How To Use Imagery

An essay looking at how to use imagery correctly and powerfully when writing fiction

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Public Domain

Imagery is one of the first things we learn about as writers. Simile and metaphor are familiar to many people, often from GCSE English Literature, and I think that’s why imagery is accepted as something almost facile, not something at which we have to work very hard. Additionally, some parts of imagery, like similes, occur naturally in everyday conversation, so we rarely pick apart the images we choose in our writing and consider their full impact.

Picking the right image and expressing it coherently is a beautiful thing. Some of my favourite books have contained passages with images so pleasing it actually makes me stop reading so I can savour the combination of words and the effect it’s produced.

And then there was his voice,” I say. “He had one of those deep, serene, all-knowing voices like a documentary narrator. Like any moment he could tell you a fact about a penguin or the war and you’d believe him. It was soothing. But sexy, too. Like a tongue was being dragged up your inner thigh every time he said hi.

Bunny by Mona Awad.

In this this passage from Bunny by Mona Awad, the narrator Samantha is sharing a memory about her high school crush Rob to the rest of the women in her competitive MFA program. Samantha is intimidated by her classmates, and in this scene she has been invited into their inner sanctum for the first time. The two similes in these few lines tell you a lot about the situation and the characters because every word has been picked for maximum impact.

“He had one of those deep, serene, all-knowing voices like a documentary narrator.” By describing Rob as a documentary narrator, Samantha elevates him in the eyes of her audience because documentaries are powerful, talking about truth and the real world. It makes her fascination with him seem understandable, even enviable because she had such a powerful figure in her periphery. Samantha and her classmates write fiction, so by distinguishing Rob as a figure of non-fiction – someone who narrates the truth – she both others Rob as different to them, adding an exotic, mysterious element, and empowers him by giving him the mantle of soothsayer in an unsure world. This also ties in with the book’s themes of creativity, truth in fiction, and what’s real and what’s not.

Samantha praises Rob as a serious figure, someone with gravitas, which she knows will appeal to her audience who all see themselves as serious creatives and scholars. This not only gives us, the readers, an idea of who Rob was, but it also shows that at this point Samantha desperately wants to impress her peers. She has shown Rob to be important intellectually and morally, but with her final image she adds a sexual, titillating element to build on her previous image: “Like a tongue was being dragged up your inner thigh every time he said hi”.

The language is blunt because there’s no need for multisyllabic adjectives; the image alone accomplishes everything. It’s overtly sexual with no room for misinterpretation, almost shocking to read. There’s a powerful word choice here with the use of “hi” rather than another greeting like “hello”. “Hi” is much more informal than “hello”, which adds to the idea of Rob’s raw, untamed sexuality; the most casual of greetings is laden with this sexual, sensuous implication. This is Samantha’s need – she wants to make her classmates notice her and see that she is a person worth taking note of, so she picks this simple, starkly sexual image to paint Rob as sexual dynamite, an icon so noteworthy that Samantha herself is made worthy by being associated with him. Samantha has captured the attention of her audience and of her readers. The imagery here doesn’t just give us an idea of who Rob was, but it tells us so much about who Samantha is, what her priorities are, and the dynamics of the situation.

Every word in your manuscript needs to be there on purpose. You wouldn’t leave a plot thread dangling with no resolution, and you wouldn’t introduce a character if they didn’t add something to the story. It’s the same with imagery. Consider every word choice and every simile, and if an image isn’t adding something to character, tone, or setting, then consider why it’s there at all.

Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.

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