Friday: Imagery Exercise—Trillium: How much detail is too much?

For many years, I loved Harlequin Romances (Intrigue sub-genre), but most particularly any Regency by Georgette Heyer. Why? Because the great romances are rich in character, and I read (and write) for character.

But let me confess: I always skim descriptions of clothes. I mean, for crying out loud, get on with it, yes?  I want to see what the character does.

And yet there are readers who devour those descriptions, whose eyes want to see each rope of pearls, each complex setting of gems in the diadem, each fluted and scalloped border of lace—(already my eyes are glazing over.  Sorry.)

The point isn’t my taste, though. It’s about knowing YOUR readers, yes?

  • Do your readers demand every piece of flitter and glitter? or do they want to know the character underneath the clothes? or both?
  • Is their interest piqued by architecture and furniture? or landscape or cityscape?

Only you can determine that.  Just as there are things you love to write, there will always be readers who would love to read what you write.

Whatever we write, it must bring to mind an image.

Two things happen when we read:

  1. We see imagery, and
  2. we hear sound (more on this in a future blog post).

Ready to expand the richness of your imagery? 

Then come here each Friday for a new image, which you can examine carefully, then post your description in the comments. The more people who post their description, the richer our skills become. I shall respond to each description with comments about what works well, and what might need a bit of work.  Don’t worry. I’m known for being gentle.  (Still shy? Then click here for an example of one of my reviews.)

Keep in mind that using words to portray images is actually quite a tricky thing. While there is no right or wrong way to do it, there are ways that produce a higher rate of reader interest. The point is to know what ONE THING you wish to focus your reader’s attention on, i.e., what one IMAGE or SENSE do you want to create in your reader’s mind? In other words, do you want them to see contrast of light and dark? or straight lines or fluted edges? dark, somber color or a glimpse of starkness? Do you want them to feel at ease or tense? repulsed or attracted?

The most successful imagery is that which leaves behind the image, but no real sense of the words used.

For example, I love the following description of a man’s voice from Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic, but I can NEVER remember the precise wording. All I remember is the FEEL of the man’s voice.

“It was like acid spilling over a polished surface, to show the stripped wood, coarse and ugly. There had been splashes of the same corrosive this afternoon (282)”.


You already know that great writing is about practice, yes?  Deliberate, intentional practice. And great imagery is about more than just color; it’s about texture, form, and non-conformities of things. It’s about comparison.  The richest writing compares one thing to another—a voice to acid over a polished surface—and this only becomes second nature when we practice it every day. (In January 2013, I shall be writing a post about creating comparisons—like to like, like to unlike.)

Look carefully at the photo of the trillium I posted above. In the rain forest of Washington State, where I took this photo, it’s a common sight. So common, indeed, that most natives of Washington’s rain forest no longer SEE the miracle of this flower. Wherever there is abundant dampness, there is the trillium. Despite its abundance in the Olympic rain forest, it’s not a common flower for readers. So study this photo for a bit, and ask yourself “What strikes me about this photo?”  Is it shape? color? contrast? Spend a few moments writing ABOUT the trillium, in terms of what strikes you about it.

THEN, and only then, should you try to describe it in writing for a reader.  Remember, you must know what ONE THING, what one shape or color or texture,  you wish the reader to use to form their image.


Write a description of the trillium featured at the top of this page. Post your  description in the comments section. And no, don’t be shy! We learn from each other, and it’s fun to see the many ways in which this image can be described to our readers. (Note: click on the photo for an enlarged version of it in a new tab or window.)

Have fun with this one!  I’ll post mine in a few days. DO NOT BE SHY!  POST!

Write in JOY!




  • It was the whiff of sweet amongst the muted greens and browns that caught my attention, and there, amongst the shadow-and-sunlit forest, was a trillium, its three fluted and softly thick petals raised from the moist forest floor. Nestled within those virgin-white petals were six stamen, brazen and erect and bold. I found myself holding my breath, waiting.

    • Please note there is no right or wrong way to do this exercise. What you describe is based upon where you wish to focus your readers’ eyes. I’ve always been struck by the virginity of the trillium white, and yet its constant bid for attention with the golden to bright yellow stamen advertising its wares, so to speak. So my intent was to leave the reader with a sensory experience that reflected the muted sexuality of the flower.

  • Ash

    As soon as I could catch my breath and stand again, I saw them. The pure, the innocent, the white petals standing strong in all the deep darkness. The three petals seemed to fly at me and tattoo themselves upon my eyelids. They were identical to the tattoo, to the three swirling spokes that told me what and who he was.

    • Fascinating description, and I chuckled that you, too, found a sexual imagery. More interesting to me, though, is the ACTION you used to describe a photo of a flower — neither of which have movement. Well, the flower does as it grows and unfurls, but that’s not flying and swirling, is it? “Fly, tattoo, swirling spokes.” These are all unusual ways to describe the trillium, but very evocative.

      Nice! and thank you for posting!

  • gary

    Five Haiku – McKenna’s Trillium

    A headless angel,
    radiance reveals a heart
    half hid in shadows.

    Immodest virgin,
    why now offer me your gold
    from verdant shadows?

    Gold heart still shining
    from beneath a drooping brow
    as shadows lengthen.

    A chaste white wimple
    with a sacred heart of gold
    keeps holy hours.

    Her vows all spoken,
    she awaits the fall of night –
    the Green Man’s lover.


    • Ash

      That is beautiful Gary! Love the line: a chaste white wimple…and then the last line, the Green Man’s Lover. I liked how you kept the “gold” in each one.

    • There’s the poet! These work beautifully, and I found it truly intriguing that you, as well as Ash and I, came up with sexual imagery. Of course, flowers do work hard to ensure their reproduction, but it’s still interesting to me.

      The second one in particular caught my eye, because it brings the sense of a virgin flouting her wares, but withholding them.

      Can you say more about the “headless angel?” What image or feeling were you trying to evoke for your readers?

  • Gary

    Perhaps it’s actually closer to the headless statue of Nike, aka “Winged Victory of Samothrace”? But the fluffiness of its vestments immediately made me think “Angel”…

    • Okay, that makes perfect sense, especially now that you’ve talked about “vestments.” Funny how we anthropomorphize natural things, and therein lies a powerful writing tool.

      Good stuff here! Thanks, Gary! (Hope to see you next week. The photo is going to blow you away!)

  • Gary

    Swirling spokes! That’s nice!!

  • Gary

    Ash – here’s where your swirling spokes took me!

    03 Nov 2012 – McKenna’s Trillium 6

    one perfect pinwheel
    decorates an infants grave
    this Day of the Dead.


    Yeah, I agree with you both – this is one erotic flower!

    03 Nov 2012 – McKenna’s Trillium 7

    some mystic drummer
    laying down an unheard beat:
    veiled dance of flowers.


    • Yes, pinwheel does it, too! Describes the form, with the fluted edges, but gives it motion. Yes, an infant’s grave (use the apostrophe, please). 🙂

      Trillium is one flower per petal, so even when you get a patch of them, each one is still alone.

      What is this poetry form called, and does it have a specific meter or rhyme scheme?

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