The Importance of Imagery–by Deborah J Ledford

In my opinion there is no better way to set a scene or mood than by implementing imagery.  Visuals of a particular location, or even within a single room, provide an enormous amount of information about your characters to the reader.  Also, what a character sees outside a window can tell us how they view their world.

Does your hero find himself in an unfamiliar and unsettling locale?  Perhaps the buzzing streetlamp he stands under blazes blue light down on him, seemingly to draw unwanted attention to him—yet this is the precise spot where he’s been told to wait in order to receive the clue which will save the heroine’s life.

Your villain can be clearly established by the way he carries himself, or perhaps consider a prop for him/her to use.  In my upcoming novel Staccato, presented by Second Wind Publishing, I use the device of a walking stick which my villain wields, at times with brutal effect.  The tap tap tapping of the villain’s cane striking the gleaming marble floor as he moves closer amplifies the fear and trepidation evident by my hero’s stuttering heartbeat.

Setting the scene visually is highly advisable so that the reader can place themselves in your characters’ shoes.  Indicate what the character sees and implement as many senses as possible—particularly when the reader is visiting the location for the first time.

Add personal details visually.  There may be a cherished item you want to highlight (a locket always worn, a lucky charm), a deficit that adds intrigue (a tick or habit), or perhaps there is something your character avoids (a framed photograph that is always placed face-down on a table, a locked door never entered).  These visuals or images are compelling devices to implement—the reader will be compelled to keep flipping the pages to the very end of your book.

Accessing existing photographs are an ideal way to set the mood for a scene.  I often use photos to kick start a project.  There’s nothing better for breaking a little writer’s block than to dig out a picture and truly assess a capture in time.  Focus on the entire element then break down the image piece by piece.  Implement a character or two within that setting, and viola you have begun crafting a short story that could very well turn into novel.

Imagery is a snapshot within the scene.  If carefully crafted, these images will be ones your reader will not soon forget.


Deborah J Ledford is the author of Staccato, scheduled for release by Second Wind Publishing later this summer.  Please visit her website at:


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31 responses to “The Importance of Imagery–by Deborah J Ledford

  1. Lucy Balch

    Great advice Deborah! I look forward to reading Staccato. The villian (and the walking stick) sound formidable!

  2. Deborah, It just dawned on me while reading this that the way a writer uses imagery is a good indication of his or her style. Many minimalist writers use very little imagery to go along with their sparse words. Some writers get flowery with their imagery, and their prose also tends to be florid. You seem to use imagery the way I do — find the significant detail from which the whole can be extrapolated. In More Deaths Than One, I have Kerry, a native of Colorado with a yen to travel but no means, getting excited over seeing a green lizard on the ceiling of her hotel room in Thailand. I thought the lizard would be something that could both help set the scene and show that she had finally achieved her goal of seeing the world.

    • Pat, I loved the way you implemented the green lizard in “More Deaths Than One.” You gave the reader an image they could hold on to–one that placed them in the room and gave a true sense of the exotic and untamed location you presented. An excellent use of imagery.

  3. I love the way you explain imagery. The tiniest words can provide a world of insight into characters. The tapping of the cane makes me anxious to read your book. Each off your examples are thought-provoking. Using photos is incredibly useful.

  4. So true, a good scene can be set by the details.
    I’m looking forward to reading Staccato myself.

  5. Merle McCann

    Good advice! Great suggestion! Thanks, Deb, this is a wonderful way to learn and expand our writing skills. All the best, Merle

  6. Well said, as always! And, along with everyone else, I’m so looking forward to Staccato’s debut…!

  7. Deb,

    Your examples of how to use imagery are rich with ides. If your upcoming thriller, Staccoto, utilizes the techniques used in your post, I can’t wait for its “thrilling” release!

  8. Deborah,
    I agree with the importance of making your readers visualize the character whenever possible. But not only does it help the reader I found it helps me always remember to keep in mind what my character’s actions are revealing in any given situation.
    For example, in my novel, “The Last of The Black Sox,” my hero has a tick he’s had since childhood of nervously cracking his knuckles whenever trouble is brewing. This tick helps me to maintain my focus that I need to build the tension in the scene before, during, and after this occurs, never overusing it but rather relying upon its occurrence as a key point of tension.
    Thanks for the great article and best of luck with Staccato.

  9. I love details that work to the theme or plot. If you’re going to embellish, may as well make it significant.

  10. I really like the idea of using photos to jump-start a project. Deb suggested that in a workshop of hers I attended. My buddy and I went to Costa Rica and I thumb-tacked all our best photos to the wall above my desk so if I’m stuck or if I haven’t started writing yet, I can lean back in my desk and stare at those photos and tactile sights, smells, feelings, and emotions all come to me, which I can infuse in my work.
    I am looking forward to Staccato’s release, as well.
    Thanks, Deb.

  11. Great Post Deb and something every writer should practice with their work. Adding to what Pat said, too much imagery can kill the readers interest. You want just enough to give the reader a sense of time, place and the unknown.
    I’m looking forward to reading Staccato. It’s a powerful story and one I knew would eventually get published.
    Best of luck!!

  12. R McCormack

    Your advice reminds me of something Natalie Goldberg wrote in Writing Down the Bones: “Listen to the past, future, and present right where you are. Listen with your whole body, not only with your ears, but with your hands, your face, and the back of your neck.” If you go there yourself, you can’t help but take the reader with you. Thank you, Deb, for these goods bits about imagery.

  13. Choosing details like choosing paint and brushes for the canvas?

    • Well, Sheila, actually showing the visual of the painting your artist is creating or has finished would be more powerful. The image could be an opportunity to open the door to this character’s inner thoughts/beliefs or demons.

  14. Hi Deborah: A really nice discussion of imagery–and great posts following, too. “Seeing” where you are (as reader) is the open door into the world the writer creates. As we are primarily moved by sight and hearing these just HAVE to be convincingly woven into the fabric of the story–or nothing is going to happen!
    Thanks for sharing.

  15. Judy Starbuck

    Deb, this is such a clear way to show how imagery can enhance a story. The tap, tap, tap of the cane sends chills. The image of a picture frame turned face down makes us want to know why. The idea of the character looking out the window, not just to describe the setting, but to show how the character filters it according to their world view. Some people find storms stimulating, some find them terrifying. Some find a gray day cozy, some get depressed. Great job. You gave me a lot to think about. Thanks.

  16. dellanioakes

    Hi Deborah – a agree, using imagery is very important. Though I tend to be a “use your imagination” kind of writer, colors in particular are of importance to me – even the color of the heroine’s eyes and hair. If she’s got dark eyes or baby blues, I like to make that clear.

    Environment is also important. Though I may leave details to the reader, the scope & size of the environment is necessary to define so they know if the characters are in tight quarters or have a lot of room to move.

    Good post!

  17. Sharon Anderson

    Good comments, Deb. I think strong imagery brings good writing to life and helps make the story more specific in the reader’s mind.

    I liked the suggestion about using a photo.

  18. Bill Levy

    You’ve wasted no time demonstrating how important imagery can be as you nailed it with your emphatic, one-word title,”Staccato”! That alone reads like a sharp-edged page-turner.

  19. It’s good you stressed the importance of using the five senses in imagery. It’s wonderful if you’re familiar with your setting, and if not…to go there. You’ve gotten that immediacy with the Great Smokies in STACCATO and I know with your next, ICE ON FIRE, there’s a fine sense of Taos and the pueblos.

  20. Fran Pearce

    Excellent comments; those little details enhance the visualization and capture the reader – nothing worse than reading a chapter when the author hasn’t provided something important, i.e., how the characters got into the scene – or moved to the next one! On the other hand, too much detail slows down the scene – it is a fine balance and you have succeeded ~ Congratulations and much success with STACCATO !!

  21. christinehusom

    Deborah, great advice! I tend to be rather minimalist–leaving a lot to my reader’s imaginations. I was right there feeling tense with the tap tap tapping of your villain’s cane!

  22. I stumbled across this post just today, having missed the original post because I had not yet become a 2W author in May 2009. Is there room for one more post, an effort to resurrect an old discussion?

    I agree that imagery is an important tool in a writer’s toolbox; so why is it that so many creative writing teachers advise that dialogue is what drives plot and that too much narrative takes the reader out of the story?

    Elmore Leonard claims he leaves out of his manuscripts those passages he envisions readers skipping over (those portions I enjoy the most!). Leonard goes on to say that descriptive narrative is the author’s effort to butt into the story.

    I think agents and publishers alike buy into that credo, which makes it difficult for creative writers to find a niche in an incredibly competitive industry, if they don’t follow the dictates of those in power.

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  24. My first writing instructor in the 80’s began the first class by passing out photos of various things and telling us to a write a story around that image. I’d long forgotten that and you’ve prompted me to resurrect this practice and find visuals to do a story board of my new novel. Many thanks!

    • Fantastic, Sheila. Photos have been quite helpful for my short story concepts. Shots featured in magazine ads have prompted numerous ideas. Wishing you the best for your story board! I’d love to hear of your progress.

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  26. I really like this kind of description of imagery but how many types imagery do we have?

  27. You’ve given excellent examples here. As a food historian, I like to include tastes and aromas as well as visuals like colors and shapes. And I sometimes include “recipes”–descriptions of how a dish is made.

  28. Hi! A quick thank you for following my blog. Y’all come back now, y’hear? I haven’t brought out a book in some time now, although the much-abused C-drive is loaded with them! Your article raises for me a frustration often experienced in the short story form, which is at once a form of training. When there is so little space to develop a character some of that depth of atmosphere is inevitably missing. Then we learn to convey as much as possible with as few words as possible, and the mood is often more dependent upon a short speech, or a single mannerism. For the rest, weil, shape and balance must do what the complex description cannot. I find myself thinking more and more of mobile ‘phones these days. Interesting.

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