Writers use imagery in nonfiction to create a mood, set a tone, and paint a picture for the reader.

Imagery creates mood.

A rich blue, green, and orange splash of color in the stars.

Source: Crab nebula, the result of a supernova seen in 1054 AD, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Flickr

The mood of a piece of writing is what you feel as you read it. Mood can be described in many ways. To name a few examples, a mood might be happy, sad, or gloomy. This is another way that writers use imagery—to set the mood for the reader.

Let’s look at this excerpt from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. This nonfiction narrative details her observations of the Tinker Creek area in Virginia where she lived.

A rosy, complex light fills my kitchen at the end of these lengthening June days. From an explosion on a nearby star eight minutes ago, the light zips through space, particle-wave, strikes the planet, angles on the continent, and filters through a mesh of land dust: clay bits, sod bits, tiny wind-borne insects, bacteria, shreds of wing and leg, gravel dust, grits of carbon, and dried cells of grass, bark and leaves. Reddened, the light inclines into this valley over the green western mountains; it sifts between pine needles or northern slopes, and through all the mountain blackjack oak and haw, whose leaves are unclenching, one by one, and making an intricate, toothed and lobed haze. The light crosses the valley, threads through the screen on my open kitchen window, and gilds the painted wall. A plank of brightness bends from the wall and extends over the goldfish bowl on the table where I sit. The goldfish’s side catches the light and bats it in my way; I’ve an eyeful of fish-scale and star.

Some words that describe the mood Dillard creates are wonder, expansiveness, and interconnectedness. Dillard begins with imagery that describes the origin of light in space and narrows her focus until the reader sees the scales on a goldfish.

A sunsrise

Source: Sunrise over Ankor Wat (Angkor Wat) in Cambodia, Mike Behnken, Flickr

Let’s take a closer look at the pictures Dillard creates. The light “explodes,” “zips,” and “filters.” These verbs are specific and create images for us, the readers. What if Dillard used words like “meandered” or “plodded?” You would see a different picture, wouldn’t you?

The light filters through “a mesh of land dust” and Dillard describes exactly what she means by this phrase as she lists all of the things in the air that the light encounters—bacteria, shreds of wing and leg, etc.

Then, the light travels over the landscape and “threads” through her window and “gilds” the wall. To gild something is to cover it with gold.

Dillard slows down the movement of the light to describe it as it passes through the “mountain black jack” and “haw” (hawthorn) leaves. It is no longer “zipping,” but now it “inclines” and “sifts” as it moves closer to her world. When she finally has the light reflect off the goldfish scales and the bowl, we are amazed at what she has done with the description of the light from an exploding star millions of miles away.

Dillard uses this imagery to explain that the tiniest parts of us are connected to the universe and to each other.

Imagery sets a tone.

Imagery can also set the tone of a written work. The tone of the work is the writer’s attitude toward the subject or toward the reader. A writer’s tone can be playful, serious, formal, angry, humorous, outraged, or informal, and these are just a few examples of how you might describe tone.

Let’s look at this excerpt from “A Plague of Tics” by David Sedaris. This essay describes the compulsions Sedaris developed after his family moved from New York to North Carolina.

Author David Sedaris walking under an umbrella in the rain

Source: “David Sedaris,” Javier Moreno, Flickr

When my teacher asked me if she might visit with my mother, I touched my nose eight times to the surface of my desk.

“May I take that as a ‘yes’?”

According to her calculations, I had left my chair twenty times that day. “You’re up and down like a flea. I turn my back for two minutes and there you are with your tongue pressed against that light switch. Maybe they do that where you come from, but here in my classroom, we don’t leave our seats and lick things whenever we please. That is Miss Chestnut‘s light switch, and she likes to keep it dry. Would you like me to come over to your house and put my tongue on your light switches? Well, would you?”

I tried to picture her in action, but my shoe was calling. Take me off, it whispered. Tap my heel against your forehead three times. Do it now, quick, no one will notice.

“Well?” Miss Chestnut raised her faint, penciled eyebrows. “I’m asking you a question. Would you or would you not want me licking the light switches in your house?” I slipped off my shoe, pretending to examine the heel.

“You’re going to hit yourself over the head with that shoe aren’t you?”

It wasn’t ‘hitting’ it was tapping; but still, how had she known what I was about to do?

“Heel marks all over your forehead,” she said, answering my silent question.

David Sedaris is a humorist, and the tone of this essay is funny. He takes a serious subject, the fact that he developed deeply compulsive behavior after his family moved to a new place, and makes light of it by using funny imagery.

take notes icon Using your notes, respond to this question: What images in the excerpt create a humorous tone? Check your understanding when you are finished to see a possible response.

Check Your Understanding
Sample Response: