Friday, October 6, 2017

The Importance of the Visual in Fiction Writing

The art of fiction writing is a deceptively elegant one. On the surface it seems straightforward enough--put words on page and tell story. To do so effectively though requires a far greater attention to detail...and knowing how and when to employ those words to maximize their efficacy.

When it comes to my own fiction writing, I find that I come from an inherently cinematic perspective. I tend to have very strong visual depictions in my mind not just of characters or events but of place and time as well; in essence--a scene not unlike those found in movies or stage plays. My innate perfectionism drives me to convey those visual images to the best of my ability--not so that I can force readers to see the exact same thing that I am envisioning but rather so that I can provide the most authentic representation of that vision; the trick then is to ensure the latter while still allowing room for an individual's interpretation of the material.

In approaching my writing from a cinematic angle I therefore try to establish an environment--to evoke a mood with my word choice. I employ details not unlike a movie director who selects prop and background elements specifically to provide additional layers of understanding and information as a supplement to the events occurring in the primary focus. The director though has an advantage over the writer in that she can make use of those visual aspects with absolutely zero wasted effort.

The writer's challenge then is to make use of those same elements without drawing attention to their presence and without beating the reader about the head them. We must find the right (and potentially fewest) descriptors to convey our images--always to show rather than tell. We want to elicit certain emotions and to engage our readers in unconscious thought processes--to force the understanding into the background as a subconscious act. The only way to ensure this then is to describe what we are seeing without actually describing--to connote rather than to denote.

Here is a pair of examples that describe the exact same scene: 

Janet stood in a cemetery over a casket that was being lowered into a hole that had been dug into the ground by three men using shovels. The sky was dark and rain started to fall as lightning flashed and thunder sounded out. She felt very sad over the loss of her oldest son who also happened to be her only child and who died in a car crash that also happened on a rainy night. She wondered whether or not she would be able to recover from his death, which had left her feeling depressed.

Janet felt like she was standing at the foot of the abyss—her toes touching the precipice’s edge. A steady stream of tears fell from her eyes like the rain pattering upon the small wooden box in the ground beneath her. The darkness of the sky above paled in comparison with the gaping hole festering inside of her. She winced as lightning flashed awaiting the inevitable thunderclap that would follow. It was like seeing the oncoming headlights and hearing the crash that took away the tiny life that she had made; he wasn’t just the oldest—he had been her only.

She closed her eyes knowing that an eternity of sleepless nights awaited her—sensing that the most difficult days were still to come—her only company the pain and misery that tortured her from within and the three men waiting to shovel the earth back into place.

Though the latter example uses more words than the former to tell the same tale it manages to do so with fewer direct descriptions; the effect then should be a higher quality reading experience. The natural instinct is of course to tell rather than show; this stems from a fear of impotent communication--the writer's inability to cajole the reader into seeing the same thing that they are. Learning to suppress that urge and to rely upon the indirect will ultimately yield an end product that is not only more effective in its impact but likely more enjoyable to read as well.

Reducing clutter (words that are ultimately unnecessary in the telling of a tale) helps to service this end as well. All too often writers use a surfeit of descriptors thinking that they are adding to the story when really they serve only to interrupt the flow. In the previous pair of examples, the image of the "small wooden box" is just as powerful as the one evoked by saying, "dark brown wooden child-sized coffin."

In the latter example there is too much detail that strong-arms the reader into seeing a very precise image. In the former though the reader is led on a journey--one that ends with their own realization of what is actually being conveyed. Reading the word coffin will invariably evoke a certain emotion and visual image but the term "small wooden box" is loaded with information that the reader must unpack and in so doing provides a much richer reading experience.

Flash fiction is a genre that emphasizes this maximization of information through the minimization of words used. Arguably the most famous example of this style of writing is one that is often erroneously attributed to Ernest Hemingway. It is referred to as a "six word novel" and reads as follows:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Not only does that sextet of words proffer a wealth of information and emotion it serves also a catalyst of imagination allowing readers essentially to write their own mental novels in response. In the context of actual novels however writers consequently have their own stories to tell and thus want to rein in the reader's reaction while still allowing room for individual interpretation. Using a red candle as a symbol for a character's lust and betrayal of body is fine but either overemphasizing or inundating the reader with superfluous descriptors will only reduce its impact. Another pair of examples:


She lay on her back upon her king sized mattress and stared up at the ceiling watching the black shadows that the orange candlelight created. She was used to the shape of her lover--the man who was not her husband--occupying the space beside her but now that space was empty. She had been cheating on her husband for seven months and each night would light a single red candle before consummating her elicit affair. She had wanted to end the additional relationship for some time and finally made her mind up.

Rolling over to her right, she reached up her left hand to the mahogany nightstand and picked up her golden, diamond-covered wedding band. She put it onto her left ring finger before rising from her black, Egyptian cotton sheets and walking to her left towards the window. She looked at the red candle and the round, brown table that held the white saucer that it sat upon. Since her lover hadn't come over she did not put any makeup on and so she leaned over with her naturally colored lips and blew out the candle's yellow-orange flame.

She watched the solitary shadows dance across the ceiling as the flame flickered in the unseen drafts. Rolling over, she felt the coolness of the empty space beside her and smiled; her mind was made up. Reaching over to the nightstand she picked up her wedding band and slid it onto her finger before rising and crossing the room.

She stood before the red candle, pursed her pale bare lips, and blew out its light.

I would argue that showing not telling is only half of the writer's golden equation; the second half would be to do more with less. Wasted words serve only to distract readers and should be avoided wherever possible. Maximize the value of and information conveyed by your words and you'll wind up with a far greater finished product for your efforts!