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What Is the Difference between Imagery and Metaphor?

By E. Reeder
Updated May 17, 2024
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Imagery and metaphor are two different ways in which things can be described or illuminated upon. The term "imagery" refers to the description of a person, place or item using the five senses. The term "metaphor" refers to the comparison of two unlike elements without using “like” or “as,” which are used in similes. Imagery and metaphor are commonly used in both fiction and nonfiction literature to enhance authors’ descriptions. Like many other explicative techniques, the more that authors use imagery and metaphor effectively in their writing, the easier it becomes for their readers to form a mental representation of what is being discussed.

Throughout all sorts of writing, imagery is used to describe and illuminate so that readers can more easily form mental images about what they are reading. Imagery relies on sensory cues from all five senses to inform readers. A description of a dog as “large, mean-looking and loudly-barking” uses the senses of sight and sound, and imagery that refers to nasty ocean water as “cold, salty and putrid” employs touch, taste and smell. Metaphors are sometimes a type of imagery when they convey sensory information about a subject. Imagery and metaphor can both help enhance an author’s descriptions.

It is helpful for writers to use imagery in their writing, mostly because it gives the reader a much better way to envision the subjects of the text that he or she is reading. The writer could use a sentence such as, “They entered the town,” to describe what characters did, but this would not give the reader enough detail to create a rich mental image of the scene. On the other hand, the author could say, “Quietly in the middle of the night, they snuck into the small, close-knit town with its one post office, quaint buildings and old-fashioned customs.” The second example provides a much more detailed narrative about the town that the characters are visiting.

Metaphors figuratively describe one thing as actually being another, using a type of comparison to illustrate how two seemingly different things are actually similar in some way. Similes, as opposed to metaphors, use “like” or “as” to describe and compare. Sometimes, metaphors can be less straightforward and require more thinking than imagery. For example, if an author said that “American democracy is still in its infancy,” you would have to use your powers of reasoning to figure out exactly what this implied. Metaphors can be powerful ways to describe characters. Saying that a character is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” implies that he or she is mean, untrustworthy and possibly violent, even though he or she appears to be nice and harmless.

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Discussion Comments

By Ana1234 — On Dec 19, 2013

@Fa5t3r - I don't know if that is describing metaphors or just a kind of imagery in general. I don't really mean the word table is a table, I'm just using the word to convey an conventionally understood image.

I guess this is one of the concepts that authors are playing with when they write poems like Jabberwocky, which is made up of nonsense words with no conventional meaning that still manage to convey vivid imagery.

By Fa5t3r — On Dec 18, 2013

@KoiwiGal - I actually just read a book where the author claimed that basically every use of language is metaphorical, because a word can never directly pertain to the object. Using the word "table" to describe a table, for example, is a metaphor because the word can't do anything but describe the table without being the table.

The only direct language, according to this author, is music, because music directly describes itself. Although I do wonder if that could apply to art as well, seeing as you can think of art as a kind of language as well.

I'm not sure if I'm describing the concept properly, but it is definitely an interesting one to think about.

By KoiwiGal — On Dec 18, 2013

I would say that metaphor is a kind of imagery, but that imagery doesn't have to be metaphor. Metaphorical imagery is very powerful, but you can just as easily be descriptive without comparisons, or perhaps by using simile or some other kind of technique.

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