What Is Imagery? A Complete Guide


A literary device is a technique a writer uses to convey ideas and messages to their readers. That means that as readers, we need to understand and use literary devices to fully understand a work’s major themes!

Today, we’re going to take a closer look at how to use imagery to analyze a text. We’ll start by giving you the imagery definition before talking about why it’s an important tool for analyzing a text. Then we’ll walk you through some imagery examples in poetry and fiction and show you exactly how to analyze the imagery in each.

By the end of this article, you’ll be able to talk about imagery in literature like a pro, so let’s get started.


body-imagery-memeSeriously. Once you know what you're looking for, you'll see it everywhere!


What Is Imagery? Definition and Explanation

Have you ever read a book that makes you feel like you’re seeing, feeling, smelling, or tasting the same thing as the character you’re reading about? (We had that experience the first time Harry Potter tries butterbeer in Hogsmeade.) If you have, you can thank imagery for that experience!

Imagery is the act of using language to create images in the reader’s mind. Writers use descriptive words and phrases to help the reader feel like they’re...well, wherever the writer wants them to be! Basically, the writer is trying to create a “mental image” for the reader through the words they choose. Here’s how one of the greatest horror writers of all time, Stephen King, describes imagery:

Imagery does not occur on the writer’s page; it occurs in the reader’s mind. To describe everything is to supply a photograph in words; to indicate the points which seem the most vivid and important to you, the writer, is to allow the reader to flesh out your sketch into a portrait.

In other words: you can think of imagery as painting with words in order to fuel the reader’s imagination!

An easy way to spot imagery in a text is to pay attention to words, phrases, and sentences that connect with your five senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound). That’s because writers know that in order to capture a reader’s attention, they need to engage with them mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Since imagery is designed to connect a reader to a text, it’s one of the most powerful tools a writer has to communicate their themes and messages.




The 2 Types of Imagery

Any time a writer engages a reader’s senses, they’re using imagery...which means imagery is a really broad literary device. In general, however, imagery fits into two big categories: literal and figurative.


Literal Imagery: Examples and Explanation

With literal imagery, a writer is literally describing things to the reader. (Pretty straightforward, huh?)

Writers often use literal imagery to describe the setting, characters, and situation for a reader. Literal imagery helps the reader picture where characters are, understand what characters are doing, and even foreshadow what might happen next. (For example, if the character is in a dark, dirty alley, they’re probably in a more dangerous situation than if the character is skipping through a field of daisies.)

Let’s take a look at an example of literal imagery from Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park so you can see what we mean. In this scene, Dr. Alan Grant, Lex Murphy, and Tim Murphy are trying to hide from a tyrannosaurus rex:

They were closer to the waterfall now, the roar much louder. The rocks became slippery, the path muddy. There was a constant hanging mist. It was like moving through a cloud. The path seemed to lead right into the rushing water, but as they came closer, they saw that it actually went behind the waterfall.


The tyrannosaur was still looking downstream, its back turned to them. They hurried along the path to the waterfall, and had almost moved behind the sheet of falling water when Grant saw the tyrannosaur turn. Then they were completely behind the waterfall, and Grant was unable to see out through the silver sheet.

Now that you’ve read this passage, close your eyes and picture the scene. You’re probably picturing a giant waterfall, a hungry tyrannosaurus rex, and a lot of danger, right? That’s because the literal imagery in this passage paints a very specific, literal picture that helps you imagine what’s happening in this moment!

Magic, right? Not quite. Imagery works because the writer uses descriptive words and phrases to help paint a picture. Let’s take a look at the first few lines again and pick out some of the descriptive language that helps shape the scene:  

They were closer to the waterfall now, the roar much louder. The rocks became slippery, the path muddy. There was a constant hanging mist. It was like moving through a cloud.

These lines are almost exclusively description, and Crichton uses phrases like “rocks became slippery” and “constant hanging mist” to help you imagine exactly what’s happening. A good way to pick out literal imagery is to look for nouns, then see how they’re described. For example, the noun “waterfall” is described as having a “roar” that gets “louder” the closer the characters get!

From an analysis perspective, these literal images all work together to help build the mood, or tone, of the scene. In this case, the imagery of the scene contributes to its tense and suspenseful tone. The environment is treacherous--not only are the rocks slick, but the characters have trouble seeing through the mist and water. One false move, and they’ll be a tasty snack for a hungry dinosaur!


 Use this picture as inspiration for finding connotation! (This will all make sense in a second.)


Figurative Imagery: Examples and Explanation  

Unlike literal imagery, figurative imagery uses on the non-literal--or metaphorical--meaning of words to paint a picture for the reader. Almost all words have two meanings: their denotation and connotation. The denotation of a word is its literal, dictionary definition. Figurative imagery, on the other hand, relies on the connotation—or implied meaning—of words and phrases to help shape a text’s themes and ideas.

To see how figurative imagery works, let’s look at the first line of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130,” where the speaker is describing his lady love:  

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Okay. Let’s zero in on the word “sun” here. According to Merriam-Webster, the literal definition of the word “sun” is “the luminous celestial body around which the earth and other planets revolve, from which they receive heat and light, which is composed mainly of hydrogen and helium.” But the speaker doesn’t literally mean that his mistress’ eyes aren’t like a ball of gas!

So what does he mean? To figure this out, let’s look at the figurative imagery here. Take a minute and think of some of the implied or metaphorical meanings of the word “sun.” The word might make you think of warmth and happiness. It also might make you think of other images like burning, blazing, or fiery brightness.

With this figurative imagery in mind, this line is better read as “my mistress’s eyes aren’t bright, warm, or happy.” Not only does figurative imagery help this line make more sense, it also clues readers into the message of the poem: that you can recognize someone’s faults and still love them and find them beautiful.

One more quick note: because you’re a savvy reader, you’ve probably realized that this line from Shakespeare is also a metaphor, which is a comparison between two seemingly unrelated objects (in this case, “eyes” and “sun”). Writers often use other literary devices like metaphor, simile, and personification to help create vivid imagery for the reader. So don’t be surprised if you see imagery overlapping with other literary techniques!


Can an Example of Imagery be Both Literal and Figurative at the Same Time?

Absolutely! In fact, it’s quite common to see writers use literal and figurative imagery simultaneously. Take the first stanza of William Wordsworth’s poem, “Daffodils”:

I wandered lonely as a cloud 

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

This stanza combines literal and figurative imagery. Literally, the images in this stanza help us see the speaker wandering around alone until he stumbles upon a patch of daffodils that are growing by a lake. This imagery is important to understanding Wordsworth’s poetry, which often explores the relationship between nature and man.  

The figurative imagery helps us learn a little more about the speaker, who’s an outsider. We can infer this because of the imagery he gives us; he imagines himself as a cloud floating over everything, able to see what’s going on but unable to participate. The daffodils, on the other hand, represent society. The imagery here is happy (the daffodils are “golden” and “dancing”), which is how the speaker views society as someone on the outside looking in.




 Imagery in Poetry: “Hope is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson

Now that you know more about imagery, let’s look at a poem that uses imagery to portray its major themes:

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers - 

That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

Imagery can make something abstract, like an emotion or theory, seem more concrete and tangible to the reader. By using imagery, writers can evoke the feeling they want to talk about in their readers...and by making their readers feel, writers can also help readers connect to the messages in their work.

In this example, Emily Dickinson takes the abstract idea of “hope” and compares it to a bird. Dickinson paints images of hope doing all the same things a bird does: it “perches,” “sings,” and keeps “so many warm” with its feathers. And despite all these gifts, hope never “asked a crumb” of anything in return. By using imagery to take an abstract idea (hope) and make it concrete (a bird), Dickinson helps readers understand the nature of hope. For Dickinson, hope is something that costs little to have and yet offers us comfort in all of life’s toughest situations.




Imagery in Fiction: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Imagery can be an equally powerful tool for fiction writers, too. In Dracula, Bram Stoker uses imagery to drive home the horror of the novel. Let’s take a look at one particularly stand-out scene, where Arthur Holmwood has to kill his former fiancee, Lucy Westenra, who has been turned into a vampire:

The Thing in the coffin writhed; and a hideous, blood-curdling screech came from the opened red lips. The body shook and quivered and twisted in wild contortions; the sharp white teeth champed together till the lips were cut, and the mouth was smeared with a crimson foam. But Arthur never faltered. He looked like a figure of Thor as his untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercy-bearing stake, whilst the blood from the pierced heart welled and spurted up around it. His face was set, and high duty seemed to shine through it; the sight of it gave us courage, so that our voices seemed to ring through the little vault. 


Remember how we talked about how imagery can set a tone or mood? That’s certainly the case here. Lucy is visually described not as a woman but as a “thing,” and the “blood-curdling screech” she lets out is a great example of how auditory imagery--or the sound of a scene--can contribute to its overall effect. (In this case, it amps up the horror of a once-delicate Englishwoman being transformed into a bloodthirsty beast.) It's the imagery associated with Lucy that shows readers how vicious and animalistic she’s become, which is no surprise: she’s joined Dracula’s army of the undead.

Now, take a look at the imagery surrounding Arthur, Lucy’s former fiancee, and see how it compares to Lucy’s description. Even as he’s killing Lucy, Arthur is described as “a figure of Thor”--meaning he’s strong, heroic, and good with a hammer. Stoker specifically says Arthur is “untrembling” in his task; despite its grisly nature, his steadiness showcases his commitment to protecting his country from the vampire threat...even when it means driving a stake in his lover’s heart. Additionally, his face has the “shine” of duty, which is a nod to the glowing, angelic halos of angels. Arthur’s bravery and light stands in contrast to Lucy’s dark, demonic nature, and Stoker specifically uses imagery to show readers how good can triumph over evil.




3 Questions to Ask When Analyzing Imagery

These examples have shown you how to find and analyze imagery, but you’ll have to do this all by yourself when you take the AP Literature exam. But don’t worry--now that you’re an expert, finding and analyzing imagery will be a breeze! But just in case you get stuck, here are three questions you can ask yourself to help you better analyze imagery in literature and poetry.


Question 1: What Did I Imagine While I Was Reading?  

The hardest part about analyzing imagery is finding it in the first place. Like we mentioned earlier, a good way to do this is to look for nouns and search for words that describe them. Then you can start asking yourself if those descriptions are figurative imagery (i.e., do those words have any implied or metaphorical meaning).

But when you’re crunched for time, you can go back to the tried-and-true method of using your imagination. Which parts of the text made you picture something in your mind? Since imagery is designed to spark your imagination, there’s a great chance that section contains some sort of imagery!


Question 2: What Does the Imagery Reveal About the Situation?

This question helps you get to the meat-and-potatoes of your analysis really quickly. Once you find a piece of imagery, ask yourself what it’s showing you. It could be describing an important setting, plot point, or character. Make sure you’re asking yourself if there’s figurative imagery at work, too.

If you’re struggling here, you can always go back to the “mental picture” we talked about with the first question. What do you see in that image? There’s a good chance that whatever you’re imagining matters in some way. Once you have that image in your mind, you can start to ask yourself why that particular image is important.

Here’s what we mean: think about the Jurassic Park example we talked about earlier. The imagery there tells us some literal things about what’s happening in the scene, but it also adds to the danger and suspense of the main characters’ predicament. The same can be said for the excerpt from “Daffodils,” only instead of revealing a plot point, the imagery gives readers important insight into the narrator of the poem.


Question 3: How Does the Imagery Affect the Mood of the Text?

Once you find a good piece of imagery, ask yourself how it makes you feel. Is it hopeful? Scary? Depressed? Angry? The feelings associated with the imagery in a work can often reveal the theme of a text.

Take Emily Dickinson’s poem. What feelings are associated with the imagery surrounding “hope”? Well, birds are tame and delicate, and the bird Dickinson describes sings sweetly through life’s fierce storms. Hope is clearly a reassuring, gentle, uplifting thing. By asking yourself why Dickinson thinks hope is good, you can start to figure out some of the messages of the poem!




What's Next?

Test out your new-found imagery chops by analyzing a poem on your own! We think that Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” is a great place to start. You can find the full text of the poem, as well as additional analysis, here.

There’s more to literary analysis than just knowing your way around imagery! Make sure you’re familiar with the most important literary devices, like personification, before you head into your AP test.

There are two parts to the AP Literature test: the multiple choice section and the essay section. Some students worry about the written portion of the test so much that they forget to study for the multiple choice questions! Don’t let this be your situation. Make sure you’re preparing for the whole test by reading through this guide to mastering the AP Literature exam’s multiple choice portion, too.


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About the Author
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Ashley Robinson

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.

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