by Phoebe Quinn
The world is pretty visual, but I’m not. Despite my insistence that, if I had to choose, I’d rather lose my hearing than my sight, I’ve never been able to work in a visual way. My mother is an artist and Boyfriend is a filmmaker, and I admire the crap out of them for their talent even more so than I ordinarily would because they work in ways I just cannot understand.
What I mean by not being a ‘visual person’ is I’ll usually choose any other medium over visual. My preferred form of entertainment or way of receiving information is words (of course), followed by audio, with visual last. I struggle to sustain enthusiasm when watching a TV series, so I’m not a fan of epic, season-spanning sagas that involve hundreds of hours of invested time. Visual’s fine, but for me it’s like eating popcorn: nice enough but just not enough.
Which kind of sucks when you’re trying to write a story and convince the reader that your world is real.
So I’ve had to pick up a few tricks, which are useful for any writer but especially for those like me – the visually disinclined.
Spoiler alert: none of these tips are on how to write descriptions. I loathe long, descriptive paragraphs unless it’s propelling the plot. Worlds can be built and shaped in fewer words, in more inventive ways
1. Use the other senses instead. By far my favourite method. There’s five available, seven if you count the vestibular and proprioceptive senses; why stick to sight? Let’s take a beach as an example, seeing as it’s the setting for my current WIP. I would like to convey a beach, and the atmosphere and feeling of a beach, but I don’t want to just describe what I see. In this sentence I wanted the reader to be transported along with the character to a memory she has when smoking a cigarette:
“She picked up a cigarette and inhaled, the taste and dizziness instantly taking her back to the last time she’d smoked: a Greek island, the weary, setting sun, the wash of the Aegean sea against her bare chest.”
Hopefully you now have a mental image of sand (cues: island, the sea), a sense of a clear evening sky and residual heat (cue: the weary, setting sun), and a sense of temperature (cue: the sea, the detail of her bare chest). There should be a few pieces of a jigsaw there for the reader to picture a beach, fleshed out with just enough detail to make it feel immersive and real.
2. Less is more. Pick out salient details that add to a whole image. In the above passage I could have described the entire beach setting, from the colour of the sand beneath her feet to what’s in the distance. But it wasn’t necessary. The reader can get enough of a sense of place without all the fiddly details – tempting as it is to add them. Trust the reader. They know what they’re doing.
3. In fact, that deserves a separate point in itself. Don’t be afraid to let the reader fill in the gaps. As an example: Boyfriend, aka Chief Beta Reader, and I were discussing a scene in one of my WIPs. He said he pictured the setting – a couple’s house – as carefully selected vintage, a house that’s trying to be rustic and homey without actually having kids there. In my head, the house is cold, almost sterile, and decorated entirely in whites and neutrals, because of the absence of children.
Although our mental images differed wildly, it doesn’t matter – the point is that this couple doesn’t have children, it’s a key point of the story, yet our mental images of the same house communicated the same thing in different ways. This is okay. In fact, this is unavoidable. Embrace it! It lets you off the hook. I didn’t need to write a description of the house, so I didn’t. Describing sofas in excessive detail is not my idea of fun.
4. Make sure it all ties together, or rather, be smart about what you choose. A man stumbles across the sand + because the reflection of the sea is in his eyes = beach. Stumble across the sand + searing heat = desert or beach, who knows. Tall trees and twittering birds = jungle or forest or wood or riverside or emerging into a clearing or…? You get the idea. What’s particular about this place? Get these details in first. If it feels right, you can add in other, less defining, elements later.
5. Actions can help, depending how they’re done. He walked across the sand – bleh. He stumbled across the sand, in addition to being more interesting, makes said sand fly everywhere. Or say you want to convey that someone is being sexy, without just saying she said sexily (which must be my least favourite adverb). How about, …she said, licking her lips so they glistened in the evening light. (Or something. Romance isn’t my forte.)
6. Use visuals to help you, well, visualise. Obvious, but true. If you’re really struggling, Google what you’re trying to visualise, then try and place yourself there and go back to point one of this list. Think about the smells, sounds, textures. It may start to feel more real after a while.
7. Watch TV. Yeah, counter-intuitive, I know, and quite difficult for me given my disinclination towards it. What I mean is, pay attention to what you watch on TV, whether it’s a series or a film or even an advert. Especially adverts. Adverts are my favourite thing to watch, because they’re so gloriously manipulative. They also convey a lot of information in a short period of time.
Perfume adverts are amazing at this – how do you convey a smell visually? Pay attention to the audio on whatever you’re watching, too, as audio tends to tie in with bodily sensations – think the dun-dun, dun-dun heartbeat bassline in a tense scene, or swooshing, soaring orchestra in a dramatic romance scene that mimics heady bloodflow during arousal.
Guest post contributed by Phoebe Quinn. Phoebe is a writer of fiction with a collection of short stories to be released in 2016.