For a moment, I appreciate the peacefulness.
Lying on the sofa for a mid-afternoon break, I hear a dove cooing. A car drives by at a distance. The bright sunlight lights up the room, and my pillow feels comfy.
Seconds later, I enter the hustle and bustle of an Istanbul market …
I see women in miniskirts. I hear drivers catcalling out of car windows. I see tourists bent under the weight of their backpacks. I hear shoe-shine brushes rattling against brass boxes. And I smell tobacco, sweat, fried food, and a whiff of salty sea air.
Good writers invite readers into a different world
What I was hearing, smelling, and seeing was not what was happening in my room. I was reading the book 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak.
This book reminds me of the two basic requirements of good storytelling. Firstly, a good storyteller keeps a good pace and uses cliffhangers to keep us hooked so we’re eager to find out what’s happening next.
And secondly, a storyteller pulls readers into a different world. We’re experiencing the story as if we’re there with the protagonist. A good storyteller directs a mental movie in the reader’s mind.
This post is about directing mental movies—a useful skill in any type of writing, whether you’re writing a novel, a business newsletter, a blog post, or a product description.
Vivid imagery creates a mental movie
Elif Shafak’s storytelling is extraordinarily vivid.
Even though I’ve never been to Turkey, it’s like I’m there, together with Leila—the main character of the book—and her friends. The descriptions pull us into their story:
Their house in Van was so large that even whispers echoed throughout. Shadows danced on the walls as if across cavernous space. A long, winding wooden staircase led from the living room to the first-floor landing.
The sensory experience gets even better when Shafak introduces taste and smell:
Vendors peeled salted cucumbers, squeezed fresh pickle juice, roasted chickpeas and yelled over one another while motorists blasted their horns for no reason at all. Smells of tobacco, sweat, perfume, fried food and an occasional reefer – albeit illegal – mingled with the briny sea air.
On what was to be her last birthday, her friends had settled on a rich menu: lamb stew with aubergine puree, börek with spinach and feta cheese, kidney beans with spicy pastrami, stuffed green peppers and a little jar of fresh caviar. The cake was a surprise, supposedly, but Leila had overheard them discussing it; the walls in the flat were thinner than the slices of pastrami, and, after decades of heavy smoking and even heavier drinking, Nalan rasped when she whispered, her voice husky like sandpaper scraping on metal.
Sensory writing has the power to transport readers to a different world because we experience sensory words as if we’re actually hearing, smelling, tasting, seeing, and feeling what’s going on. Research suggests that our brain responds in the same way when we smell sweat as when we read about the smell of sweat, or when we hear a husky voice or read about it.
In business writing, we can use sensory writing to invite readers into our world, too. We can let readers imagine working with us or let them picture what it’s like to use your product. This may even increase a reader’s desire to work with us or to use our product.
Examples of imagery in business writing
Sharon Tanton is a fabulous storyteller and content marketing coach. In her newsletter earlier this week, she invites us into her garden:
I’m writing to you from my garden. Sitting by the pond, I’m making the most of the last sunny day before rain returns to the UK tomorrow.
There’s a blackbird singing on the fence in front of me, and a blanket of blossoms at my feet. Everything is green, so the orange marigolds shine brightly. They’ve seeded themselves among the beetroot, but I love their cheerfulness, so they can stay.
Sharon’s sensory description makes us feel we’re there in the garden with her, and she uses gardening as a metaphor to discuss how content marketing also requires you to “plant more than you need, pay attention to what thrives, and give lots away to the people you care about.”
(For more content marketing tips from Sharon, join her newsletter here.)
Imagery works also for product descriptions, allowing readers to imagine what it’s like to use your product or wear your fashion.
The copywriters at J Peterman, for instance, make a dress more appealing because we feel like we’re floating in it already, and when we wear it, will someone want to hold us in their arms, too?
There are certain nights in the Hudson Valley when the moon lights up the universe (…). The scientists say this is just sunlight reflecting off the moon. The result is a silvery blue hue of silky soft light. Serene. Moody yet playful. Dark but extraordinarily luminous. There is an other-worldly quality to it. I’ve always wanted to capture that light and hold it in my arms.
Floral Moonlight Dress (No. 5601). Lightweight (as if you’re floating) and sheer silk georgette fit-and-flare.
The phrase painting pictures with words is often used to describe vivid imagery. But the strongest imagery isn’t only visual; it often appeals to two or three different senses.
How to paint pictures using the 6 senses
We commonly talk about 5 senses:
- Sight: How does something look, including color, shape, or appearance
- Sound: What or who is making what kind of sound, and how loud or soft is it
- Touch: How does it feel when we touch something, including its texture, temperature, humidity, or even air pressure
- Smell: What kind of aroma is it—is it natural or artificial, strong or subtle, pleasant or repulsive, and what does it remind you of
- Taste: Whether something is sweet, sour, savory, salty, or bitter, or whether it tastes like a specific kind of fruit, vegetable, spice, etc.
On top of that, you can use motion as a 6th sense. When we use strong verbs to describe motion, readers experience the motion as if they’re there, too. You can feel the car swerving. You can sense the dancers graciously floating across the dance floor. The description of a roller-coaster may even make you dizzy.
An exercise in using imagery
You don’t have to turn yourself into a poet to write vivid imagery.
Try this simple exercise: Take 5 minutes to describe a scene using at least two different senses. You can describe where you are right now or a scene in the last 24 hours.
We tried this exercise last week together with 255 participants in a live Writing Huddle. Reading sensory descriptions from across the world made me feel connected, inspired, and humbled. Here’s a snapshot:
- I lift my face to the sun and let its warmth kiss my face. (Shanthi)
- A robin in the tree started singing—a bright song filled with joy and excitement. (Paul)
- I watch the beautiful light through thinning blossom. (Liz)
- The Amelanchier (or Shadbush) looks like a cloud. Hundreds of thousands of tiny white flowers are balancing in the cold air. It smells vanilla. (Véronique)
- Colors of beige are turning to soft shades of green. (Julie)
- The cat’s tail is brushing against my leg. (Tetiana)
- I smelled the soft aroma of pollen in the air and my nose filled up with slimy mucus. (Joel)
- A crow squawks in the distance and when I look up the sky is a brilliant blue. (Diana)
- I bit into the buttery flakes of my almond croissant as memories of my mom melted into my mouth. (Sheila)
As a writer, imagery allows you to be present in your surroundings. What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you see? Is there something you can touch and feel? Or taste?
By sharing what you’re experiencing, you can invite your readers into your world. It’s as if they’re there with you.
Write to connect
As writers, we’re at a physical distance from our readers.
But we can pull readers closer to us, invite them into our worlds, and make them feel like we’re together.
We can put an arm around a shoulder and whisper a few words of encouragement. We can pat a reader on their back and celebrate a small achievement—we made it through another day.
We can laugh together, or cry together.
Or we can simply let ourselves be, listen to the birdsong, and let life flow past us.
Writing is like magic sometimes.
22 more imagery examples
The imagery examples below are organized by category. Click a link to jump ahead to specific category:
Literal vs figurative imagery
The imagery examples in this overview are all literal. They describe what you can see, hear, taste, or feel.
Imagery can also be figurative. For instance, someone can have a heart of stone. This doesn’t mean a heart looks literally like a stone; it means someone is cold-hearted, like a stone.
Another figurative example: After a long period of dry weather, the earth breathes a sigh of relief when the first rain arrives. The earth can’t inhale and exhale like a human or an animal. But it seems like the earth breathes a sigh of relief, like a person would when something arrives they’ve been waiting for a long time.
1. Examples of visual imagery (sight)
In her book The Island of the Missing Trees, Elif Shafak describes a house decorated by someone who loves the color blue:
The entrance was bright azure, with dangling evil eye beads and horseshoes nailed up. The chequered tablecloths were navy and white, the curtains a vivid sapphire, the tiles on the walls adorned with patterns in aquamarine, and even the wide, languid ceiling fans were of a similar hue.
That’s a lot of blue, right? Can you picture the scene?
In his book Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez describes the colors of polar bears:
The brightest whites show up at the spring molt, the purest of these being those of young cubs. With exposure to sunlight, the hairs take on a subtle coloring; soft yellowish tones appear on the hips, along the flanks, and down the legs—a pale lemon wash, apricot yellows, cream buffs, straw whites. The tones deepen each year as the animal ages. In the low sunlight of a fall afternoon an older male’s fur might suggest the yellow golds of ripe wheat.
In her book River Kings, archaeologist Cat Jarman describes a bead found in a Viking grave:
The bead itself was carefully wrapped in tissue paper within a clear polythene bag. Its orange colour bordered on brown; it was approximately a centimetre long and half a centimetre wide, with neatly cut, faceted corners and a polished and shiny surface. Apart from a few scars on one side, and some dirt still stuck in the hole bored through it, the bead was in perfect condition.
And later on she writes:
To me, there was something compelling about that tiny bead. The smooth, almost translucent material; the sharply cut corners; the faceted shape with angles that looked so perfect and so modern. I couldn’t help but obsess over all the hands, all the lives, that it had intersected with over more than a millennium including, now, my own.
Imagery doesn’t always need an extensive description. In her book Free, Lea Ypi describes growing up in communist Albania where Coca Cola is so rare, her mother buys an empty can and displays it at home:
She spent the afternoon deliberating with my grandmother where to put it, and since it was empty, whether to adorn it with a fresh rose from the garden. They had decided that though the rose was an original idea, it would distract from the aesthetic value of the can, and so they had left it bare, on top of our best embroidered cloth.
There are also queues for shopping, and Ypi describes how you can use a stone as a placeholder in the queue:
Take grocery shopping. There was always a queue. It always formed before the distribution lorry arrived. You were always expected to join, unless you had befriended the shopkeeper. That was the general rule. But there were also loopholes. Anyone was allowed to leave the queue so long as they found an appropriate object to replace them during their absence. It could be an old shopping bag, a can, a brick or a stone.
The two descriptions above may seem bare—the stones, the can of Coca Cola, and the queues aren’t described in detail. However, more detailed descriptions are unnecessary because we all know what a Coca Cola can and a stone and a queue look like.
I remembered the imagery—of the Coca Cola can on display and of the stones in the queue—long after I finished reading this book. Simple imagery can be strong and memorable.
2. Examples of auditory imagery (sound)
Sayaka Murata starts her book Convenience Store Woman with a beautiful example of imagery. Note how the imagery is mostly auditory (tinkle, chime, beeps, rustle, clacking):
A convenience store is a world of sound. From the tinkle of the door chime to the voices of TV celebrities advertising new products over the in-store cable network, to the calls of the store workers, the beeps of the bar code scanner, the rustle of customers picking up items and placing them in baskets, and the clacking of heels walking around the store. It all blends into the convenience store sound that ceaselessly caresses my eardrums.
Do you also feel like you’re there in the supermarket, hearing all these sounds?
In his book The Eloquence of the Sardine, Bill François describes the underwater orchestra of fishes. Here’s an example:
The jack (or trevally) and the sunfish prefer higher notes and grind their teeth to play screeching melodies. The seahorse plays its own personal xylophone by scratching its neck with the bony ridges on the back of its head, while the catfish makes a high-pitched noise by plucking its spines. As for the humble goby, found in rock pools, no one has yet managed to work out the hydrodynamic mechanism that enables it to sing its love songs simply by blowing water out of its gills.
Can you almost hear all the sounds just from reading that?
In his book The Secret Knowledge of Water, Craig Childs describes the sounds he hears when walking in the desert:
Across the flats I heard only the hushing sound of my boots through sand, then the sharper sound of my boots through the broken granite above the washes. The hum of one of the stray breezes through thousands of saguaro cactus needles. The sound of creosote leaves scratching the brim of my hat.
A short list with auditory words >>
3. Olfactory imagery (smell)
In The Maid, a whodunnit by Nita Prose, Molly describes entering the lobby of the Regency Grand Hotel where she works as maid:
But perhaps my favorite part of the lobby is the olfactory sensation, that first redolent breath as I take in the scent of the hotel itself at the start of every shift – the mélange of ladies’ fine perfumes, the dark musk of the leather armchairs, the tangy zing of lemon polish that’s used twice daily on the gleaming marble floors.
Can you imagine entering the lobby and smelling the mix of aromas?
Jude Stewart has written a guide book to smells titled Revelations in Air. Here’s how she describes the smell of ginger:
The scent combines the spreading deep heat of cinnamon with a bright citrus burst. It smells of sunshine, the tropics, the somnolent pleasure of lazing on a beach compelled to motion only by your body’s inclinations and your mood.
And the smell of bacon:
The smell holds the promise of good pork and fat’s full, rounded savor. It’s sweet, syrupy, crystalline. It pings satisfyingly with brine. You might catch a whiff of smoke edging the smell delicately; one sniffs for that note constantly, checking for imminent burn.
Can you smell it?
4. Gustatory imagery (taste)
Grace Dent describes her favorite dish in restaurant Tallow in Tunbridge Wells (UK):
My favourite course may well have been the hake starter, featuring plump, perfectly timed fried white fish in a heavenly puddle of elegant curry sauce, with three of the fattest, meatiest, shelled mussels drinking in the fragrant broth.
And she describes the razor clam and blood sausage on toast at the Lisboeta in London:
it tasted like musky armpit
Jay Rayner describes the small plated dishes at the Acme Fire Cult in London:
Leeks are grilled until the point of surrender, when they are sweet and soft. They are then served at room temperature with their own version of romesco sauce, in which the ground almonds have been substituted with ground pistachios. It’s a study in verdant shades of green. There’s a welcome acidity to the grainy romesco. New potatoes have been smoked and are lubricated by a tahini mayo and a nutty chilli oil or rayu, made with grains from the brewery. Grilled cauliflower florets come in a ripe, buttery Indian-accented mess of a sauce under ribbons of pickled onion.
Food descriptions are rarely gustatory only. For instance, Rayner describes the leeks as soft (tactile) and refers to shades of green (visual).
A short list of words describing taste >>
5. Tactile imagery (touch)
In her book The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery describes the feeling when an octopus named Athena touches her with its tentacles:
Athena’s suction is gentle, though insistent. It pulls me like an alien’s kiss.
And she describes how Athena’s head feels:
As I hold her glittering gaze, I instinctively reach to touch her head. “As supple as leather, as tough as steel, as cold as night,” Hugo wrote of the octopus’s flesh; but to my surprise, her head is silky and softer than custard.
For an octopus, taste and touch are strangely connected:
Octopuses can taste with their entire bodies, but this sense is most exquisitely developed in their suckers. Athena’s is an exceptionally intimate embrace. She is at once touching and tasting my skin, and possibly the muscle, bone, and blood beneath. Though we have only just met, Athena already knows me in a way no being has known me before.
A short list of tactile words >>
6. Kinesthetic imagery (movement)
This is from Niall Williams’ This Is Happiness:
(…) she whirled around the kitchen with the briskness of those butterflies that must condense a lifetime into a few days.
A short list of words describing motion >>
7. Examples of multi-sensory imagery
Benjamin Myers creates a multi-sensory picture in this poetic sentence from his book The Offing:
Sitting here now by the open window, a glissando of birdsong on the very lightest of breezes that carries with it the scent of a final incoming summer, I cling to poetry as I cling to life.
The open window is a visual detail, the glissando of birdsong is auditory, the lightest of breezes could be tactile or a sense of movement, the scent of the incoming summer hints at a olfactory (smell-related) detail.
This is how Robin Wall Kimmerer starts her book Braiding Sweetgrass:
Hold out your hands and let me lay upon them a sheaf of freshly picked sweetgrass, loose and flowing, like newly washed hair. Golden green and glossy above, the stems are banded with purple and white where they meet the ground. Hold the bundle up to your nose. Find the fragrance of honeyed vanilla over the scent of river water and black earth and you understand its scientific name: Hierochloe odorata, meaning the fragrant, holy grass.
Isn’t that a lovely introduction to how sweetgrass delights your senses?
This short paragraph includes tactile imagery (the sweetgrass feels loose and flowing like newly washed hair and it’s glossy), visual imagery (golden green, purple, and white), and olfactory imagery (the fragrance of honeyed vanilla over the scent of river water and black earth).
In his book The Secret Knowledge of Water, Craig Childs describes the sight, motion, and sounds of a waterfall in the dessert:
The vision was incongruous: desert cliffs rising thousands of feet, bare and dry as chalkboards, and out of one, the emergence of water. It plunged hundreds of feet from the high face, pounding against several ledges, then rumbled into boulders with the strength of a river. What was more incongruous than the sight was the sound. This was a spring by definition, a tap into an underground water source, not bubbling and singing like the larger springs I had seen, but bellowing furiously at the air.
351 Strong Verbs to Make Your Content Pop, Fizz and Sparkle >>
Books mentioned in this post:
- 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak (highly recommended)
- The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak (highly recommended)
- Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
- River Kings by Cat Jarman
- Free by Lea Ypi (recommended)
- Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (recommended)
- The Eloquence of the Sardine by Bill François (highly recommended)
- The Secret Knowledge of Water by Craig Childs (highly recommended)
- The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery (recommended)
- This Is Happiness by Niall Williams (recommended)
- The Offing by Benjamin Myers (highly recommended)
- Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (highly recommended)