Literary Description

We explain what literary description is, its characteristics and what types exist. In addition, we tell you what their functions are.

literary description
The literary description emphasizes the language and the way it is being used.

What is literary description?

The literary description or subjective description is a form of description, typical of poetic or literary texts, in which more attention is paid to the impressions and sensations that the described object or situation arouses in the person describing it than to the real and objective characterization of how they are

In other words, it is a way of describing that does not place so much emphasis on saying how the thing really is, but rather on how it can be appreciated or how it can be thought of subjectively, in order to thus obtain an effect. aesthetic. In this the subjective description, typical of literary or poetic texts, is distinguished from other forms of description typical of journalistic, scientific and practical texts.

As in literary type texts, in a subjective description the emphasis is placed on the language and the way it is being used, rather than on the objective features of the thing being described. Thus, while a scientific and objective description would probably yield exact measurements of the dimensions of an object (its weight, its proportions, its composition), a literary and subjective description could tell what other object it resembles or what situations it evokes in a character it evokes. watches it.

This type of description can be appreciated in a poem, as in the case of “In memory of Angélica” (1975) by the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), where he says:

…look for my shadow the worn-out myths
of a homeland that always showed its face.
A brief marble takes care of his memory;
on us grows, atrocious, history.

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In this excerpt we can see the poetic description that is made from the adjectives, as in “worn myths” and “brief marble”, two metaphors that describe the nouns in a singular way (“myths” and “marble”): the first attributes a corporeal feature (worn-out) to something incorporeal (myths), while the second attributes a characteristic of temporality (brevity) to a physical thing (marble). It would not be the same to say that the myths are old and that marble is hard, for example, which would be a more conventional way of describing these referents.

The same occurs with the phrase “…a homeland that always showed its face”, in which human traits are attributed to the homeland and its political or military history is figuratively described. These types of descriptions necessarily go through the subjectivity and sensitivities of the author.

See also: Objective and subjective description

Characteristics of literary description

The literary description is characterized by the following:

  • It consists of offering the reader the features of an object, a situation or a referent certain. But unlike other forms of description, in this case a poetic, subjective language is used.
  • It is not intended to objectively and verifiably describe the thing, providing its details and measurements, but rather make an aesthetic impression on the readerartistic.
  • He resorts very often to metaphors as ways of establishing comparative descriptions and attributing unusual features to the described referents. Likewise, he uses rhetorical figures such as hyperbole, humanization, oxymoron, among many others.
  • Does not usually use technical language no formal methods of description, and does not claim to be useful or applicable to the real world.

Types of literary description

The literary description can be classified into two types: static and dynamic.

  • static description. It is one in which the time of the story slows down or stops, that is, the action of the narrated story is set aside to focus on the description of the environment or the feelings of the moment. It can be recognized because it uses verbs of rest and observation, such as “seem”, “be”, “have”, “situate”, “see”, or because the general tone is enunciative.
    A clear example of this type of description can be seen in the following paragraph of the novel Miss Barbara (1929) by the Venezuelan author Rómulo Gallegos (1884-1969):
    “Arid lands, broken by ravines and furrowed with clods. Lean cattle, with gloomy looks, licked here and there, in an impressive obsession, the slopes and slopes of the sad place. The bones of those who had already succumbed whitened in the sun, victims of the salty earth that addicted them to the point of making them die of hunger, forgotten about the grass, and large flocks of vultures hovered over the stench of carrion.
  • dynamic description. It is one in which the time of the narration does not stop or slow down so much, but passes thanks to the incorporation of certain dynamic elements. This means that the description allows the action to progress, instead of stopping it to explain what things look like. This type of description is very common when narrating situations of change or in which simultaneous events occur.
    We have an example of this type of description in the story “City of God” by the Brazilian author Rubem Fonseca (1925-2020):
    “His name is João Romeiro, but he is known as Zinho in the City of God, a favela in Jacarepaguá, where he controls drug trafficking. She is Soraia Gonçalves, a docile and quiet woman. Soraia found out that Zinho was a drug dealer two months after they began living together in an upper-middle-class condominium in Barra de Tijuca. Does it bother you? Zinho asked, and she replied that she had already had in her life a man dedicated to the Law who was no more than a scoundrel.
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Functions of literary description

The literary description fulfills the following functions within the literary text:

  • Allows you to create an atmosphere. That is, it provides the necessary details so that the reader can immerse himself in the universe of the story and can more vividly imagine the way things happen in fiction.
  • Allows for suspense. Given that it slows down the action of the literary text, the description makes it possible to delay or slow down the arrival of the resolution of the anecdote or lengthen climactic moments so that they generate more intrigue and a greater emotional response from the reader.
  • Allows the reader to approach a character. In general, in literary texts, the characters that are most and best described are those that are closest emotionally to the reader, and with whom they most identify. On the other hand, those that are darker and more unknown to him, matter less to him and therefore play a more secondary role in his reading.
  • Allows you to recreate the narrator’s point of view. Especially when the story is told by a character, details and descriptions are needed so that the way of telling sounds truly theirs, and not like a story told by a neutral, generic voice.

Continue with: Descriptive text


  • “Description” on Wikipedia.
  • “The best literary descriptions of characters, according to readers” in ABC Cultura (Spain).
  • “Literary description?” (exercise) in Educaplay.