Six impossible things

Imperfect telepathy

Writing is not a visual medium, not in the way that photographs, paintings, or movies are visual. Yet there are readers and writers who think of it this way. It’s quite common for writers to describe “the movie in my head” or “seeing the scene and just writing it down.”

There are two potential problems with this approach, from a writing perspective. The first is that the visually oriented writer often doesn’t realize that not all readers work the way she does, resulting in bewilderment when their work is criticized for things like grammar, style, or syntax. For an extremely visual writer, the sentences are not important. Sentences are a means to an end, the vehicle that creates mental pictures, like the pigments in a painting or the tints on a strip of film. Unfortunately, neglecting sentences in favor of the mental movie often means neglecting all those readers who do not “see a movie” when they read.

The other, more insidious problem is that writing is not telepathy. No matter how clearly the writer visualizes a scene and how minutely he describes it, his readers are not going to construct exactly the same scene in their own heads. Many, if not most, of them will come close, but even those who read visually will not construct exactly the same mental picture from the same set of words.

This is because words are more than their meanings. Words have personal resonances that depend on the life experiences of individuals. For instance: I grew up in Chicago. My idea of a river is the Chicago River or the Mississippi. When I read the word “river” in a story, I picture something that can handle steamboats and barge traffic. I’ve been to places, however, where the local waterway was five feet wide and maybe three feet deep, barely able to handle a string of canoes traveling single file…and they still name it a river, and I have to believe that that narrow channel is what they picture when they read the word “river” in the same story I read. Which is more than enough to result in major differences in the mental pictures each of us construct of the landscape, even if we (and the author) agree on the images that are evoked by every other description and phrase in the story.

There is no possible way for a writer to control this. A visual author who gets hung up on the reader getting exactly the same “mental movie” as the one he has in his own head is courting madness. Even if you get a group of intelligent, articulate beta-readers, you won’t hear the same things from each one, because they’ll each bes interpreting your words according to slightly (or majorly) different mental biases. 

This is especially true because a lot of readers these days don’t have the patience for the long descriptive passages that are necessary if a writer wants every detail of a scene clear in the reader’s mind. It may matter to you that there is a pencil sketch of Abraham Lincoln on the wall, a decorative porcelain egg in the middle of the table (just slightly off-center under the brass chandelier), etc., but unless the sketch and the egg tell the reader something useful about the characters or the plot, a lot of them will tire of such details very rapidly. Hence the emphasis, in writing advice, on the “telling detail” – the one thing about this person or place that’s unusual, that packs a whole lot of information and “feel” into a very small amount of description.

Writers have to accept (or at least learn to ignore) the fact that their readers are not going to produce exactly the same image from the words-on-the-page that the writer has (or wants them to have). We try, certainly, but it’s never going to be perfect.

You can’t give a reader the experience in your head unless you really are a telepath and can somehow broadcast your thoughts every time someone reads what you’ve written. What you are doing, as a writer, is giving the reader a whole bunch of building blocks and telling them to build a house or a skyscraper or a castle. They won’t build the exact same house or skyscraper or castle that you were picturing in your head, but as long as what they build pleases them, they’ll be happy. If that’s not good enough for you – if it’s really that critically important for your visually-inclined readers to “see” exactly what you “see” – you’re in the wrong field; you need to be making movies instead.

Readers are, in a sense, collaborating with writers in creating the story experience. Neil Gaiman has several times told the story of a particularly memorable scene from a childhood favorite book, in which the protagonist rode through the night, unable to see far in the dark, with the wind whipping his cape and the snow swirling about and his fingers slowly growing cold and stiff on the reins. And then he finally found the book and turned to his favorite scene and read “They rode all night in a snow storm.”

You can’t predict when a simple sentence like this will strike that kind of chord in a reader, evoking a vivid mental picture of an dramatic multi-page scene that never existed. You can only be pleased when it happens, and glad that you have such excellent collaborators.

9 Comments
  1. I totally had the same experience revisiting a childhood book. It was a historical, and the MC bed got infested with bedbugs. I remember it being this huge, horrible, nasty affair. When I reread it 2 years ago, it was 2 sentences.

  2. I often think visually when writing, but because I know that I do this, I always try to go back and take a closer look at my sentences. My revisions often are on a smaller scale – little sentence changes rather than large plot ones.

  3. The whole ‘x matters’ thing was such a revelation to me, because, what do you mean words matter, or images matter – they’re just means to an end to me.

    On the other side of the coin, ‘she felt afraid’ *has meaning*. If you write that, I can fill in the details of the afraidness – the beating heart and pit in the stomach and cramping muscles and dry throat and looking around from out of the corners of her eyes because she doesn’t want to _signal_ her fear, and how her hands get clammy and she clutches the fabric of her coat pocket…
    It simply never occurred to me that I might have to write those things down so readers can build their own picture of a scared character.

  4. My first novel has a lot of description, especially when my heroine reaches the enchanted underground palace. I remember worrying that there was too much description. (I have an architecture degree, mea culpa.) But none of my readers have even hinted at such a problem.

    My second novel has very little description – just those few telling details – because the heroine stays at home in familiar surroundings. I worried that I was reacting too extremely to my first novel’s description style. But no complaints (or hints of complaints) from my first readers. (This second novel has not released yet. Due out in early October.)

    As I’ve heard you say, Ms. Wrede, every story is different!

  5. I’d argue that this applies to much more than just visual descriptions, although that may be where it’s most obvious. It’s why the most valuable feedback a beta reader can give me, and what I always ask for, is “What did you get out of this?” A particular phrase or word may have powerful emotional resonance for me, but not mean much at all to a reader; I may have to say the same thing five times in five different ways to get that same effect across to a reliable spread of readers.

    Is that what a visual writer goes through, trying to set the scene? (As may be obvious from the fact that I immediately expanded the scope of the discussion, I’m not a visually-oriented writer.)
    “A river. No, a big river. Okay, fine, a river 30 feet wide, fast and deep enough to drown in. No, not just if you can’t swim.”

  6. Hmm, this is true. But you can, at least, use words to throw up smoke in a reader’s mind and allow it to take some sort of shape. I spent some time yesterday critiquing a chapter where there was no description at all. And when I say no description I don’t mean there weren’t any paragraphs of description, there weren’t any adjectives, or any strong verbs. It was as if all the life and color had been stripped from the story. And this is a story where the landscape is a character. (Magic world with moving hills, etc). A river might be different things to different people. But a story about the Tagus – where most of the time you can’t even see the opposite bank, is going to end up being a lot weaker if it’s about that river in the back yard that on a dry day I can jump over.

    I think one of the things people mean when they say they see it like a movies is that they see the entrances and exits, actions, reactions, settings, and most importantly, they see them as scenes. ‘See’ doesn’t always mean visually see these days, and it’s important to be able to see the story, even if you really couldn’t care less about that portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the wall.

  7. And “my” river is the Fraser River.

    Five feet wide and three feet deep? That is a creek, a small creek. Or maybe, a big ditch.

    “excellent collaborators”: I like.

  8. How do you come up with your blog ideas? I cannot seem to get anything going!

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