To begin writing an essay on imagery, it is first necessary to identify the examples of imagery in the story. Then, start considering the bigger picture; beyond the image itself, what could the author be trying to convey? It might be a symbolic image, or one meant to conjure up feelings related to something else in the text.

Identifying imagery can be difficult at first, but with practice it will become easier. When writing an essay on imagery, and trying to locate the examples of imagery in the story, it helps to consider the different possible types. Visual imagery is the most common, in which an author will describe how something looks, often making use of metaphor and simile . However, imagery can be used with any of the other four senses, including touch, smell, taste, and hearing. If an author takes the time to describe the way something smells, or the sound it makes, chances are it is an important part of imagery for the story.

Using visual imagery, an author describes how something looks, often making use of metaphor and simile.

Making notes and creating a type of outline of the imagery found throughout the story can be a great place to begin writing the essay. It can also make it easier to identify patterns. If a certain image is seen over and over again, this is a great place to focus to consider what the author meant by it. Even if images are not repeated, it is still necessary to look deeper; don't simply describe the images, but consider what they might mean on a deeper level.

Studying how imagery is used in different texts can help with writing an essay.

A certain repeated image could represent the mood or personality of a character, for example. It might represent certain religious symbolism, or be indicative of a larger, theoretical idea. Though it may seem like too simple of an idea, it is also very helpful to consider other major aspects of the story, like plot and theme, when writing an essay on imagery. The theme of a book or short story is often repeated, over and over again, in the imagery used throughout. Asking these types of questions will generally make it easier to develop a thesis statement, which will help to guide the writing of the rest of the essay on imagery.

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  • What is Visual Imagery?

Discussion Comments

@Charred - I’ll give you one piece of advice, although it may be hard to carry out. Read the story twice. The first time around you should just focus on understanding the story. Don’t worry about symbols or whatever.

The second time around, go through and start looking at the imagery. This is where you’ll be able to develop a clear sense of what the author is intending. If you’re really brave you can read it for a third time too. That way you’ll develop a really cogent argument. I never had that kind of time in college however.

@MrMoody - Stay with metaphors and similes and you’ll be safe. I do agree that in either case repetition is important and you need to tie your interpretation to the larger context of what the author is saying.

Since you mentioned the classics it’s important to point out that a lot of those were written within a Judeo Christian context. So I expect that you would find crosses and other emblems of redemption.

Of course in some works like “The Scarlet Letter” the imagery is more explicit – scarlet being the color of sin and redemption (blood). Not all novels are that easy to interpret, but I think understanding the times in which they lived will help you to hone in on the precise imagery.

@Charred - If you didn’t think those symbols existed, you should have spoken up. It’s up to you to make the argument about where the imagery existed in the story.

How can you tell what’s real and what is imagined? I think the article makes a good point when it talks about patterns. To stay with your example, if such symbolism really existed, you would see it over and over again, as you read other parts of the story where it appeared that the author was trying to make some kind of statement about sexuality.

I always kind of hated writing these essays because I always blushed when the teacher told us locate the phallic symbols in the story. Was he simply trying to tease us? Did all great works of literature necessarily have symbols of the male reproductive organ?

I think this is where we get into reading into the story something that isn’t necessarily there. Put in other words, that kind of “symbolism” may reveal more about the person reading the story than what the author’s real intentions were.

I’ll concede that perhaps in feminist works of literature this kind of symbolism may have been more present and more overt. But in the great classics, I was never convinced. Nevertheless, I dutifully followed instructions, locating where I thought such symbolism existed, whether I believe it was so or not.

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Using visual imagery, an author describes how something looks, often making use of metaphor and simile.

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  • Writing Tips

When to Use an Image in an Essay

When to Use an Image in an Essay

3-minute read

  • 30th June 2019

Pages of text alone can look quite dull. And while “dull” may seem normal enough for an essay , using images and charts can make a document more visually interesting. It can even help you boost your grades if done right! Here, then, is our guide on how to use an image in academic writing .

Usually, you will only need to add an image in academic writing if it serves a specific purpose (e.g., illustrating your argument). Even then, you need to make sure images are presently correctly. As such, try asking yourself the following questions whenever you add picture or chart in an essay:

  • Does it add anything useful? Any image or chart you include in your work should help you make your argument or explain a point more clearly. For instance, if you are analyzing a movie, you may need to include a still from a scene to illustrate your point.
  • Is the image clearly labelled? All images in your essay should come with clear captions (e.g., “Figure 1” plus a title or description). Without these, your reader may not know how images relate to the surrounding text.
  • Have you mentioned the image in the text? Make sure to reference any images you use in the text of your essay. If you have included an image to illustrate a point, for instance, you would include something along the lines of “An example of this can be seen in Figure 1.”

The key, then, is that images in an essay are not just decoration. Rather, they should fit with and add to the arguments you make in the text.

Citing Images and Illustrations

If you have created all the images you are using in your essay yourself, then all you need to do is label them clearly (as described above). But if you want to use an existing image you found somewhere else, you will need to cite your source as well, just as you would when quoting someone.

The format for this will depend on the referencing system you’re using. However, with author–date referencing, it usually involves giving the source author’s name and a year of publication. For example:

Image plus caption.

In the caption above, we have cited the page of the paper the image comes from using an APA-style citation. We would then need to add the full paper to the reference list at the end of the document:

Gramblička, S., Kohar, R., & Stopka, M. (2017). Dynamic analysis of mechanical conveyor drive system. Procedia Engineering , 192, 259–264. DOI: 10.1016/j.proeng.2017.06.045

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You can also cite an image directly if it not part of a larger publication or document. If we wanted to cite an image found online in APA referencing , for example, we would use the following format:

Surname, Initial(s). (Role). (Year).  Title or description of image  [Image format]. Retrieved from URL.

In practice, then, we could cite a photograph as follows:

Booth, S. (Photographer). (2014). Passengers [Digital image]. Retrieved from

Make sure to check your style guide if you are not sure which referencing system to use when citing images in your work. And don’t forget to have your finished document proofread before you submit it for marking.

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‘Where We Are’: A Photo Essay Contest for Exploring Community

Using an immersive Times series as inspiration, we invite teenagers to document the local communities that interest them. Contest dates: Feb. 14 to March 20.

A group of friends sitting on an orange picnic blanket in a sun-dappled park, surrounded by green grass and trees.

By The Learning Network

The Covid-19 pandemic closed schools and canceled dances. It emptied basketball courts, theaters, recreation centers and restaurants. It sent clubs, scout troops and other groups online.

Now, many people have ventured back out into physical spaces to gather with one another once again. What does in-person “community” look like today? And what are the different ways people are creating it?

In this new contest, inspired by “ Where We Are ” — an immersive visual project from The New York Times that explores the various places around the world where young people come together — we’re inviting teenagers to create their own photo essays to document the local, offline communities that interest them.

Take a look at the full guidelines and related resources below to see if this is right for your students. We have also posted a student forum and a step-by-step lesson plan . Please ask any questions you have in the comments and we’ll answer you there, or write to us at [email protected]. And, consider hanging this PDF one-page announcement on your class bulletin board.

Here’s what you need to know:

The challenge, a few rules, resources for teachers and students, frequently asked questions, submission form.

Using The Times’s Where We Are series as a guide, create a photo essay that documents an interesting local, offline community. Whether your grandmother’s Mah Jong club, the preteens who hang out at a nearby basketball court, or the intergenerational volunteers who walk the dogs for your neighborhood animal shelter, this community can feature people of any age, as long as it gathers in person.

We encourage you to choose a community you are not a part of for reasons we explain below, in the F.A.Q.

Whichever community you choose, however, it’ll be your job to interview and photograph them. Then, you’ll pull everything together in a visual essay, which will tell the group’s story via a short introduction and a series of captioned photographs.

Your photo essay MUST include:

Between six and eight images, uploaded in the order in which you’d like us to view them.

A short caption of no more than 50 words for each image that helps explain what it shows and why it is important to the story.

A short introduction of up to 300 words that offers important background or context that complements and adds to the information in the photos and captions. You might consider the introduction the beginning of your essay, which the photos and captions will then continue. Together they will answer questions like who this community is, how it came to be, and why it matters. (Our How-To guide offers more detail about this.)

At least one quote — embedded in either the introduction or one of the captions — from a member of the community about what makes it meaningful.

In addition to the guidelines above, here are a few more details:

You must be a student ages 13 to 19 in middle school or high school to participate , and all students must have parent or guardian permission to enter. Please see the F.A.Q. section for additional eligibility details.

The photographs and writing you submit should be fundamentally your own — they should not be plagiarized, created by someone else or generated by artificial intelligence.

Your photo essay should be original for this contest. That means it should not already have been published at the time of submission, whether in a school newspaper, for another contest or anywhere else.

Keep in mind that the work you send in should be appropriate for a Times audience — that is, something that could be published in a family newspaper (so, please, no curse words).

You may work alone, in pairs, or in groups of up to four for this challenge , but students should submit only one entry each.

Remember to get permission from those you photograph, and to collect their contact information. Learn more about this in the F.A.Q. below.

You must also submit a short, informal “artist’s statement” as part of your submission, that describes your process. These statements, which will not be used to choose finalists, help us to design and refine our contests. See the F.A.Q. to learn more.

All entries must be submitted by March 20, at 11:59 p.m. Pacific time using the electronic form below.

Use these resources to help you create your photo essay:

A related Student Opinion question to help you brainstorm ideas before you begin taking photos.

A step-by-step guide that uses examples from the Where We Are series to walk students through creating their own.

Free links to the “Where We Are” Collection :

1. The Magic of Your First Car 2. At This Mexican Restaurant, Everyone is Family 3. Where the Band Kids Are 4. In This Nigerian Market, Young Women Find a Place of Their Own 5. At Camp Naru, Nobody Is ‘an Outlier’ 6. For Black Debutantes in Detroit, Cotillion Is More Than a Ball 7. At This Wrestling Academy, Indian Girls Are ‘Set Free’ 8. In Seville, Spain, These Young Rappers Come Together to Turn ‘Tears Into Rhymes’ 9. For a Queer Community in Los Angeles, This Public Park Is a Lifeline 10. In Guatemala, A Collective of Young Artists Finds Family Through Film 11. On a Caribbean Island, Young People Find Freedom in ‘Bike Life’ 12. At This Texas Campus Ministry, ‘Inclusive Love’ Is the Mission 13. For Young Arab Americans in Michigan, the Hookah Lounge Feels like Home

An activity sheet for understanding and analyzing the Where We Are series.

Lessons on interviewing and taking photographs . While these two resources were originally created for our 2022 Profile Contest , each contains scores of tips from educators and Times journalists that can help students learn to interview, and to take and select compelling photographs that tell a story.

Our contest rubric . These are the criteria we will use to judge this contest. Keep them handy to make sure your photo essay meets all of the qualifications before entering.

Below are answers to your questions about writing, judging, the rules and teaching with this contest. Please read these thoroughly and, if you still can’t find what you’re looking for, post your query in the comments or write to us at [email protected].


What is a photo essay? How does it differ from just a series of photos?

A photo essay tells a story through a series of images. These images work together and build on each other to explore a theme of some kind. The photo essays in the Where We Are series, for instance, focus on the themes of community and coming-of-age, but each through a different lens, as the three images published here illustrate. Together they are beautiful examples of how visual collections can investigate ideas by illuminating both the “big picture” and the tiny, telling details.

How do I choose a good subject for this?

Our Student Opinion forum can help via its many questions that encourage you to brainstorm local, offline communities of all kinds.

Can I be a member of the community I photograph?

You can, but we encourage you not to. Part of the point of this contest is to help you investigate the interesting subcultures in your area, and expand your understanding of “community” by finding out about groups you otherwise may never have known existed.

But we also think it will be easier to do the assignment as an outsider. You will be coming to the community with “fresh eyes” and relative objectivity, and will be able to notice things that insiders may be too close to see.

If you do choose to depict a community you are a part of, we ask that you do not include yourself in the photos.

I’d like to work with others to create this. How do I do that?

You can work alone, with a partner, or with up to three other people. So, for example, in a group of four, two people might act as photographers, while the other two interview community members. When you are ready to edit your material and write up what you have discovered, the interviewers could use their notes to handle the short introduction, while the photographers could edit their shots into a meaningful visual sequence, and help collaborate on the captions.

Please remember, however, that you can only have your name on one submission.

Do I need permission to photograph the people in this community?

You do. It is good journalistic practice to tell the people you are photographing why you are taking pictures of them, and to ask their permission. They should also know that, if you are a winner, their image and name may appear online.

Though you do not have to have a signed permission sheet from every participant, if you are a winner and we publish your work, we will need to be able to reach those depicted, so please get their contact information before you take their pictures. (If you are photographing young children, this is especially important. Secure a parent or guardian’s permission first.)

An important exception to this: If you are taking photos of crowds in public places, such as at a sporting event, a community meeting or a local fair, you don’t need to worry about permissions, as it would be impossible to get them from all attendees.

I don’t know where to begin! What advice do you have?

Once you’ve chosen a community to photograph, begin by introducing yourself to ensure the participants are open to your project. Then, devote a bit of time to just observing, noticing how and where the members of this group spend time, what they do together, and how they relate to each other.

When you’re ready to start documenting what you find, our step-by-step guide will help you take it from there.


How will my photo essay be judged?

Your work will be read by New York Times journalists as well as by Learning Network staff members and educators from around the United States. We will use this rubric to judge entries.

What’s the prize?

Having your work published on The Learning Network and being eligible to be chosen to have your work published in the print editions of The New York Times.

When will the winners be announced?

About two months after the contest has closed.


Who is eligible to participate in this contest?

This contest is open to students ages 13 to 19 who are in middle school or high school around the world. College students cannot submit an entry. However, high school students (including high school postgraduate students) who are taking one or more college classes can participate. Students attending their first year of a two-year CEGEP in Quebec Province can also participate. In addition, students age 19 or under who have completed high school but are taking a gap year or are otherwise not enrolled in college can participate.

The children and stepchildren of New York Times employees are not eligible to enter this contest. Nor are students who live in the same household as those employees.

Why are you asking for an Artist’s Statement about our process? What will you do with it?

All of us who work on The Learning Network are former teachers. One of the many things we miss, now that we work in a newsroom rather than a classroom, is being able to see how students are reacting to our “assignments” in real time — and to offer help, or tweaks, to make those assignments better. We’re asking you to reflect on what you did and why, and what was hard or easy about it, in large part so that we can improve our contests and the curriculum we create to support them. This is especially important for new contests, like this one.

Another reason? We have heard from many teachers that writing these statements is immensely helpful to students. Stepping back from a piece and trying to put into words what you wanted to express, and why and how you made artistic choices to do that, can help you see your piece anew and figure out how to make it stronger. For our staff, they offer important context that help us understand individual students and submissions, and learn more about the conditions under which students around the world create.

Whom can I contact if I have questions about this contest or am having issues submitting my entry?

Leave a comment on this post or write to us at [email protected].


Do my students need a New York Times subscription to access these resources?

No. Students can get free access to the entire Where We Are series through The Learning Network . (All 13 photo essays are listed above, in our Resources section.) In addition, our related student forum , activity sheet and “how to” guide are also free, as are everything they link to.

However, if you are interested in learning more about school subscriptions, visit this page .

I’m not an art teacher. Can this work for my students too?

Yes! Though this is a new contest for us, we chose it in part because the theme of “community” is such an important one in subjects across the curriculum. In fact, we hope it might inspire teachers in different curriculum areas to collaborate.

For example, students in social studies could investigate the role of community locally, learning about the history of different influential groups. An English teacher might support students as they interview and craft their introductions and photo captions, while an art teacher could offer tips for photo composition. And, of course, a journalism teacher could guide the full project, or work with other teachers to publish the most successful results in the school paper.

How do my students prove to me that they entered this contest?

After they press “Submit” on the form below, they will see a “Thank you for your submission.” line appear. They can take a screenshot of this message. Please note: Our system does not currently send confirmation emails.

Please read the following carefully before you submit:

Students who are 13 and older in the United States or the United Kingdom, or 16 and older elsewhere in the world, can submit their own entries. Those who are 13 to 15 and live outside the United States or the United Kingdom must have an adult submit on their behalf.

All students who are under 18 must provide a parent or guardian’s permission to enter.

You will not receive email confirmation of your submission. After you submit, you will see the message “Thank you for your submission.” That means we received your entry. If you need proof of entry for your teacher, please screenshot that message.

Here is an example of how you might submit a photo with a caption and a photographer credit (Ashley Markle is the photographer):

If you have questions about your submission, please write to us at [email protected] and provide the email address you used for submission.


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