Grunt Style Edits - Episode 1: Telling and Visualization
April 7, 2017
This is the first essay in what is intended to be a series of short editorial/writing guides to help authors get the most out of their writing time. In this piece, my focus will be on visualization and telling. One of the biggest issues I see in the editing jobs I take on is the lack of visualization. Often, writers simply put down what the characters are doing without creating an image for the readers to absorb and experience. This is what is referred to as telling, and while there’s no misunderstanding what the writer is trying to get across, this style of writing lacks an emotional and visceral punch. The reader knows what’s happening, but they don’t feel it, don’t experience it. My hope is to help authors delve deeper into the scene, into the imagery and character, to create a story that leaps from the pages.
One of the most common uses of telling are dialogue tags. Writers tend to lean on a tag to tell the reader what the character is feeling rather than allowing the dialogue itself, and the accompanying visual, to define that for the reader. For example: “I hate you!” Sheila shouted, angrily. In this example, Sheila’s hate is obvious through the dialogue itself. She says exactly that, and to add the tag angrily onto the sentence is not only redundant, it lacks power. It’s weak visualization.
Rather than state the anger so blatantly, the idea is to flesh out the scene, to give the reader physical clues to Sheila’s mood. For example: “I hate you!” Sheila snarled, slamming her fist into the dinner table. Her narrowed eyes reflected the light, rings gleaming in their depths, the color leaking downward to stain her cheeks red.
Now, while the description is a little purple, it gets across the concept that Sheila is mad without once telling you she is, and that’s the idea. You want to build an image the reader can relate to, can feed off the clues and understand while building emotion into the scene without ever telling the reader what you want them to pick up on.
Another common issue I see are authors limiting their visualizations to sight. While the word visualization seems to imply only sight, I use it to mean all the senses. In the painting of an image, a writer must provoke all the reader’s senses along the way. They don’t need to be done all at the same time, however. In fact, it’s best to not overwhelm a reader by piling every sense into a scene, but incorporating more than one often makes for the best imagery. For example: Cathy stepped out onto the porch, the screen door thumping shut behind her. The hair on her arms tingled as lightning forked across the sky. She glanced across the swaying corn fields once the dots stopped dancing in her eyes, and stared at the clouds roiling toward her home, a wave of blackness churning up the heavens. The hint of coming rain clung to the breeze that ruffled her hair, the air cooling by degrees.
Again, as will be consistent with my examples, the prose is a little more blatant than necessary, but my hope is to be a little more extreme in order to get the point across. In this example, Cathy not only sees the storm coming, but she feels and smells it, too. The idea is to set the scene, to create an image that the reader can either relate to, having experienced it themselves, or one that they can imagine because of what the author set onto the page. And while writing like this racks up a bigger word count, the text is far more impactful than a writer simply stating that a storm is coming.
Yet another issue I see with the edits I do are authors whose visual narrative focus isn’t on their characters or the necessity of the scene. What I mean by this is that the author describes a scene without taking into account what the character’s personality and situation would normally limit her focus to. A character walks into a room and the author immediately spews out descriptions of the carpet, the bookshelves, the paintings on the wall, the dimensions of the room, etc. And while this is sometimes okay, the idea is to focus on the character’s personality and the situation, only describing those things that character would see or experience given their circumstances.
For example, a character rushing into a burning building to save a child won’t be focused on the mundane details of the room such as the type of paintings on the wall or the titles of the DVDs in the collection. An author can use some of those things to set a scene, the paintings going up in flames or the DVDs melting in the heat, but the character would be focused on the child, not being concerned about what DVD was burning unless some overriding inherent trait of the character demands it. The focus should be on how to get across the room to where the child is, what lies in the way, what hurdles need to be overcome to accomplish her goals. The idea is to focus only on the imagery that builds the scene only, not have the character go off on a tangent and describe the curtains or the spaciousness of the apartment, the type of appliances the owner has, unless they have a direct impact upon the scene, something the character needs to interact with in order to achieve her goals, or it’s something she comes across, must pass, in order to do what she needs to in order to complete the scene. If the rent of the apartment, who lives there, or the type of wallpaper isn’t intrinsic to the scene, don’t include it.
Another thing I see are authors squeezing description into a scene and forgetting the character while doing so. Usually, this comes across as a list of descriptions. For example: The room was large, the ceiling arched and high. Paintings hung on the yellowed walls. A brown couch sat in the center of the room, a matching love seat and chair on either side of it. Piles of pillows covered the cushions. The carpet beneath was shag, bits of fluff and dust visible in the weave.
And while the above description definitely paints an image, nowhere in the description is the narrative voice of the character. There is no interaction, it’s simply description for the sake of description. It doesn’t carry the hallmark of the viewpoint character, the one who the focus of the scene should be on. As written, the description comes from a strange omniscient viewpoint that does nothing to enrich our experience. It simply lists things, one after another, telling the reader what’s in the room.
A better example would be: Frank stepped into the large room, the thick carpet muffling the sound of his passage. He grinned at the wild shag, wondering if he’d traveled into the past. It stood out in sharp contrast to the rest of the room. Colorful paintings clung to the walls, though they were a bit too abstract for his taste, the artist likely having had a seizure in the middle of painting them. He tore his eyes from the art, spying the mounds of pillows that covered the brown couch from arm to arm. There was no room to sit on the damn thing, which was probably what the love seat and chair were for.
And while neither of these examples introduce other senses into the scene (purposely so), they do show what I commonly run across in the books I edit. There’s a sterilization of the viewpoint, an excision of the character’s personality and focus. That’s what makes readers love books, and it’s what defines the characters readers keep coming back for. The characters are the mouthpieces of the author, and to pull them from the scene weakens the story.
In future episodes, I’ll focus on other aspects of visualization as well as all the other pieces of the puzzle an author needs to put together in order to craft a vibrant story that stands out and drags a reader into its pages.
If there are any specific topics you’d like me to cover, leave a comment below.