The Top Tool for Realism Is Imagery

It’s hard to talk about realistic writing without talking about imagery. What I said yesterday about realism related to research, experiences, and believability is true, but it was still framed in big ideas (almost more related to plotting: what situations or experiences will the reader believe are real?). Imagery is more about the small details of the experience, and it is one of the fastest ways to establish a feeling of realism – with or without shared personal experiences.

In other words, imagery is kind of an exception to everything I said yesterday.

Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, our senses are recording bits and pieces of what’s happening around us. Even if we’re not consciously paying attention, our bodies remember and respond to similar stimuli. If you want to know what those memories are, think about a situation and what it’s like for each of your senses. I’m going to use fireworks:


  1. Sight: flashes of bright lights in vibrant colors, dark skies with a hazy trail of smoke, an off-colored afterimage when you blink, faces lit by the flashes, or glow sticks.
  2. Sound: loud booms, a sizzling crackle, “oohs” and “ahhhs” from the viewers, or crying children.
  3. Touch: the hard plastic of a lawn chair against your sides, the chill bite of the evening wind, a warm arm around your shoulders, the stinging pain of mosquito bites, or the cold wetness of an aluminum can in your hands.
  4. Taste: the crisp sweetness of soda, the lingering flavor of a loaded hot dog, or the cold sweetness of ice cream.
  5. Smell: the growing smell of sulfur in the air, the lingering scent of grilling, or the strong acrid aroma of alcohol.

When you put details like these into your writing, those details immediately establish a sense of realism for any reader who has had a similar experience. In this case, the food and setting-related sensory details will really appeal to people who saw fireworks in a similar situation (like the 4th of July in the U.S.), yet the sensory details for the fireworks themselves (how they looked, sounded, and smelled) could appeal to anyone who has seen fireworks. In any situation.

Even better (and unlike “I went to the fireworks”), this imagery also gives a reader who has never experienced any of this an idea of what seeing fireworks is like.

This facet is how imagery can sometimes get around the personal experience rule. You see, most people don’t even think about sensory language when talking about something they haven’t experienced. Trying to describe how something felt when you never felt it requires either plenty of research or loads of imagination. People who aren’t used to doing either don’t think of them as options.

As readers, there is a subconscious assumption that if the person can describe how something smelled, sounded, tasted, looked, or felt, then he/she must have actually experienced it. If it’s described in enough detail, they might even believe it if it contradicts their own experiences (on the assumption that the character’s experience was unusual but possible).

That’s not always going to be true (if you’re really far off on what it’s like, it won’t work at all), and ideally, it’s best to couple imagery with detailed research. At the same time, a single sensory detail can go further towards a feeling of realism than a paragraph full of historically accurate facts.


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