Friday, September 18, 2020

Using Imagery In Your Writing


Hello everyone, Winnie Griggs here.

Today I want to talk a little bit about the use of Imagery in your writing.  First, a quick unofficial definition:  Imagery is the use of descriptive or figurative language to evoke a mental picture of the scene, action or emotion being depicted.


It’s much more than simple description, it is a tool that helps the writer paint vivid pictures that fire the reader’s imagination, that gives them new ways to look at whatever it is that’s being described.  Painting those fresh word pictures is key to creating fiction that resonates.  In other words imagery helps the writer say things in a way that touches the reader more effectively than a literal description would.  Because, by the act of their need to read between the lines and make the necessary translations and connections, however slight, readers become more involved and more engaged in the story.


Let’s talk about some of those methods.


Metaphors and Similes

These are probably the most common types of figurative language we use.  While similar, metaphors and similes are not the same thing.  A simile takes two distinctly different items and compares them using words such as ‘like’ and ‘as’.  A metaphor also compares two essentially different things but in a more subtle way.  It doesn’t announce the comparison by using comparative language but rather uses the items being compared  interchangeably, implying that they actually are the same. 


Let’s use an example to illustrate: 


The dandelion fluff scattered in the wind like a troupe of graceful dancers  (simile)


The gust of wind awakened the drowsing bits of dandelion fluff, scattering them from their hammocks to gracefully dance across the meadow.  (Metaphor)


In these examples, dandelion fluff is being compared to dancers.  The difference is, in the first example you are being explicitly told that this is a comparison and in the second you are implying it by giving the dandelion fluff the characteristics of a dancer.  There is a place for both constructs in your writing.



An analogy is very similar to a metaphor or simile, in that it makes comparisons.  In fact, analogies normally employ similes and metaphors.  The main difference is that an analogy is used to do more than describe, it is used to explain or convince the reader/listener of an idea or concept. 

Robert Lee Brewer in Writer’s Digest explains the differences using these examples:

Metaphor: Time is a thief.

Simile: Time is like a thief.

Analogy: Time is like a thief in that thieves steal physical objects and time steals moments of our lives.

Another example of an analogy, this one from Mark Twain:  

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightening and a lightening bug.



A zeugma is another comparative technique, and is one of my favorites.  It’s much rarer than the others we’ve discussed but when done well it can be quite effective.  A zeugma is a word that is used to modify or govern two individual words or phrases, but each in a different way.

 It sounds complicated but here is a fairly simple example:  

Working beside my grandmother in her garden that summer wore holes in the knees of my jeans, and in my heart.

 In the matter of the jeans we are, of course, referring to actual holes.  In the case of the heart, however, we are using the word more figuratively.



Symbolism is another great way to add the power of imagery to your work.  Symbolism is the use of some object or action to represent an idea, emotion or any other abstract quality.  It’s a type of shorthand.  If you show a motorist an octagonal red sign, even if there are no words on it, he understands he’s supposed to stop.  If a parking space has a stylized image of a person seated in a wheelchair, drivers know that spot is reserved for handicap access vehicles.  These are symbols.        


In literature, you’ll find two categories of symbols - author created symbols and universally understood symbols.


Universally understood symbols are those that convey meaning either by their very nature or by their context.     One of my favorite examples of this is from the movie Notting Hill.  There’s a scene in the movie where the Hugh Grant character is trying to get over the blow up of his relationship with the Julia Roberts character, and we see him walking through the market in a scene that takes up only about 2-3 minutes of actual screen time.  But during this walk, without the use of any dialogue, we see background characters and weather elements flow seamlessly through changes in such a way that by the end of his stroll we know an entire year has passed in his world.  And this was done entirely with a shorthand that we as viewers instinctively understood.


There are lots of these kinds of symbols out there - road signs, storms, falling leaves, howling wind, flowers in bloom, shooting stars, new dawns and sunsets, and oh so many more - they are all around us, all have meaning to our readers and all can be used in a number of ways to signify different things.  For instance, depending on your story’s theme and context, a reference to falling leaves can conjure images of the inevitability of death, or it can signal that holiday time is drawing near, or for the less astute reader, it can mean nothing more than that it is autumn.  And it can do this without any overt reference to any of those things.


Then there are the symbols that are author created.  Something you give significance and meaning to in a way that it then becomes shorthand for that meaning throughout your story. 

For instance, in page one of my book A Matter of Trust you’ll find this passage:

Her sweet, curious, intelligent little boy - he was so precious to her.  Now that her own mother was gone, he was all she had that truly mattered.

Lucy’s smile faltered at that reminder of her loss, and she pressed a hand lightly against her bodice, comforted by the feel of her mother’s locket, cool against her skin. 

 From that point on in the story, whenever Lucy touches that locket, which she does on several occasions, the reader should have a sense of what she’s feeling without me having to elaborate.

You should be subtle about your use of symbols, even the more obvious ones.  And never, ever explain a symbol to your readers.  If you’ve done your job properly, then the perceptive reader will ‘get it’ either on a conscious or subconscious level.  If less perceptive readers only see it for its face value, then so be it. 


Some DOs and DON’Ts on imagery


Strive for originality

When crafting your images - avoid clich├ęs like the plague!  There are exceptions of course, but for the most part you want to give your reader fresh imagery to fire their imagination.  Find new ways to say ‘cold as ice’  or ‘fresh as a daisy’.

Here are some snippets pulled from my book The Christmas Journey:

As frustrated as a frisky dog on a short leash.

Relief washed through her in giddy waves.

She was still madder than a dunked cat


Use the mood and setting of your book to create the palette you draw your images from

Is your book a gothic set in the Victorian period?  Much of your imagery should have a dark, heavy, ominous feel - storms, nighttime, forests, rock, thorns, scavenger animals

On the other hand, if your story is a light-hearted romp set in small town America, your imagery might be drawn from things like sunshine, spring, flowers, songbirds, domesticated animals


Here are some snippets pulled from my book, The Christmas Journey, which is a western

Otis glanced her way and the ugly smile he flashed sent alarm skittering up her spine like a frightened centipede.

Otis and Clete lounged outside the saloon, all but licking their chops, nudging each other like a pair of weasels who’d spied a way into the chicken coop.

Mr. Lassiter’s well-being was more important than getting vengeance on that bucket of pond scum.


Keep your imagery focused.

Don’t make it a multiple choice issue for your reader. 

For example:  He was as forceful as a locomotive barreling down the tracks, or as a tornado swirling across the plains.    Not good - pick one!

 Also, make sure you use an image we can grasp.

The sentence - He was as effective as Daedalus in teaching caution to his son  won’t evoke an image for the reader if they don’t know who Daedalus was.


Surprise Your Reader With The Unexpected

When you are trying to describe a woman’s lips, a skilled writer will naturally reach for something other than red as rubies or cherries.  But suppose you take it in an entirely different direction - say red and puffy as an inflamed blister or that they matched her bloodshot eyes?  It might make your reader squirm a bit, but it’ll definitely paint a memorable picture, and depending on what you’re going for, it could work.


Some Final Thoughts

You obviously don’t want or need to overload your story with imagery and symbolism.  As with any technique, overuse can result in reader dissatisfaction or a dilution of impact.  So sometimes you simply want to describe a scene or emotion literally.  The key is to know when and how to use these tools to create the most enjoyable experience for your reader.

Figurative language is a powerful tool for your literary arsenal and one you shouldn’t be afraid to play with.  When properly wielded it can transform and elevate your writing.

Do you have some favorite examples of imagery from books or movies that you’d like to share?  Is so, please post them for us. 


Leave a comment to get your name in the hat for your choice of any book in my backlist.



  1. I can't think of a specific example but all your books are full of so much excellent imagery I feel like I am there!

  2. This is such a great line up of examples and explanations. And since I was an engineer, not an English major, I've never even heard of a zeugma :) I was re-watching one of my favorite movies, While You were Sleeping, the other day and the idea of Lucy carrying her passport with her held all sorts of meanings: her memories of her father who had loved to travel, as well as the dreams of her future where she might get the chance to travel herself.

    Thanks for a great post. I'm sure I'll be returning to it again and again!

    1. Glynnis, that is such a great example of the use of symbols, and this one has the added value of having both universal symbolism and author created symbolism.

  3. Winnie, this is a good post and thanks for sharing. I have never heard the term "Zeugma," but I do it all the time. Just didn't know what it was called.
    This is a timely post for me, as I will be getting my book back from beta readers some time this fall and will go through my FINAL final edits before submitting it. There is always something to be sharpened, a turn of phrase, something that could be said better.
    I have been feeling a lot better lately, as some issues we've had seem to be working themselves out, or rather God is working them out. Looking forward to a fruitful fall harvest, and not just with produce. "Great is Thy Faithfulness, Lord unto me."
    Kathy Bailey
    Your Kaybee

    1. Kaybee, glad you enjoyed the post. And so glad you're feeling better now - God is indeed faithful!

  4. Hi Winnie:

    Wow! Today's post is like a college lecture. And I mean in the best sense of having both rich content and being well organized.

    Your post made me wonder if you could do this same type of analysis with the senses of Hearing and Smelling? Indeed, would you consider these two senses to still fall under the concept of Image? That is, do we have an image, for example, of fresh blood having a copper odor or is there a term better fit which would be analogous to the way 'Image' is to 'Vision,' to wit: as 'Smelling' is to 'X'? If so, I'd love to learn what you have to say about these senses in a future post.

    BTW: I really liked learning about 'Zeugma' and it may actually fit a category I've been exploring. I don't have a name yet for this category but it goes like this: The speaker makes a statement which is both figuratively and literally true. I had uncovered about ten of these but I can only remember the first one at the moment. The others are better examples.

    "Old Mickey Mantle, there was a guy who hit them out of the park both left and right."

    Hitting something both left and right is a saying for someone doing something that for them is rather easy and Mickey Mantle was a switch hitter and as such could and actually did hit home runs both left and right.

    I can't remember them now but there are many more examples that are much more common and do not require specialized knowledge like baseball history. I wonder if these have a name yet or can I coin a neologism? I'd love to do that. :)


    P.S. "She took that spud out of the microwave too soon and summarily dropped it like a hot potato."

    1. Hi Vince. Glad you enjoyed the post. And no, I'm not aware of a term for those examples, you may just have coined a new term

    2. Great! In that case, I think I'll call the new term a
      "duabus veritatibus" or in French, "deja tru". :)

  5. Thank you for the post! It was really interesting and so cool!

    1. Angeline, you are very welcome, thanks for stopping by.

  6. Zeugma was a new one for me! When I used to teach Language Arts, I used Savvy by Ingrid Law as an example of imagery. Here's an excerpt: "I had liked living down south on the edge of land, next to the pushing-pulling waves. I had liked it with a mighty kind of liking, so moving had been hard—hard like the pavement the first time I fell off my pink two-wheeler and my palms burned like fire from all of the hurt just under the skin." She's one of my favorites because of her rich imagery!

    1. Hi Sarah. That's a new one for me but I can definitely see why it's a favorite of yours

    2. Sarah, I am intrigued by this Ingrid Law. I have never heard of her or Savvy. One more to add to my TBR! :-)

  7. Excellent, Winnie! I always love your blogs...and always learn something new!

    In an early book of mine, I used a gold cross given to the heroine by the grandfather who raised her in a similar way to your mention of the locket. Now if only the Amish wore jewelry! :)

    1. Thanks Debby! And I can certainly relate to your angst over the Amish and jewelry, have to dig deep for different symbol shorthand :)

  8. Great post, Winnie. What a good lesson on imagery. And I was an English major and English teacher and I have never heard the term zeugma. I think there are so many writers who do a great job with imagery and description. I love to read books with that kind of great language. Please put me in the drawing.

    1. Thanks Sandy! And you're right, effective use of imagery just takes writing to a whole different level.


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