Friday: Imagery Exercise—Literal v. Figurative Descriptions

Some of the best descriptions I’ve read — including some of the responses to the previous #ImageryFriday exercises! — are not literal descriptions that paint a picture, but figurative, which evoke an emotional response.

So the question becomes when is it best to use literal descriptions and when to use figurative ones?

There are no hard-and-fast rules, of course, but here’s one simple way to look at descriptive passages:

Literal descriptions work best when you need to direct the readers’ eyes to a specific point;

Figurative descriptions work best when you need to evoke an emotional response from the reader.

Literal descriptions

…allow you to point out a specific something, especially if it’s something out of kilter with the norm: an elegant model in an evening gown with a skinned knee; a hummingbird with all-white wings but a ruby throat; a mansion with a sparkling koi pond but a tarnished brass knocker on the front door; a barefoot, dirty child in a poor alley wearing one shiny tap shoe.  The possibilities are endless, when you keep selection in mind.

This also allows the reader to draw their own judgments, which often causes them to delve deeply into their own experiences to find the emotion that your description evokes.  This can be truly powerful, but it has one danger: what the reader reaches for might not be what you intended.  So use literal descriptions to “paint” a picture.  Literal descriptions are your sketch pad.

Figurative descriptions…

…allow you to look for ways to present the emotion beneath the image. What does the image remind you of, and how can you tap into that?  Is a group of water lilies really like a menorah? Is an old house necessarily a sad, abandoned thing? Or does it resonate with the happiness it knew for decades before the prairie swallowed it?

A figurative description also sets a tone.  Yeah, I had the same reaction to “tone” in writing. What the heck is that, and could I get published without knowing what “tone” was?  Well, you can’t get away from tone; it’s there, whether or not you’re aware of it.

A few years ago I ran across the best description of “tone” I’ve ever heard.  In Nancy Dean’s “VOICE LESSONS: Classroom Activities to Teach Diction, Detail, Imagery, Syntax, and Tone,” she says:

“Tone is the expression of attitude. It is the writer’s (or narrator’s) implied attitude toward his subject and audience.”

It’s your IMPLIED ATTITUDE about your subject.  In other words, how you choose to describe something on the page also creates an image of YOU for your reader.  (We’ll be doing a series of exercises on “tone” come spring of 2013.)

Playing with tone is actually quite fun, and it quickly becomes second nature when you’re writing/drafting. One entire lesson of my free e-course, “8 Simple Ways to Add Depth to your Writing,” is devoted to tone in writing. Subscribe to my newsletter and you’ll start that free e-course today.




For today’s exercise, write your description as figurative, okay?  You can write a literal description first if you wish to sharpen your eye, but end up writing the figurative description.

Study the feature image (below), and tap into the emotion it creates within you. Try to present the image to your reader in terms that evoke that same emotion for the reader. We want to hear your implied attitude!

Storytelling is all about emotion, and imagery is where we pull the reader into our stories.

Please post your description!  I know you’re coming here (blog stats don’t lie), but not leaving a comment.  I’d love to hear your descriptions!  C’mon out and play!

Imagery Friday, Abandoned House
Imagery Friday: Abandoned House


Now forgive me, but after staring at this photo, I need to stick my head in a trough of water!


P.S. Click on the tag “Imagery Friday” below my name to get a list of past “Friday Imagery” exercises. The comments remain open, and I’ll be delighted to comment upon any work presented!

Your writing is important to me.

Write in JOY!

McKenna Donovan




  • Lynn

    The shack looked like a bandaid–a makeshift, dusty, beige tragedy for some former family who probably didn’t cry or even bother to look out the crisscrossed broken window. Their voices merely would echo through the tin ceiling.

    • This is fabulous work, Lynn! Without saying WOEFUL or SAD, you created those emotions so very well! The image that struck me most was “bandaid,” because that gives the impression of wounded, an open sore, something not healed. Then you created an echo of their presence as if their voices are still ever-so-slightly present in the tin ceiling.

      Beautiful work! You have a great way with figurative imagery!