Secondary English

Hammering it home: how writers use imagery to create effects!

By Peter Morrisson

He’d left his laptop open, and still switched on. As her hand had brushed against the screen, it had shamelessly flickered into life, brazenly displaying the profile of a young woman with a shock of red hair, piercing green eyes and heavy pancake makeup who called herself NightAngel09. The ruddy, heavily lip-sticked mouth which leered out from the powder pink bedroom resembled an open wound more than a smile, and the supposedly alluring silky black, tight-fitting dress, which was unimaginatively arranged around the shoulders with a crudely displayed expanse of pale flesh, involuntarily made her think of a snake in the process of shedding its skin.

At first, she’d been confused, disbelieving, frozen to the spot, but then the sense of betrayal had struck her with the force of a mallet, cruelly shattering into a thousand tiny pieces the cherished illusion of a happy marriage which, for over twenty years now, had been the foundation of her life.

Vacantly, she gazed towards the window just beyond her husband’s desk, the pleasant suburban world outside instantly drained of all colour. The leafy avenue was now devoid of any lustre and the sparkling morning seemed shrouded in a drab cloak of unrelenting grey. Even familiar sounds ceased to have clearly defined edges, becoming the kinds of muffled murmurs that one might vaguely discern through a thick mid-winter fog.
As a wave of nausea overwhelmed her, she was suddenly beset by the all-consuming sensation of clinging on to an overhanging ledge beneath which lay an interminable fall, and it felt very much like her grip was slipping …

For this third in our series of articles about how to analyse a writer’s use of language, the focus is specifically upon imagery, i.e. similes, metaphors and personifications. Thus, a useful starting point would be to define these key terms.


SIMILE – a comparison in which one thing is said to be like or as another thing, e.g. “The ruddy, heavily lip-sticked mouth … resembled an open wound more than a smile…” Here the word resembled is performing the function of like or as.

METAPHOR – a comparison in which one thing is said to be something which it literally is not, e.g. “a wave of nausea overwhelmed her”; OR when something is said to be able to do something which it literally cannot do, e.g. “the sense of betrayal had struck her with the force of a mallet.”

PERSONIFICATION – a technique by which a non-human thing is given human qualities that it literally cannot possess, e.g. “it had shamelessly flickered into life, brazenly displaying the profile of a young woman…”

Note the use of ellipsis in the simile so as to reduce the quotation to a more suitable length.

In order to explain how such images might affect a reader, it is crucial that the student is able to discriminate between the thing which is being described and what the writer is comparing this original thing to, as it is this relationship which generates the effects. The more complex this relationship, the more effects there are likely to be. This is the kind of condensed, highly connotative language typically found in poetry, and which derives its power from packing so much into so few words. In general, these effects will be the ideas that the comparison suggests to the reader, but they could also be the emotions generated within the reader, or the vivid mental images which momentarily explode within the reader’s imagination. To assist in this process, students might initially practise their analyses of a writer’s use of imagery via the following five-part formula.

NOTE: this is a training exercise and should not be used as shown below in an examination as it is far too wordy and, thus, under timed conditions, students will most likely wish to jump from part 1 (the quotation) to part 5 (the analysis of the effects of the image upon the reader).

The five-part formula
1. Copy out the figure of speech in quotation marks
2. State which figure of speech it is
3. Say what the original thing being described is
4. Say what it is said to be like/as (SIMILE), or what it is said to be – or said to be able to do – (METAPHOR), or what human qualities it is said to possess (PERSONIFICATION)
5. Find as many impressions/effects as possible which have been created for the reader through use of the image

1. “The ruddy, heavily lip-sticked mouth … resembled an open wound more than a smile…”
2. In this simile,
3. the writer is comparing NightAngel09’s heavily coated lips
4. to a laceration.
5. The impressions/effects created for the reader are to suggest that: NightAngel09’s lip stick has been crudely applied; the appearance of NightAngel09’s mouth is disfiguring rather than attractive; the betrayed wife may well feel a powerful sensation of anger, possibly even of violence, towards NightAngel09.

NOTE: If you are uncertain whether the figure of speech you have selected for analysis is a simile, metaphor or personification, then just refer to it as an ‘image’ or, if appropriate, a comparison.

The top-grade answer which follows demonstrates what the analysis of imagery in the above passage might look like when the training period is over and the student compresses the five-part formula to a much more manageable form by dropping parts 3 and 4. However, on occasions where an exploration of this relationship between the original thing and the comparison enhances the quality of the analysis, parts 3 and 4 have been integrated into part 5. For an example of this, see the evaluation of the pane of glass image in the third paragraph of the exemplar below.

Select eight powerful words or phrases from the extract which opens this blog. Your choices should include imagery. Explain how each word or phrase selected is used effectively in the context. (In other words, what effects does it create for the reader?) Write about 350 – 450 words.

When the author states “made her think of a snake in the process of shedding its skin”, this may well be a reference to the Garden of Eden in which Eve is deceived by Satan, in the guise of a serpent, into defying God. The image thus insinuates that the wife’s perception of her husband’s behaviour is that it is both profoundly immoral and the ultimate betrayal. In the light of this serpent comparison, it may be no accident that the young woman has been described as having “piercing green eyes”.

The air of immorality is additionally enhanced by the young woman’s username, “NightAngel09”, which is clearly ironic in this context because it implies promiscuity, that being the opposite of an angelic disposition. Furthermore, the fact that this username ends in 09 suggests that it is not an original name and, consequently, that the young woman is rather ordinary and commonplace despite her attempts to appear enticing. The 09 tag is also derivative as “Angel No. 9” is the title of a moderately well-known 1970s rock song about a perfect woman.

The metaphor “struck her with the force of a mallet” is an extension of the title, “Hammering it home”. The physicality and violence of this image makes the wife’s psychological pain much more palpable, thus enhancing the reader’s empathy and sympathy for this character. The associated metaphor in which the wife’s deluded view of her marriage is implicitly compared to a pane of glass powerfully conveys how fragile the “illusion” really has been. The shattering of this glass is, once again, a very concrete way of conveying the wife’s equally devastated psychological state.

The imagery concerning the seeming greyness of the day and the associated dampening of sound are further physical manifestations which the author employs to suggest the wife’s inner turmoil, i.e. her rapidly developing despair and the emotional trauma which has made her deeply introspective. Grey is a colour strongly associated with depression and the reference to fog intensifies the impression of how overtaken and consumed she has become by this extremely distressing revelation.

The final paragraph characterises her urge to vomit as a “wave” and so implies the suddenness and force of this sensation and, as with the fog, it is also a consuming entity in that both fog and waves have the ability to envelop. The concluding cliff edge metaphor is quite literally a ‘cliff-hanger’ which creates suspense by leaving the reader with the idea that the figurative chasm into which the wife is about to plummet is symbolic of a despair so great that her sanity itself is at stake.

Peter Morrisson currently teaches English at University College Isle of Man. As well as an author of several textbooks on English Literature, he is also a Certified Director of 2D and 3D animated films.

View the two previous articles in this series:

Kicking the habit: analysing a writer’s use of language rather than just explaining what it means!

Packing a punch: how a writer’s use of language can create effects!

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