"I may not know how to fly but I know how to read and that's almost the same thing."-- Gregory Maguire, Out of Oz

"...while finding true love was one of the most splendid things that could happen to you in life, finding a friend was equally splendid." -- Felix J Palma, The Map of the Sky

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Friday, April 10, 2015

I = Imagery

"Show, don't tell."

im·age·ry (n.) - visually descriptive or figurative language, esp. in a literary work

The use of Imagery in storytelling, is by far my favorite literary devices. It's when an author goes beyond telling a story, and uses words to "paint a picture" that allow a reader to not just bear witness to a story, but imagine themselves experiencing the events within. 

Imagery isn't just the description of a setting or character, it isn't just visual, although that's certainly a common use for it. Imagery can be applied to all of your senses: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and fingertips. You could also apply imagery to a sense of movement, climate, and emotional state. The right combination of words can not just put the reader in a moment, but also give them a sense of a story's atmosphere.

Say I wanted to describe falling snow to someone who'd never seen it.

Tell: "Snow falls, cold and white, covering the lawn.

There's nothing in this sentence someone couldn't learn from a Wikipedia entry. But what if the person doing the telling used imagery and happened to like snow? 

Show: "Pale, fluffy flakes tumbled through the chilled air, landing softly against a bed of green.

Now we know, a little more. We know snow is pale, has texture, and doesn't just fall straight down. We know it lands soundlessly on grass that hasn't lost color yet. The word "tumble" evokes playfulness. The words "softly" and "bed" imply contentment with the way of things. But what if the person doing the telling disliked snow? 

Show: "Snow swirled through the frigid air like dust, slowly bleaching color from the world."

Again the sentence shows how snow moves. "Frigid" evokes a negatively viewed climate (no one's ever been called a "chilled b***h," nor has anyone ever been invited to "come frigid with me."). The word "dust" implies something unclean. The last half of the sentence, implies the world is experiencing a loss because the snow is falling.

Imagery has the power to take a story and make it an experience while proving that words, and how you choose to use them, matter.

 Do you like imagery?  Think it's overrated? Got a good example (book rec)?


  1. I understood the "Show and Tell" concept better when I enrolled for a Creative Writing 4 years ago. Until then I always thought - what's the need to write about the situation in such detail ? Thanks for sharing :)

    1. Creative Writing classes should be mandatory! Why do we need a hundred classes dedicated to essays?

  2. I really enjoyed the clever way you presented IMAGERY in layers .
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  3. You brought me back to my English Comp college course 30 years ago And that's a good thing. I greatly admired the instructor and her way of explaining this same imagery


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