Imagery is one of the harder concepts to pinpoint in writing. What exactly is the difference between describing something in detail and creating imagery? This is not easy to explain. Imagery is often a figurative or symbolic description that goes beyond the literal five senses. Imagery is comprised of words on paper (or a screen) and creates a feeling that permeates our imagination.
However, even with this knowledge I still struggled to define imagery in writing. I looked at what some experts in the fields of communication had to say about it. Marshall McLuhan, was known for his communication and media theories, and particularly the application of his theories. His most famous quote is “the medium is the message.” He wrote extensively on how marketing and advertisement appeals to people. However, occasionally he commented on the realm of politics to comment:
Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be.
Noam Chomsky, a linguist and cognitive scientist, who is known for his political involvement has examined McLuhan’s area of expertise, how the public perceives advertisements. According to Chomsky:
Everyone knows that when you look at a television ad, you do not expect to get information. You expect to see delusion and imagery.
There is a similar theme running through both of these quotes, the idea that imagery provides more than actually exists in the object or person being described. The literary device of imagery can be defined as using words to create a mental picture. However, the mental picture is not simply what exists, but more than what exists. It is an amped up description that provides a greater intensity.
When Marcel Proust used imagery a simple cookie dipped in tea took on a taste, texture and color that made it magically memorable, a song played on a piano echoed in lyric fascination, and an ordinary machine became a frightening monstrosity. In a way imagery is description on steroids.
Some of the techniques that move imagery to this level are comparisons known as similes and metaphors. Similes typically deal with more superficial characteristics. For example, “the sky was filled with clouds, dark gray as slate.” Metaphors typically deal with deeper structural similarities as in “the sky is a vast turbulent ocean of air.” This similarity can be stretched into complex extended metaphors, known as allegories. However in each case the writer is adding nuances to the description that are beyond simply what is observed. Imagery adds connotations which builds another level of perception and results in something being more appealing or distasteful than it actually is.
In the end what reader desires is not simply to feel like they are present with the author but to be able to see the intangibles: the feelings, desires and very beliefs that drive the words on the written page. Remember the imagery in commercials: the man standing stalwart in front of flapping flag sells stability not the candidate, and the car rushing down the open road sells freedom, rather than a brand of automobile. People do not want what to read books to show them reality, but something beyond it.