As some of you may know, Jenny and I are collaborating on a project, and we’ve been writing crazy volumes (for us) on the story itself, which followed fast on the heels of an insane amount of world-building emails that probably would amount to the volume of another entire book–and that world-building took place in about a six-week frame of time.
This entire process has been an absolute blast. Jenny’s been blogging about a lot of the discovery process we’ve gone through. We’re in discovery draft mode right now, and in one of the discussions on her first scene, the idea of how to build out the world visually came up.
We have a different approach to creating visuals, and different reasons why to do something (or not do it), and I want to emphasize here that there is no one right way.
Jenny swears she’s not visual, and I wouldn’t have believed her, because she creates the most phenomenal collages for her books, and she’s done one for ours. Trust me, the photos do not do them justice. I had a serious choked-up/tears-in-my-eyes feeling when I saw ours in person, because it really felt like our world, and captured the nature and the couples beautifully. Her first drafts, though, don’t have many scene descriptors, and mine have way too many. At some point, we’ll likely balance somewhere toward the middle because she’ll add some, just so her characters aren’t floating in space, and I’ll pare down to the essentials.
I’ve always been hyper visual–I remember everything in a room I’ve walked through long after I’m out of it; I’ll remember faces (not names), and places, but what I seem to zero on the most is mood/setting/details. Part of that stems from having painted for many years (oils)… or maybe the oils were the result of the hyper-visual bombardment I felt, the need to anchor the world. I started doing photography (that’s a link to my photo gallery) in high school the first time the year-book staff let me use a camera, and I picked it back up recently (which I blogged about here).
But getting that world built on the page without drowning the reader in non-essential detail… that gets tricky. It’s tricky for any book, really, because you want the reader to see the world, feel it, hear it, smell it, taste it, but you don’t want to ever ever ever stop the story with a dissertation on the room they’re in.
There’s more to the solution of this conundrum than simple brevity. Anyone can put one or two adjectives, or one sentence of a description, but it doesn’t necessarily build the world.
So how to do that, without dragging it down?
The simplest advice is, “use the fewest amount of details possible to create the scene.” And really, that’s one of those specious statements that sounds helpful without actually giving you the tools to do so. I hope you’ll bear with me a bit–many of you who know this already, feel free to skip to the bottom. For the rest of you… I’m going to take a couple of minutes for a tiny little bit of theory here, but it will show you why, and how, I build out a world.
One of the first, and probably most beneficial things you need to think about is POV, and that’s not just Point Of View of the character through whose eyes we are seeing this world, (important, we’ll come back to that later), but another term for this acronym, which is Persistence Of Vision.
The official definition of Persistence of Vision isn’t what I’m referring to here, so I will warn you ahead of time, I’m co-opting this term for my own use. The official definition is talking about the mostly debunked theory that everything we see lasts in the eye as an after-image for about .04 seconds, and so everything we see is a blend of what’s happening right now and what just happened… and film theorists clutched onto this theory with the fervor of the saved in order to try to explain why the eye perceives individual static (non-moving) frames on a film strip (and later, individual digital frames) as moving people in a space when the frames are attached and run together at a certain speed. The thinking was that we were holding onto one image as the next one appeared, so the brain interpreted the two as connected and continuous, even though both images were absolutely discrete and non-moving.
What, you may wonder, does that have to do with writing visuals?
I wanted you to think about Persistence of Vision not in this film theory way, but in the way an infant learns to see and interpret his reality. For an infant, learning that items will still be there when they look away and then look back again is a surprise. I will spare you the scientific mumbo-jumbo about cohesion, but give you the layman’s shortcut:
Since infancy, we have learned our environment. We found out that our toes were joined to our bodies, and then there was the floor, which kept going and was hard when we fell, and if mom left the room, it didn’t mean she ceased to exist. We learned the rooms of our house and where things were, and if we went back to the bathroom, lo and behold, the toilet was still in the same place. Cohesion boils down to the fact that how we mentally picture things from our recent experience with those items is how they remain when we return to them. The sofa isn’t suddenly floating at the ceiling; the fireplace doesn’t grow teeth to eat us. The furniture doesn’t shift around in the dark, rearranging themselves. Everything is pretty much the way it was the day before, and how we see it in our mind’s eye.
Think about your home right now, and about whether you could navigate through it in the dark. Even a super cluttered home, you have a path, and you know it well enough to know that you turn left for the kitchen or right for the bedroom or whatever–you have a sense of place and that sense of place exists in your mind.
What this means in the sort of persistence of vision / cohesion manner is that when you enter a room you’ve entered a million times, your brain (1) recognizes it immediately — somewhat subconsciously, somewhat consciously because (2) that scan is checking to see that all is normal… and if there’s something out of place, what that something is. You may not stop and focus on it, but your brain is actively cataloging what’s there and then (3) making special note of what’s changed or missing or added. If it’s nothing scary or dangerous, it may disregard it immediately. Or ignore it to the point that you stub your toe because you weren’t paying attention to the fact that the table had been moved. But your brain recognizes that the table was moved or you did something unique because otherwise, you’d be stubbing your toe every single time you walked through that room.
…Note… — there are different levels to this, depending on the person. Some people simply do not think they see the scene consciously, but they are–it’s how they’re navigating. They may not be actively comparing as much detail as, say, a different person would compare, noticing dust or that it needs cleaning or that someone left the toys out on the floor… but they’re both consciously and subconsciously noticing their environment–it’s how they would recognize if an intruder was standing in the room. If you walked into your living room that you’ve seen a thousand times, you know what to expect to see. What your brain will seize upon is anything unexpected, and it does that by comparing the experiences of the past treks into the room with the current one. An intruder standing there elicits shock and surprise because he’s not supposed to be there, and your brain knows that from that persistence of vision/cohesion/memory of the room.
From a character’s point of view, though, they will not drift around a room giving detailed descriptions because (a) whatever they’ve done consciously or subconsciously is done in nano-seconds and (b) the character had better be doing something or it’s going to be boring. They should, primarily, be actively engaged in some sort of conflict, some sort of goal–however small for that moment–and that’s where their focus would be. However, if there are things amiss–they’ll notice those things, especially if whatever is amiss is causing them a problem, or about to cause them one. Again, this depends on the character (more about this at the end).
With that said, in addition to the physical expectations, we have human and then cultural expectations–what we consider is the norm. All of this can work for you in a brilliant way if you think to use it, because you can pick out specific details which convey the larger image/mood/atmosphere of the scene the characters are inhabiting. It is precisely because we live in a common culture–humans functioning in gravity, needing to eat, drink, sleep, etc., having a sex drive to procreate, and on and on… we share many common denominators so that these common denominators become iconic.
Here’s an example. Look at these words:
a digital clock glowing 10:04
Now, think about where you are/ what you see / how/why you are seeing it…
Okay, without you even having to think about that for more than a fraction of a second, your brain probably filled in at least some of these things:
A window (likely)
The nightstand itself / some nightstand clutter, usually including a lamp
Now, I mentioned none of those things. I didn’t have to. I could go on to delineate all of those things in a scene, but if I do that in fiction, I’m boring you and taking up mental real estate / time that isn’t gaining me, the writer, anything more with you, the reader. IF I mention any other detail, it needs to be relevant to the story or character and so relevant, that it conveys a great deal with that detail.
For example, if I had said, instead:
A diamond-encrusted clock shone amber numbers, 10:04…
You’re likely going to subsequently fill in the details of that room differently than before, because your brain–and using cultural context–is going to assume that the diamond encrusted description indicates the person is wealthy. The bed will be bigger and more luxurious, the covers, opulent, the bedroom likely twice the size, with an en suite bath, and so on, and yet, I said none of those things. IF that’s what I need you to “see” with your mind’s eye, those two words, “diamond-encrusted” built an entire room for me, and they did it in a heartbeat.
Okay, that gives you the empirical description. A character may see something like:
That fucking bastard of a shitty clock…
That’s not just an empirical description, but one filtered through the point-of-view of the person seeing it. It has attitude — and attitude influences how a character inventories and then perceives what they see. Someone naive and honest, for example, will never see a $100 bill on the ground in the same way that a junkie would see it. Attitude is going to color how everything looks to them, and if you use that, you’ll be conveying who they are by choosing carefully what they see. Using the example immediately above, that character’s use of cursing about something minor, and his or her descriptive choices means that the room we’re going to immediately “see” in our mind’s eye very likely won’t be like the diamond-crusted one mentioned previously.
Usually, when I teach this at a conference, I’ll call out a few iconic items and ask what kind of room we’re in. Since this is in writing and I can’t see the moment you “recognize” the room, let me just say that generally, most people guess the exact same room within a second or two of me saying:
red checkered table-cloths
Parmesan cheese on the table with the other condiments
Just those two alone, people will say, “Italian restaurant” or “Pizzeria.”
Which demonstrates that you do not need to list a thousand details to create the world. You just need to pick the most iconic ones and let your readers “finish out” the room.
Now… what’s critical, next, is filtering those iconic images–just the very few details you’re going to give us, in such a way that it’s colored by that character’s personality and what he or she would see in that room.
Let’s go back to that Italian restaurant. A homeless person is going to see it vastly differently than an airhead socialite; a cop is going to see details there that a kid would never notice (and vice versa). Who your character is determines how they filter their world.
What this means is that every single descriptive term is an opportunity for you to illuminate more about the POV character. It may stay subtle–you don’t have to hit us over the head with it, but if you keep it in mind, you’d easily pick out which character is describing this scene:
He sat in the back of the small joint, with the gleaming mahogany bar on his left, three old men clustered at the far end, gossiping and bitching about the weather like they had invested in it and it and owed them, dammit. It was the young guy, mid-twenties, with the hoodie three seats down from them that he had his eye on; there was a bulge in his pocket that said he was carrying, a nervous tic he had of rubbing the back of his neck like he was trying to make a decision, and it was going to be a bad one. The waitress had just delivered a lasagne that smelled like heaven to the young couple sitting in the booth beneath the picture window, and Hoodie was watching them in the mirror above the bar. The happier the couple looked, the more Hoodie rubbed his neck, the more Jack knew this whole thing was going to go to hell. He sure would have liked a chance at that lasagne and maybe the waitress, too. He triple checked the perimeter, noting the exits, making sure Hoodie didn’t have accomplices.
Full fucking moons. He really hated full fucking moons. It wasn’t if something crazy was going to happen. It was just when.
Now, if we had the time here, and good God, this is long enough… but if we had the time, an exercise I recommend is for you (those of you who are writers) to take that same scene and pick one of the other characters, or bring in someone new, and show this same scene as filtered through their character, using as few descriptors as possible while still evoking the sense of place. If the young couple is wealthy, and slumming it because the food is wonderful, they might notice the shabby decor, or faded curtains, or scuffed black-and-white checkered tiles and completely miss the cop in the back or that the Hoodie guy is getting more and more worked up.
There’s one other thing to note: remember that as a person walks through any room, or is in any environment, there are going to be three different kinds of mental images/notes their scan of the room is giving them:
The wide shot — a quick overview of where they are
The medium shot — as they approach someone, they’ll notice body language, size, shape, anything threatening, or overly emotional one way or the other. Yes, people (women) notice clothing, but if you’re just talking about the style and fail to show why it’s relevant to both the person observing it as well as the one wearing it, you’re missing an opportunity to deepen character
The close up shot — the small, telling details. Someone cutting their steak at very specific angles, resulting in regimented bite sized bits tells you a lot about that character without you (the writer) having to go into detail. If your POV character notices this, it tells you as much about them (they’re observant) as it does the person they’re noticing.
You do not need every “shot” above in every scene. You would absolutely weigh it down. But you also need to remember to vary the kinds of imagery you use in a scene so that we’re not only always seeing the wide shot, or only always seeing the clothing/body language and nothing else.
Here’s the opening I have for my first scene in our Monday Street book. I will tell you right now this is extremely rough draft stuff. I may not have found the exact iconic imagery yet that will end up in the final, and I may have overloaded some of it in other places, so it’ll get edited down. What I’ll do, if y’all are interested, after I edit (later, after more of the book is written), is post the edited version below the original so you can see the evolution of the description. Generally, what happens is that as I get to know the POV character better and better, the description shifts to reflect as much about who they are as to what they’re seeing/where they are:
“It’s ridiculous, is what it is,” Keely said in an undertone pitched below the clatter of the packed restaurant; she stood there in a fancy ludicrous floor-length waitress dress three sizes too large because Maggie, the restaurant’s proprietor, didn’t have anything smaller. It was 1920, for crying out loud, and women wore pants now, but you’d never know it by Maggie, who thought waitresses still had to wear dresses like they were back in the oughts. Big dresses. Apparently, waitresses in South Edge were expected to be tall and hardy enough to handle any trouble that came their way, and do it in a heavy skirt, with crinolines. South Edge was made of trouble. This was not a great combination.
That, however, was not the current thing annoying her, though it had chafed every single minute she’d worked at Maggie’s Ear for the last two weeks. No, the stellar number one position of most likely to be fried by magic was her imbecile boss. The real boss that had gotten her into this stupid position: the Defense Minister, who was currently taking his sweet time daintily chewing on a steak that Crandall had cooked to perfection. She clenched the order pad in her hands, mostly to keep from hexing the idiot. He was a twig of a man, all teeth and forehead, no brains, and he sat farthest away from the gaslights at one of the back tables in the dim right rear corner of the only upscale restaurant in South Edge; he was under the prissy delusion that his title, officious airs, and expensive suit mattered in a place like this.
“You are failing,” he helpfully pointed out when he finally, for the love of God, swallowed his steak.
“So you keep telling me. Hire someone else. You’ve been here every night for a week. They’re going to get suspicious, you know.”
“Of course they won’t. They’re not smart enough to grasp the kind of work we do, Miss O’Shae. Besides, plenty of Ladies and Gentlemen dine here.”
Plenty get their pockets picked too. They’re probably disappointed when they don’t. They think it’s part of the adventure, slumming it.
“Look, Mr. Merrill, I already gave you five different potential relics, including the perfume bottle you said you wanted, which, frankly, was dumb, because it’s too small.”
“Watch your tone, Miss. And none of them were magic.”
“I told you that.” Keely eyed the tables around them, all covered in fancy linen tablecloths with real silverware. It was a miracle Maggie got the bloodstains out so consistently. Keely scanned the room as her boss cut his meat into tiny little squares, all exactly the same size. She never, ever, stopped watching her surroundings. It’s how she’d stayed alive this long in the employ of the government.
The Defense Minister had been seated in the back at his request, but every single table around him was filled to the brim, except the one table to the right. That guy was an island, and as if by some survival instinct, everyone nearby studiously ignored him and had inched their chairs as far away from his space as physically possible.
He was a killer. He didn’t advertise it or act menacing. There was just something about him that said, fuck with me, you will die. He was also familiar, but she couldn’t put her finger on why. He was tall—at least six-four, and hulking. She knew someone that tall, but he was leaner, and where this guy had sandy blond hair, shaggy and dirty beneath his cap, and a scar running down the right side of his face, the other guy was… well… shockingly attractive. Dark hair, chiseled angles, silver eyes. Just as deadly, though. She looked closer without being apparent about it. It was fishy, that scar.
“You were precisely told to find the magic relic,” the Defense Minister hissed, dabbing at steak juice that had stained his cravat, disdain dripping from every syllable. “You should only bring me ones that have magic on or in them.”
That was the Minister, thinking he was being smart again.
“This is South Edge, Minister. There’s not a fork or spoon or piece of dirt around here without at least some magic residue. Magic bombs will do that for you.”
And there you go. Yes, this could have been much much shorter, but I hope that seeing the thinking behind the advice to “choose the least amount of details you need” will give you the tools to look at your own writing.