The use of imagery in your creative writing is a great way to engage any reader. Imagery allows a writer to affect an audience through an attack on their senses, and although it is impossible to smell a word, or taste it, a reader cannot shake the connotations a word has, or change the anchorage to real-life events or memories that they are bound to.

In this article, I have decided to use my own examples of imagery to reinforce my opinions.

Using Imagery: Guidelines For Practising

A good starting point would be to study authors who love to use imagery in their work. Writing will always attack the senses, and so really there is no ‘best’ place to start. Aside from its obvious stylistic and convention dictated difference to other forms of writing, poetry is often full of imagery.

I see the poem as a concentrated form of prose, maybe even a purer manifestation, and so the skilled implementation of imagery is fundamental to its success. A poem can’t afford to be wasteful with its words. Maybe you could start by reading some poems of your choice, and see how the writer uses imagery to affect a reader’s senses.

How does this lend to the narrative it is trying to develop? Does the imagery used bring another dimension to the description?

Once you have explored how another writer uses imagery, start to inject this inspiration into your own work. Imagine the sentence or paragraph you are trying to create. Sometimes it can help to brainstorm responses around a central word. Once you have decided what you are going to describe, you can begin to do this.

What words and phrases come to mind when you think about what you are trying to describe?

Once you have done this, it is time to explore the senses (the word ‘object’ is used for simplicity. Some examples use synaesthesia; see later section within this article for more information):

  • Visual – What does it look like? Can you explain the visual qualities of something by referencing something else? Can you compare objects on the basis of their visual similarities? ‘The path meandered’.
  • Gustatory – How might the taste of one object lend to the sensual reaction to another? Can a taste be used to describe another feeling? ‘The music had a strong jazz flavour’.
  • Tactile – How does an object feel? Can you use this feeling to describe something else? ‘He was as rugged as the terrain he inhabited’.
  • Aural – How does something sound? Can this sound be likened to another sound in a different context? Can this sound describe something that doesn’t even make a noise? ‘A loud hairstyle’.
  • Olfactory – How does something smell? Does describing this smell lend to the description of something without a scent? ‘Her face was as delicate as a fleeting scent.’

Use of Imagery in Creative Writing

Outside the window the embers of a rich sunset began to surrender to a catching oblivion.’

The imagery in this sentence is rooted in the words ‘rich’, ‘embers’, ‘surrender’ and ‘catching’. ‘Catching’ and ‘surrender’ also serve as examples of personification, which is another technique that I will mention later in this article.

When describing the sunset, the word ‘rich’ is attacking the sense of taste. In the same way that a piece of chocolate cake is rich, so is the sunset; although a monetary richness could be explored, I was trying to illustrate how the sunset was vivid and overpowering, in the same way our sense of taste can be overpowered by ‘rich’ foods.

The word ‘embers’ attacks a sense of sight; when we think about the word, we cannot escape the fixed image of an ember, a dwindling coal that once burned more brightly and magnificently than it does now. As the sun begins to set, it sinks into the horizon and fades like a dying fire, and thus the use of ‘embers’ serves to represent this.

The words ‘surrender’ and ‘catching’ are both used to empower the word ‘oblivion’. In personifying the word oblivion, we give it more weight. The image of a sunset ‘surrendering’ and an oblivion ‘catching’ serves to illustrate a power struggle, one where the horizon, or the ‘oblivion’, is ultimately dominant.

It is impossible to shake our internal feeling that people, or mankind, have a dominant relationship with most aspects of the environment around them, and in personifying the word ‘oblivion’ the reader is able to instantly react to the dominant and submissive imagery at play. Aside from poeticism, a large part of creating and using imagery is to further the understanding of your readers.

‘Rich’ is a gustatory use of imagery, ‘embers’ is visual, and ‘surrender’ and ‘catching’ are both examples of personification.

Use Of Synaesthesia

I am only referring to ‘synaesthesia’ as a literary technique, as a cross-sensory metaphor, and not to the involuntary scientific process. For more information on this distinction, search for ‘neurological synaesthesia’.

‘The poetic description of a sense impression in terms of another sense’.

Collins English Dictionary, Tenth Edition, Collins, 2010

In a cognitive and sensory sense, the use of synaesthesia allows a reader to attribute one sensory reaction to another, and in turn this allows them the opportunity to examine a passage of description in a number of ways.

You can use synaesthesia in your writing to describe anything in a multi-dimensional way, but you can also use it yourself to create writing in the first place. If you are struggling to visualise a character, hear their voice or explore their mind, then it might help you to draw a picture of them. After you have drawn the picture, you can look at it and respond to it. The sense of sight is now being translated into an exploration of other senses, and in real terms, this is true synaesthesia. Whether the character you have drawn is anything like the character you imagined beforehand, the stimulus their sight provides is causing a reaction through synaesthesia.

Use Of Personification

Personification helps a writer to represent an inanimate object or scene as possessing human qualities. We cannot escape our human perspective, and when we accredit something that isn’t human as having a human likeness, or human characteristics, it can place it in a more understandable context. All a writer is ever trying to do is be understood – surely?

For more information on personification as a literary technique, search for the term ‘ontological metaphor’.

The use of imagery in writing, and by extension the use of synaesthesia and personification, is fundamental to the success of description in general. Without them, literature would lack the power of reference. After all, all literature can ever do is affect you on the basis of how you have already been affected.

Without your own experiences, you are not able to fully understand other experiences, whether at odds or alien to your own. You need something to compare and contrast, and imagery allows a writer to access your empathy or understanding even if you have never directly experienced what their subject matter is concerned with.