How can you create visual imagery on the page?

In the comments on my post about visualizing stories in our minds, pujagokarn161289 asks:

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 paid attention, and deliberately began to include visual imagery on every page of my work.

Basically, my friend Ann Aubrey Hanson said that my writing contained only bare-bones physical descriptions, and almost no mention of color. Once she pointed this out, I understood that while I saw scenes vividly in my own mind, I was failing to translate that to the page. As a consequence, my fiction had plenty of action, dialogue, and attitude, but seemed strangely colorless.

Here’s an example. The excerpt below is from a very early draft of China Lake. In the scene, heroine Evan Delaney discusses the frightening religious sect called The Remnant with a friend who’s a priest. He asks her:

“Did they have music at their service the other night?”

“It sounded like a stamping machine at a locomotive factory.”

“It was march music,” he said.

I thought back to the heavy beat, the one-two-three-four of every hymn. “Yeah. What’s the significance?”

“Peter Wyoming believes that only march music is godly. This isn’t out of line with very conservative orthodox Christians—”

“‘The devil has all the best tunes.’ Burn all your Beatles albums.”

“—Right. But Wyoming emphasizes that everything that has a different beat has been created by Satan specifically to draw people away from God.”

“The beat itself is satanic?”

“Yes. Rock, Country, Gospel; any other music will lead you to hell and in fact may hasten the end of the world.”

I shook my head; this sounded patently preposterous. “You mean if I play a Garth Brooks song, or hum a Spiritual—”

“The white lines down the middle of this street will eventually crack open to reveal a streak of brimstone.”

I wanted to laugh but couldn’t. “Does it matter if I play it real slow, or backwards? How about if I change keys and play it twice as fast? Will that hasten the end of the world?”

What do you notice? They sound like disembodied voices. The only physical, visual mention in the excerpt is I shook my head.

It wasn’t much. It wasn’t enough. I cut this entire discussion. I ended up cutting the priest from the story. In the final version, Evan instead discusses The Remnant with her best friend, Nikki. Here’s how that version opens:

I said, “How about taking a walk on the beach?”

At Arroyo Burro we walked barefoot on the wet sand, below a tall cliff. The waves ran cold across our ankles. A lone surfer sculpted turns on a glittering curl of water. The day looked polished, pure blue, and for a long while we were silent.

At that point, Evan and Nikki launch their discussion of apocalyptic religion. Notice the difference? There’s color, reflected light, physical space, physical sensation, and a sense of movement — which also helps create a “cinematic” feel.

Write using all five senses. And make sure sight is number one.

2 responses to “How can you create visual imagery on the page?

  1. Always a good reminder. I tend to forget scent. Well, and clothes, but that’s probably another topic!

  2. As long as you’re talking about forgetting clothes on the page, not in real life.

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