What Is Imagery and How Can It Be Used in Writing?

What Is Imagery and How Can It Be Used in Writing

Us writers are fortunate enough to have a rather extensive set of tools we can use to communicate with others. One of those tools is imagery. At the hands of a skilled writer, imagery can be used to make a long-lasting connection in the minds of people who consume a particular piece of content. Just like Sunday roast is a generational connection to the past, imagery keeps people connected to organisations that produce memorable content.

So what exactly is imagery from a content creation perspective? More importantly, how can it be used to improve how an organisation communicates? Both questions, and more, will be addressed in this piece. As you read, try to imagine yourself in the position of someone else consuming your content. What kinds of images do you think would make a connection between your organisation and that person?

Imagery: A Brief Definition

The word imagery usually conjures up thoughts of pictures. In other words, we associate paintings and photographs with imagery thanks to the root word ‘image’. But there is more to it than that. The Cambridge Dictionary defines imagery as follows:

The use of pictures or words to create images, especially to create an impression or mood.

That definition is okay, but what we really want to know is how imagery is defined in a literary sense. After all, we are creating primarily written content for online consumption. We need to know the literary definition of the term.

Literary experts generally understand imagery as using figurative language to present ideas in a way that appeals to the human senses. Imagery makes use of certain words, phrases, and sentence structures to create a visual representation of certain ideas in a person’s mind. To that end, imagery is often described as creating mental pictures with words.

Does that make sense? If so, the following example sentence should be easily recognised for its use of imagery:

“The succulent aroma of roast beef cooking in the oven filled the house, even as I sat and enjoyed the warm sunshine and bright colours of spring in the garden.”

This example of imagery is meant to evoke multiple senses to help the reader create a mental image of an ideal British Sunday. It is meant to touch the senses of vision, touch, smell, and taste to make a positive connection with the reader.

The 5 Most-Used Forms of Imagery

One of the most fascinating aspects of imagery, at least from the standpoint of the writer, is that there is no single way to employ it. There are multiple forms of imagery all designed to activate a particular sense. Rarely are all of them used simultaneously, though it is not impossible to do. Using imagery effectively is more about figuring out the right form to use in a particular circumstance.

Writers use five primary forms of imagery to encourage mental images in the minds of content consumers:

1. Visual Imagery

The first form of imagery is probably the most recognised. It is visual imagery, and it pertains to the sense of sight. Content creators use all sorts of graphics and visual scenes to make the connection. How those things are used depends on the message being conveyed. One thing to note is that visual imagery is not as simplistic as it sounds.

A writer can use a single image to evoke a full range of emotions. The key is to combine text with image in a way that they work together. For instance, imagine a photograph of your favourite politician with a look of bewilderment on his or her face. We can create content around that image to give the impression that the politician is incompetent or confused. Alternatively, we could create content that implies the person was surprised by a sudden event, like a loud noise.

As you can see, the same image can evoke multiple responses in the mind of the consumer. Content creators know this. Therefore, they seek out images capable of visually illustrating whatever point is being made, sometimes completely separate from the original purpose of that image.

2. Auditory Imagery

Auditory imagery addresses the sense of hearing. It pertains to sounds, noise, music, etc. Bear in mind that we are talking about written content here. Employing auditory imagery in the written word is all about using words, phrases, and sentences that cause the consumer to consciously think of sounds.

One example of auditory imagery is to describe chirping birds. If you were to read a paragraph discussing chirping birds and the sound of a slight breeze rustling the leaves of nearby trees, you would instantly know what that sounds like. The paragraph would create a mental image of something you have heard in the past, thereby creating a connection between what you are reading and what your mind knows as a pleasant experience.

We can also use auditory imagery to create negative images. We can describe something like a violent thunderstorm or a terrified woman screaming in the dark. The idea is to encourage the mind of the consumer to hear those sounds, thus creating a connection.

3. Olfactory Imagery

The olfactory sense is the sense of smell. Thus, olfactory imagery utilises words and phrases used to activate mental images of particular odours. Scientists say that olfactory imagery is one of the most powerful forms of imagery in literature.

The key to olfactory imagery is human memory. Why? Because the brain typically equates certain odours with events of the past. The more pleasant the odour, the more pleasant the memories it is attached to. The scents of Sunday roast are a classic example of this.

Most of us have fond memories of Sunday roast as children. Those memories include lots of great food and family all gathered together in one place. To this day, most of us could smell Sunday roast at a local restaurant and immediately remember one or two such gatherings from decades ago.

In literary terms, we use olfactory imagery to conjure up such memories. We might describe succulent roast beef to create a positive image, or we might conjure up a negative image by describing something offensive – like rotting rubbish or the odour of animal dung. The odours we describe heavily weigh on the direction the consumer takes with that particular piece of content.

4. Gustatory Imagery

From a scientific standpoint, the senses of smell and taste go hand-in-hand. In the literary sense though, imagery related to flavours and taste is separate from olfactory imagery. We call it gustatory imagery. It is imagery that calls to mind certain flavours the reader is familiar with.

We can use the gustatory imagery in a very broad sense just by describing something that is sweet, bitter, sour, etc. We can also get more specific. For example, we could specifically describe Yorkshire pudding with onion gravy when talking about Sunday roast. To someone who has a particular fondness for this part of the Sunday meal, just thinking about the onion gravy and what it tastes like can start the mouth watering.

When we combine both olfactory and gustatory imagery together, we have a very powerful tool for making a connection. Connecting the senses of taste and smell together can make an incredibly long-lasting impression.

5. Tactile Imagery

Tactile imagery relates to the sense of touch. It describes physical features, textures, and so on that would be discerned by actually touching something. We use this form of imagery to drive home what an object or surface feels like, thus giving the content consumer a more detailed sense of context.

This is one form of imagery that has limited usage. When it is used though, it can be the final piece of the puzzle in creating the kind of mental image we want consumers to have. And yes, it has a place in online marketing as well. A good example would be describing a consumer product normally held in the hand.

For instance, we could describe a torch with a soft rubber case. Just the phrase ‘soft rubber case’ immediately gives you a sense of what it is we are talking about. But then we could describe the torch’s ergonomic handle and built-in ribbing. The ergonomic handle makes the torch easy to hold; the built-in ribbing gives the user extra grip.

Just this brief description paints a picture in your mind. You now have an idea of how our fictional torch would feel in your own hand, don’t you? That’s the point of tactile imagery.

Lesser Used Forms of Imagery

In addition to the five forms of imagery you just finished reading about, there are two lesser forms writers may call on from time to time. These are known as kinesthetic imagery and organic imagery.

Kinesthetic imagery pertains to movement and motion. Its name comes from the scientific principle of kinetic energy, which is essentially energy in motion. Examples would include describing things like a boat rocking in the waves, a feather fluttering to the ground, or a football flying through the air on its way to the goal.

Organic imagery is the least commonly used because it is the most complex. It pertains to personal experiences relating to a person or character the content consumer is reading about.

If we were writing a story about someone named John, we might describe the pain John feels after breaking his leg in a skiing accident. We might talk about John’s hunger, thirst, or fatigue as he waits to be taken off the mountain.

Organic imagery can also address the emotions. We can describe the anguish John’s family feels as they wait for the doctor’s prognosis. We can describe the adrenaline rush of the rescuers when they first received the call indicating John needed help.

Imagery Separates the Great from the Adequate

The title of this piece asks, “what is imagery and how can it be used in content creation?” Everything you have read thus far answers that question pretty clearly, at least from my perspective. Now let us tackle the second question: why? Why use imagery in content creation rather than concentrating on facts, figures, etc.

Facts and figures certainly have their place in all kinds of written content. We would never discourage using them. However, imagery is a lot more powerful than facts and figures. Imagery separates great content from adequate content. Remember that the point of imagery is to create a connection by helping content consumers form mental images that illustrate what they are reading.

If I have done my job correctly, you are going to remember this piece because of some of the mental images you experienced while reading my descriptions of the different forms of imagery. You are going to remember my multiple references to Sunday roast. As such, you also now have a better understanding of what imagery is and how it works.

Even if you don’t remember the details of this particular piece of content, you will remember the mental images created by the imagery I employed. That makes this a great piece of content if, for no other reason, it accomplished the goal of helping you understand what imagery is and how it can be used in content creation.

Now you know why we use it.

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