Imagery: Write This! Not That!

This past Friday I was privileged to present two sessions at the Virginia Association of Teachers of English. One of which was titled Write This! Not That! and examined the typical problems students run in to when writing on imagery, diction, syntax, and narrative pace. Here is the portion on the complex device of imagery. 

How to write about imagery seems especially troubling for students. I witnessed this first hand at the Advanced Placement Literature reading last June where I read around 1,200 essays on the complex, contemporary poem The Myth of Music by Rachel M. Harper. Among other things, students struggled with what to say about the imagery in the poem. Most students could find images that evoked one of the five senses and allowed them to better picture the scene that the poet was presenting in her poem. The problem was they continued to say (over and over and over again) some along the lines of “The writer paints a picture with imagery.” Here’s the problem….bob ross

First of all , writers are writers and poets are poets and novelists are novelists….not painters! More importantly, this is just an empty phrase.

Secondly, so what? “So what?” Is the two word phrase that I use to probe students to think beyond the surface level of the text.

Questions to consider for imagery

Students have a tendency to play hide and seek with both rhetorical and literary devices. For more on this, see Hattie Maguire’s article Why This/Not That .

Also, consider these questions regarding imagery:

  • How does imagery contribute to the mood of the text?
  • What does the imagery reveal about a character?
  • What does the imagery reveal about the setting?
  • Is imagery being used to foreshadow the plot?

Try it out 

Try out analyzing imagery with Wiley Cash’s work A Land More Kind Than Home: A Novel. Present students with this short passage. Ask them simply, “What do you notice?” Then work to move them to the “So what?” portion of literary analysis.

In this passage the narrator has just had a terrifying encounter with a pastor of a church she formerly attended but had not been inside of for ten years.

I stayed hunkered down there in the front row of the church and listened to his footsteps as he walked down the center aisle toward the door.  I heard him open it up and step outside, and when he did my eyes sensed the explosion of light the door let in even though I had them closed just as tight as I could.  He was outside, but I stayed froze just like that until I heard the sound of his car engine revving; I still didn’t move when I heard him pull out onto the road and head out toward the highway.  Once I was sure he was gone, I opened my eyes and tried to look around to get my bearings, but the light from the door was gone, and I knew my eyes would have to fix themselves against the blackness that had once again taken over the church.

Don’t write this…

“In this excerpt from Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home, Cash uses imagery to paint a picture of a terrifying scene where the narrator is in a dark church.  The light makes it hard for her to see what is around her which makes her more afraid.”

Why Not?

Well, for starters Cash is a writer not a painter. Secondly, you have merely restated the obvious. Yes, this seems to be a terrifying scene in a church. Now ask yourself, so what?  Why does Cash “paint this picture” (please don’t even say that again) for the reader? Then you will start to uncover the layers of meaning in the imagery.

Write This!

“In this excerpt from Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home, Cash employs imagery to highlight the narrator’s familiarity with her setting although she had not been there for ten years.  Although her eyes are tightly shut, she recognizes the retreating footsteps down the center aisle, the sound of the car engine, and the sound of tires pulling out onto the highway.  The mood of suspense is increased for the reader because the narrator does not even feel safe enough to open her eyes until the pastor is that far away from her.  This is juxtaposed with the typical feeling of safety and security that a place of worship should provide.

“The “explosion of light” mimics the intensity of the moment with a powerful word choice.  Additionally, the phrase ‘the blackness that had once again taken over the church’ creates a double meaning.  Cash could be describing the literal blackness to echo a spiritual blackness that also lurks inside the church.

Devices do not operate in isolation

While this post focuses on imagery, it is useful to be reminded that devices, whether or rhetorical or literary, do not function in isolation. While imagery can inform tone, mood, character development, and foreshadowing (to name a few), devices work together to provide an overall effect for the reader.

What are your favorite tips and tricks to get the most out of your students’ writing regarding literary analysis? I would love to hear about it in the comments below.

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