Once, when I was in little, one of my teachers asked the class, “What is reading?” She was writing the answers on the white board and everything, and I was a HUGE reader back then (I mourn how little reading I get done now compared to middle school…), so I thought really hard about what reading was like for me, and I said, “Reading is like watching a movie in your head.” Which, I know, isn’t exactly the grandest of epiphanies, but it feels pretty deep when you’re eleven.
Back then, nearly every book I read came fully alive in my mind. When I think back on Ender’s Game, I don’t remember exact words or sentences. I recall the way Ender’s shoe connected with his bully’s stomach, the way the sun was over his shoulder, the look in his eyes, the set of his mouth. Going back to this passage in the book, there’s no mention at all of where the sun was, or what kind of look was on Ender’s face. But I remember it like I saw it.
When writing, I’ve always struggled to allow my readers the same kind of visual clarity. Maybe it’s because I’m older, and more critical, but not all books cast images into my head the way they did when I was a kid. Most still do, to some degree. But the picture might be a little fuzzy, or I might “see” some scenes, but not others. It’s the rare book that I feel like I’m living, not reading—where the scenes unfold like a movie in my mind’s eye, uninterrupted, fully fleshed out.
What is it that separates these two kinds of books? I’m afraid I don’t have the perfect answer—if I did, I’d definitely be using it. But I have gathered a few tips and tricks over time, mistakes I’ve made in attempts to write vividly that I hope by reading this post, you can avoid.
(Yes, this is a list. I haven’t written a post with a list in a long time, but if you know me, you know I love lists)
1. Don’t over-describe. At first glance, this might seem counter-productive. After all, when I’m writing a scene, what I’m often really doing is trying to describe what I’m already seeing in my head. I want my readers to see the same scene, right? So the more I describe the scene, the more details I put in, the better, right? Well, no. Not exactly.
Take this example (and I’m making these up on the spot, so please forgive if the “good” example isn’t exactly great literature):
A) The kitchen in the house where Mary grew up is decorated with a jumble of well-kept, but well-loved family heirlooms, scattered against the backdrop of faded blue cabinets. Her mother painted the cabinets more than a decade ago, when blue was still Mary’s favorite color. When she used to spend hours reading at the counter after school, drunk on afternoon sunshine while her mother prepped for dinner. Mary taps her nail against the fine china nestled in the drying rack.
B) The kitchen in the house where Mary grew up has blue cabinets. Her mother painted the cabinets more than a decade ago, when blue was still Mary’s favorite color. Mary stares at them, and at the rest of the kitchen, reliving old memories. The kitchen is small, with an island at the center. There is a medium-sized plastic bowl of apples and one orange sitting there, next to a stack of magazines. Behind the island is the stove, with four burners. Above them hang an array of shiny silver spatulas that used to belong to Mary’s grandmother, before she passed away. The oven is to the left of the island, about four feet away. Two potholders, one round, one square, hang from little silver hooks beside it. One is a little singed at the corner. They are brightly colored, orange and red, with fancy embroidering. The round one has a cow stitched on it. The square one has a rooster. There’s a length of counter that separates the kitchen from the breakfast table. Mary used to spend hours reading there after school, drunk on afternoon sunshine while her mother prepped for dinner.
Okay, so, obviously the second is a lot longer. These examples aren’t actually the best to show this concept, because both are static scenes, but you can still kind of tell how, though B) does give you information that A) doesn’t, it also sort of overcrowds your mind. Unless you really need the reader to know how far the oven is from the island, don’t include it. If these excerpts were part of a larger story, B) would also slow down story momentum a whole lot more.
Pare down descriptions if possible. Include vibrant details, yes, but use the best ones you have, and let them stand on their own! Especially remember this for more active scenes: “He jumped into the van and started the engine” is fine. You really don’t need “He opened the van door, jumped inside, and slammed the door shut. Then he stuck the key in the ignition and started the car.”
Your imagination (and that of your readers!) fills in more than you’d ever expect. Give them the building blocks, and they’d construct their own mental picture.
2. Involve all the senses, not just sight. You’ve probably heard this before, so I won’t overelaborate, but it’s important, so I will say it again! I know I said that my goal is to get people to “see” my scenes, so you might be wondering why I’m emphasizing non-visual description. But don’t underestimate how much description of smell and feel and sound can actually help one to “picture” a scene.
3. Front-load description, then punctuate with reminders. Basically, this means if your characters have entered a new setting, remember to sketch out what the place is like early on. If not, either your readers are going to feel like everything is taking place in a white space, or they’re going to start filling in things completely on their own…only to possibly be contradicted by your description later on. Some contradictions are unavoidable. But you don’t want readers to think a shack is a house, or vice-versa!
Once you’ve established what the surrounding are like (this can be done with very few words, if done efficiently), subtly remind readers from time to time where they are, especially if the scene is a long one, or if your characters are moving through a setting, and not just sitting statically.
There’s SO much more that can be said about writing vividly, but this post is getting long as it is, and like I said before, this is very much something I’m still working on myself, trying to figure out what it is that makes a written scene come alive for me.
What do you think? Any tips you try to keep in mind? How about books you suggest that played out like movies for you?