Is this something I’m qualified to talk about? Well, I am a person with a blog on the internet, so I think that means I’m an expert on anything. Ok, seriously though, this is something I’ve been thinking about lately…
When most writers think about writing well, we are probably thinking about crafting our words in a way so that the reader can picture an image in their mind of what we’re describing. This is certainly what I thought for quite a long time. Recently, however, I’ve been reanalyzing this.
Imagery in writing is very important. We want to see the colors, see the landscape, see the sunlight drifting through the leaves of that magical forest. I’m certainly not here to speak against an author weaving his tapestry of words. But, when it comes down to it, a book is not a visual medium.
When I think about movies and what makes them eye-catching, it usually involves explosions, jump-cuts, and a quickly progressing succession of scenes and images. Any of these can be done in a book, but certainly not with the ‘box office’ success that the strategy brings in movies.
So, what does it take for a written work to draw the reader in?
I say the reader doesn’t need to see what’s happening – they need to feel it. I don’t mean just physical sensations such as touch, taste, or smell – but truly feel it, emotionally, in the twisting of your gut, in the racing of your heart.
Words are not a visual medium, they are an emotional one. And I’m not talking here about simple emotions like anger, or happiness – although writing certainly contains these – but fundamentally writing in an exercise of feeling, that place in the living soul where all the senses unite. When I’m reading, I don’t want to just see a tree, I want to get a true feeling for that tree – do I feel small next to it? What does the bark feel like? What does the wind sound like in is leaves?
Of course, there is a balance to this. Readers don’t want a paragraph of every describing factor that could be attributed to a thing. A reader needs a few things – maybe a flash of color, a bit of tactile sensation, a smell – those few fundamental things that come together to show not just the general thing, but this particular thing, place, person, or circumstance.
Let’s see if I can manage to give an example of what I’m talking about.
Here’s a purely visual description:
I ran down the alley, the tall city skyscrapers with their many windows speeding on beside me. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirrored windows. I ran as quickly as I could, turning right at the intersection and then ducking down a second alley. The cars filled the intersection in rush hour traffic, and I caught a glimpse the man selling hotdogs down the street.
Here’s a description that attempts to capture the feel of the moment:
I ran down the alley, stale exhaust fumes and the smoke from discarded cigarettes burning in my lungs. Grey office buildings reached for the skyline on either side of me and the setting sunlight blinked in the spaces between them, the red light blinding me as it reflected off the polished widows along with my own reflection. Still I ran, my palms sweaty and my feet pounding the pavement in tune with the beating of my heart. I skidded right at the intersection, the honking of horns and the smell of overdone hotdogs washing over me before I ducked into another alley.
Incidentally, this idea is similar to what I touched on in a previous blog post about crafting evocative descriptions. But, this idea of capturing the feel of something goes beyond just descriptions.
I was reading a book the other day which had a plot and characters which I enjoyed, but something about the writing style made it a chore to read – it was difficult for me to picture in my mind what the author was describing. It got to the point where I had a more enjoyable reading experience by simply skimming through any descriptive paragraphs to get the gist of the scene, and then filling in any of the smaller details however I felt like it. Later, I was reading a book with a plot and characters I did not particularly enjoy, and yet I was able to picture the events easily in my mind. When considering this, I eventually figured out what was going on: the first book, while a far better story than the second, was focused on making me see what was going on, whereas the second book focused on crafting something I could feel.
So, I guess in the end you can make do if your plot and characters are interesting. But, if you truly want to write well, I think you have to ask yourself this: do you want the reader to merely see what you see, or do you want them to feel what you feel?