Can you picture stories in your mind?

More than once, readers have told me that my novels are “cinematic.” They mean that my books create mental images so vivid that scenes scroll by in their minds as if on a movie screen. I take this as a major compliment. I work hard to turn words into that mental imagery. It’s a skill I learned after a friend read an early piece of my fiction and said that many pages had no visual imagery at all. Oops.

Whenever I read a terrific book — fiction or nonfiction — the story comes to life visually in my mind. And until recently, I assumed that this is the way it works for everybody. Not so.

Recently I spoke to a man about fiction. He said — like many, many men have said to me — “I’m not into novels. My wife’s the reader.” This always saddens me, but no longer surprises. What he said next, however, did. “She says when she reads a novel, she sees the story in her mind. Can you believe that?”

I said, “You don’t?”

“Never. I’m taking a college English class, and I get good grades because I can memorize the text and answer questions about it. But I never see anything except the ink on the page.”

I thought: No wonder novels don’t appeal to you.

I wondered if anybody else sees only the text, nothing behind it. Apparently so — and more.

Picture This? Some Just Can’t

Certain people, researchers have discovered, can’t summon up mental images — it’s as if their mind’s eye is blind. This month in the journal Cortex, the condition received a name: aphantasia, based on the Greek word phantasia, which Aristotle used to describe the power that presents visual imagery to our minds.

How about you all? When you read — or think — can you conjure mental pictures?

10 responses to “Can you picture stories in your mind?

  1. Definitely conjure images! Which is why sometimes it is hard to see a movie based on a book I’ve read. I have already created the image, and if the movie doesn’t match, well, it pisses me off! That was a huge problem when the first versions of The Hobbit came out. Who read the book and didn’t imagine Golem? Your books are quite vivid, which is why I enjoy them. Well, one of the reasons. Oh, by the way, you owe me some new furniture. Mine is worn down by your books keeping me on the edge and gripping!

  2. For me, reading a book is like a slightly more effortful version of watching a movie. I’ve always been prone to daydreams, so I wonder whether that plays any role in how I visualize what I’m reading. I also wonder if the reason why some people find reading boring is because they have difficulty visualizing the story and instead see a book as only a series of words.

  3. I visualize the scenes, but somehow for me the first image is the lasting one, and if more information shifts the scene a bit (or a lot) I can’t seem to shake off my original impression. Not a big deal really, but sometimes annoying. :^)

  4. Interesting! Thanks for letting me know, all.

  5. I not only visualize when I read, but I cannot imaging not doing so. I remember “seeing” Tom and Huck attending their own funeral, looking through the Jackal’s scope at Charles DeGaulle, feeling the loneliness of the automated house in There Will Come Soft Rains.

    I felt Sam’s despair upon finding Frodo, Shelob-stung and wrapped.

    “The sky was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” is forever the image I’ll have of Tokyo Bay.

    Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X – lush, deadly, and utterly unknown, if not unknowable.

    I felt like I was in the streets of San Francisco when I read The Dirty Secrets Club…why no, I’m not sucking up to our host, why do you ask?

    I guess I’m describing a good bit more than just visualizing the story, but I can no more separate these sensations from reading than I can listen to In Memory of Elizabeth Reed from The Allman Brothers At Fillmore East and only hear Gregg Allman playing the organ. Call me a synesthete, I won’t be offended.

    • Eddie, I love this. It’s fantastic to know that the worlds of these books don’t just seem vivid, but pull you in on all levels. Reading is wondrous.

      Thank you for mentioning The Dirty Secrets Club, and especially for mentioning Area X/The Southern Reach novels, and for the line from Neuromancer.

      • Possible spoiler!!! I read the last Southern Reach novel, Acceptance, while my wife were on our annual beach trip for our anniversary, and I had my mind blown twice when the biologist from Annihilation put in a brief appearance.

        The line from Neuromancer is rivaled for first lines, in my opinion, only by the first line from John Varley’s Steel Beach: In five years, the penis will be obsolete.

        And The Dirty Secrets Club, well, it is my favorite of your novels. I just connect with Jo Beckett more than I do with Evan Delany.

  6. Reading gets ‘cinematic’ for me. It’s one of the most beautiful things about reading actually.
    The question that I want to ask you is how did your writing evolve from ‘a friend read an early piece of my fiction and said that many pages had no visual imagery at all.’ to ‘More than once, readers have told me that my novels are “cinematic.”’?
    What did you do to develop that skill? What steps did you take to make your writing more visual, not just to you, but to your readers too?

    I’d be glad to have you guide me in this aspect.

  7. Pingback: How can you create visual imagery on the page? | lying for a living

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