Imagery brings a story alive


Vuso Mhlanga

The art of describing things or people in full colour is an art, a skill that everyone has to master. You must learn to paint with words; from your formative years to university and the workplace you will be called upon to describe things or events.One needs to bring an object of description closer to the one to which the description is intended or aimed at.

I always tell my students in English language that if you are called upon to devote yourself to description bring the world of the object you are describing so vivid, so close, so intimate to the reader such that he or she will feel; see, breath, smell, or taste the description.

So make it your aim to capture the five senses. Choose your words so carefully. Stylistic features or tools of language such as similes, metaphors, diction and personification help you.

These elements are called imagery. An image is a picture. So the point in imagery is to describe an object by drawing from other objects that everyone is familiar.

Take an old saying: As poor as a church mouse. The key word is as. This is a simile, or just a very simple comparison. The things compared are a church mouse and a poor person. A church mouse is said to be poor because in the past, conservative time eating in church was discouraged to give a place of worship due dignity.

So crumbs of bread would be rare on the floors of church buildings thus surely reducing any mice there to abject poverty. Thus the person described, just like a church mouse, really has nothing.

In classic novel “Treasure Island” one character wrote to his mother saying he was eating like a bull and sleeping like a tree. That is beautiful description. Using a carefree and voracious beast of burden, a bull which eats wantonly the narrator carefully revealed to his mother that he was well.

My former teacher Mr Manamike would say, “I gulp like a fish and drink in as much as desert sand drinks water.”

The word gulp paints a picture of drinking so deeply, so heartily with a deep intake.

One would not use the term gulp to describe a liquid he is tasting in smaller amounts perhaps he would use sip. That surely appeals to our sense of taste.

Personification is used to describe something whereupon the features of a human being are taken advantage of in an attempt to drive home an otherwise abstract point. Mr Manamike personified the desert as a thirsty person gulping water.

DH Laurence in his novel “The Virgin and the Gipsy” has description of a character which really brings to mind the person described: “The dimples of his connected amusement showing on his smooth, scrupulous face. He had a very fine, smooth skin, which yet did not suffer from the weather, so that his face looked naked as a baby’s.

“But it was not a round face: it was characteristic enough and took quick ironical dimples, like a mask which is comic but frozen.”

The words smooth and fine appeal to the texture of the skin. They appeal to the sense of touch, which is what is known as tactile imagery. What are the ways you can engage the sense of sound?

So next time you write a descriptive essay or tell a story, go all out and use imagery to bring everything alive for your audience.


Vuso Mhlanga is an experienced teacher in English Language and Literature in English. He can be contacted on the following platforms: [email protected]/ 0778674863.

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