Friday: Imagery Exercise—When words desert you…

Have you ever seen that animated little stick guy on You Tube, where he’s pounding his fingers, then his head on a keyboard and does so until the blood starts to splay?  Warning: it’s a bit graphic, but it’s also very evocative of how hard it sometimes feels to “get it right” on the page.

Sometimes it’s easy to write a description; sometimes it’s next to impossible.

We can feel what we want to say, but we can’t just bloody say it.

If you’ve ever had one of those ‘stick-guy moments,’ maybe it’ll help to step back for a moment and look at your descriptions in a slightly different way.

Most of us try to write an image—a description of a person, place, or thing—as if it were a painting, a still life of parts making up a whole.  That’s not necessarily a problem, but always approaching an image as if it were a still life can make us short-sighted with what we write. As I wrote in an earlier Imagery Friday post, one way to look at the image is as a figurative description (rather than a literal one).

There is a third way, though. If the literal or figurative descriptions aren’t working for you for a specific instance, think of your image as movement that you wish to create. A reader’s eye might be going left-to-right, but their mind’s eye is following the tracks of your character.

As they read, readers’ minds are seeking movement.

For example, let’s say you mention snow-covered Alps.  The reader’s mind will form the image of jagged peaks, snow piled high in shades of grey and white, possibly with a meadow nestled in the midst. But it lacks movement. Their mind’s eye is jogging in place, waiting for you, the author, to provide them with something they can engage with.

Since they’re forming images, you can direct their attention along a specific part of the image—in other words, you can provide movement, even in a still landscape.  The best example of making a still landscape move can be found it F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

And so it happened that on a warm windy evening I drove over to East Egg to see two old friends whom I scarcely knew at all. Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red and white Georgian Colonial mansion overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile,  jumping over sun-dials and brick walls and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.

Now lawns don’t really start, run, jump, and drift, but our eyes do.  As readers, we’re totally unaware that nothing is happening, because we’re following some intriguing movement.

So in this Imagery Friday exercise, look for movement in the photo featured below.  On purpose, the photo has few features. This isn’t about literal or figurative descriptions. In this exercise, your description should pinpoint how you want your reader’s eye to move along your image.

The desert
Where’s the movement?

Please post your description in the comments. Don’t be shy! It’s a great place to learn the wide range of possibilities. I’ll provide feedback for each comment posted. Post two, if you wish!

Write in JOY,

McKenna Donovan



  • Gary

    McKenna’s Image Exercise
    14 Dec 2012

    Peel up your eyes from traces of the runners who have gone ahead. The divots of their struggle in the soft, red sand lead you to what is but the first of hurdles, it’s bleached and shadowed stone stands pockmarked just ahead.

    Beyond, across a smooth expanse, the next awaits you – and it is taller. How shall you jump it?

    But then, you see the final wall of stone which cuts the periwinkle heavens like construction paper. You know it’s there your sprint will very likely end.


    • Love the motion! And the exhortation on the part of your narrator: “Peel up your eyes…”

      Your poetry background is very evident here, in words such as “divots of their struggle.” I find it interesting that you see “soft, red sand,” while I see “hard, red stone.” (I have yet to post my description, but I shall later today.)

      Consider doing this exercise a second time, Gary, but writing it as a descriptive part of a larger narrative, as if it were a short passage of a novel. Your poetry will stand you in good stead, but a steady diet of poetic language in a novel is a real challenge for readers. Try to imagine what comes before this description, and what comes after, then rewrite the passage as a way to come after and come before. Does that make sense?