What is Imagery? Definition and Examples from Film & Books


Definition: Imagery is a literary device that employs vivid and descriptive language to create mental images for the reader. Imagery often utilizes visual descriptions but can also engage other senses, such as smell, touch, taste, and hearing.

Imagery often appeals to the human senses to deepen the reader’s connection to the work. Doing so can convey emotions, set moods, and enhance the reading experience.

For example, rather than simply saying, “The garden was beautiful,” you could write, “The garden burst with hues of deep crimson and vibrant yellow, the air sweet with the scent of blooming roses and the soft buzz of busy bees.”

Types of imagery in literature

  1. Visual Imagery: This is the most common form of imagery and pertains to descriptions that allow the reader to visualize the scene or a particular detail. It creates pictures in the mind through color, form, size, and other visual attributes.
  2. Auditory Imagery: This type of imagery is related to sound. It uses onomatopoeia and other forms of auditory description to make the reader ‘hear’ the noises, whether the roar of a lion or the whisper of the wind.
  3. Olfactory Imagery: Olfactory imagery pertains to the sense of smell. A writer might use this imagery to describe the scent of a pine forest, the stench of a city alley, or the aroma of a freshly baked pie.
  4. Gustatory Imagery: This imagery relates to the sense of taste and is used to describe flavors. It can make the reader ‘taste’ a lemon’s tang or honey’s sweetness.
  5. Tactile Imagery: This imagery appeals to the sense of touch. Descriptions of textures, temperatures, and sensations fall into this category, allowing the reader to ‘feel’ the smoothness of silk or the roughness of sandpaper.
  6. Kinesthetic Imagery: Sometimes grouped with tactile imagery, kinesthetic imagery refers to movement or tension in the muscles or joints. It can describe a character’s action, the motion of an object, or physical sensations, such as a character feeling the impact of a fall.
  7. Organic Imagery: This pertains to personal experiences of a character’s body, including emotion and the sensation of hunger, thirst, fatigue, or pain.
  8. Thermal Imagery: Related to temperature, thermal imagery lets the reader feel the sun’s warmth on their skin or the chill of a cold winter’s night.

Imagery is not limited to one sense per description, and writers often combine several types of imagery to create a more immersive and vivid experience for the reader.

The difference between imagery and metaphor

Imagery and metaphor are literary devices used in writing to enhance the reader’s experience, but they serve different purposes and function in distinct ways.

Imagery creates a sensory experience for the reader through descriptive language.

Metaphor directly compares two things, suggesting a deeper or symbolic resemblance without using comparative words like “like” or “as.”

Examples of Imagery from Screenplays

Imagery in movie dialogue is the vivid or figurative language to create visual representations in the audience’s minds.

Here are three examples of imagery used in film dialogue:

Apocalypse Now (1979)

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

– Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall) in “Apocalypse Now” (1979)

This quote uses olfactory imagery to evoke a powerful and disturbing scene, where the smell of napalm, associated with destruction and war, is juxtaposed with the calm and routine feeling that mornings typically suggest.

See all the best quotes from Apocalypse Now.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

– Dorothy Gale (played by Judy Garland) in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)

Dorothy’s line uses visual imagery to highlight the stark contrast between the dull, sepia-toned Kansas and Oz’s vibrant, technicolor world.

It evokes Dorothy’s awe and wonder as she enters a fantastical and unfamiliar place.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

“As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”

– Scarlett O’Hara (played by Vivien Leigh) in “Gone with the Wind” (1939).

Scarlett’s declaration is filled with emotional imagery, as it paints a picture of her desperation and resolve in the face of poverty and starvation.

It’s a decisive moment that reflects her character’s determination to survive and succeed, no matter the circumstances.

Examples of Imagery from Classic Literature Adapted into visuals in Film

Since movies are already a visual medium, you might think that imagery isn’t used as much except in the dialogue. But that isn’t the case.

On the contrary, films are perfect for displaying the imagery from literature.

Let’s explore three examples of imagery from classic literature that have been adapted into movies.

The Great Gatsby

“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (adapted into several movies, with a notable version in 2013 directed by Baz Luhrmann):

Imagery: The “green light” at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock is a recurring image representing Gatsby’s longing and the elusive nature of the American Dream.

Explanation: The green light is visually evocative and charged with symbolism. In the novel, the light becomes a beacon of hope and desire for Gatsby, reflecting his yearning for Daisy and his greater aspirations.

In the movie adaptation, this imagery is brought to life with a literal green light that seems to glow almost otherworldly, underscoring Gatsby’s obsession and the distance between reality and dreams.

The Lord of the Rings

“The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien (film trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, released from 2001-2003):

Imagery: The “One Ring” is an image that represents power, corruption, and the burden of responsibility.

Explanation: Throughout Tolkien’s epic, the One Ring is described in ways that emphasize its allure and the peril it represents.

It glows with a fiery inscription when heated and seems almost to have a will of its own.

In the film adaptations, the haunting imagery of the Ring is captured with visual effects that highlight its seductive glow and the ominous, whispering voices accompanying its presence, encapsulating the Ring’s ability to dominate and corrupt those who come into contact with it.

Summing Up

Imagery in literature and film is a critical element that involves using descriptive language or visual scenes to create vivid mental pictures, appeal to the senses, and evoke emotional responses from the audience.

In literature, imagery is crafted through the strategic use of language. Authors employ metaphor, simile, personification, and detailed description to paint pictures in the reader’s mind.

For instance, a passage describing the taste of fresh fruit, the smell of rain, the texture of an old tree’s bark, or the sound of a city street at night can all be considered imagery.

These literary images help the reader to visualize settings, understand the characters’ emotions, and experience the story’s atmosphere more fully.

For more on similes, see: What is Simile? Definition & Examples from Literature & Film

In film, imagery is more literal but no less artistic. Directors use cinematography, set design, lighting, and color to create visual metaphors and convey mood.

For example, a desolate, snow-covered landscape might evoke feelings of isolation, or a warm, softly lit home could suggest comfort and safety.

The choice of a particular shot, such as a close-up or a wide angle, also shapes the audience’s experience, as does the use of special effects to create fantastical images that can’t be found in reality.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like What Is Alliteration? Definition and Examples for Writers.


  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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