On writing when aphantasic (attn @LoyaulteMeLie )

This post may be a bit disjointed, because I’m not particularly well today, or coherent, but it’s been several days since I wrote anything at all here, and I had an interesting Twitter discussion yesterday, and I wanted to get the things I said into some sort of more thought-out state.

One of the things I don’t talk about very much is that I am aphantasic — I am (almost) incapable of seeing things “in my mind’s eye”. I don’t talk about it very much because, despite what that link seems to claim, it’s not a particularly interesting or newly-discovered thing. In fact one of the founding papers of psychology as an experimental science, by Francis Galton back in 1880, was the one that first established that there is a wide range in people’s ability to visualise things — with some people able to see entire scenes as vividly as in real life, and others completely unable to. (I am in Galton’s “last suboctile” in his rather confusingly-named schema — “I am very rarely able to recall any object whatever with any sort of distinctness. Very occasionally an object or image will recall itself, but even then it is more like a genereralised image than an individual one. I seem to be almost destitute of visualising power as under control.”)

Anyway, this isn’t a disability or anything, it’s just one of those interesting different ways people’s brains work (the same way I *can* hear in my head an entire record, with production, vocals, instrumental parts, all in place, which apparently most people can’t). But a friend who writes just discovered that this was A Thing, and that a particularly difficult problem she’d been experiencing wasn’t just her being no good at writing, but that she is aphantasic, and she wanted to know how I deal with it.

You see, the advice one is given as a writer is to “show, don’t tell”. The ideal writer, according to many self-appointed experts on the subject, is one who puts reams of physical description into their writing. One apparently needs to give a “sense of place” — to describe every piece of clothing worn by every character, the lighting in the room, the books on the bookshelf, the… I’ve already run out of things I could list, actually.

You see the problem. If you want a description of, say, the differences between the two versions of Help Me R(h)onda by the Beach Boys, I can do that no problem without listening to them. But my legs are currently hidden by the desk I’m writing at, and if you asked me for a description of the trousers I’ve been wearing all day… well, I’m *fairly* sure I’m actually wearing some, but that’s as far as I could go without looking.

And this was the problem that my friend had been having, too. Her stories had been criticised for not providing enough description of the physical world, but she knew that I have had fiction published, by proper publishers who pay money and everything, and that at least some people had enjoyed it, so she wanted to know how I get around this problem.

So I’m going to talk about… not tricks, exactly, because a lot of this is stuff I do because many of the writers whose work I admire the most do it, rather than to work round weaknesses. But all of this stuff *also* helps work round this particular weakness.

The first thing I’d say is write in first person. I think this surprised my friend, when I made this point so strongly, because she writes in close third and thought that would be close enough that it wouldn’t make a difference, but in fact in makes a huge one. When you write in third person, even if you’re sticking to one character’s viewpoint, the reader has expectations of you they don’t have of the character.

Put simply, we expect P.G. Wodehouse to know what the Drones Club looks like, but we don’t expect Bertie Wooster to think to tell us. Read one of the Jeeves books, and you won’t find a single description of physical space (I just scanned through Right Ho, Jeeves, and while I may have missed something, I think there’s one paragraph of description of a garden, which sounds like it’s quoting something rather than an actual description written by Wodehouse), and while you’ll find descriptions of characters’ appearance, they will generally tend to be along the lines of “In build and appearance, Tuppy somewhat resembles a bulldog, and his aspect now was that of one of these fine animals who has just been refused a slice of cake.”

An oblivious narrator can be an absolute boon in this regard, especially if the character has a very strongly defined voice, as Wooster does. You could also have a character describe a room using a pop-culture reference that character might use (“it looked like the kind of office that Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss might think was a bit too corporate”), get angry at the idea the room needs describing (“it was an office. You know what offices look like. Let me get on with the story”), or even handwave it more explicitly (“We were talking… I think it was in the office… unless it was in the canteen? It could have been the canteen… anyway, we were talking about..”). You could also, for example, have a blind narrator, which immediately gets rid of the need for any visual description at all.

I knew I was going to like The Name of the Rose when, in the first chapter, I read:

In the pages to follow I shall not indulge in descriptions of persons—except when a facial expression, or a gesture, appears as a sign of a mute but eloquent language—because, as Boethius says, nothing is more fleeting than external form, which withers and alters like the flowers of the field at the appearance of autumn; and what would be the point of saying today that the abbot Abo had a stern eye and pale cheeks, when by now he and those around him are dust and their bodies have the mortal grayness of dust (only their souls, God grant, shining with a light that will never be extinguished)?

This is perfectly in character for a fourteenth century monk, but it’s also the greatest writing cop-out I’ve ever read — precisely because it’s so in character, while still ensuring the writer doesn’t have to do the boring descriptive stuff (Eco *does* do a lot of physical description of spaces, but the book is in large part about a space — to the extent I caught myself thinking it would make rather a decent text adventure game). It’s an utterly beautiful passage, and made me giggle like a small child when I read it and realised what he was doing.

Another writer who doesn’t do much in the way of standard description is Damon Runyon, who again lets the character of his unnamed narrator do a lot of the work:

WHEN Mr. Ziegfeld picks a doll she is apt to be above the average when it comes to looks, for Mr. Ziegfeld is by no means a chump at picking dolls. But when Mr. Ziegfeld picks Miss Midgie Muldoon, he beats his own best record, or anyway ties it. I never see a better-looking doll in my life, although she is somewhat smaller than I like them. I like my dolls big enough to take a good hold on, and Miss Midgie Muldoon is only about knee-high to a Pomeranian. But she is very cute, and I do not blame Handsome Jack Maddigan for going daffy about her.

We don’t get any more description of Muldoon than that, and all we’re actually told is that she’s small and good looking. But the narratorial voice is so strong that it feels like we’ve been told all we need to know.

Another technique you can use is the epistolary story
This can be combined with the first-person thing quite easily. My own first novel has multiple narratorial voices (it’s not clear exactly how many — at one point there are *at least* seven stacked unreliable narrators…), almost all first-person, but even the third-person stuff is seen through a narratorial voice other than my own, because it’s all in the form of found documents. If your story is in the form of letters, emails, memos, blog posts, diary entries, Tweets, or what have you, then you can have a lot of the story happen in, if you like, “text space” — in the interactions between the documents, rather than in a physical space. Two good, free to read, examples of this kind of thing are the Alien fanfic short story Killing Elvis and the novel I linked the other day, The Northern Caves.

The expectations about content for an email or blog post are very different for those for an extended piece of prose, to the extent that in an epistolary story readers will actually get thrown out if you include many descriptions of place or character appearance.

Next there’s the telling detail. If you pick out one thing and emphasise that, and how strange it is, then people will fill in the rest themselves. To use an example from Runyon:

He is a big heavy guy with several chins and very funny feet, which is why he is called Feet. These feet are extra large feet, even for a big guy, and Dave the Dude says Feet wears violin-cases for shoes. Of course this is not true, because Feet cannot get either of his feet in a violin-case, unless it is a case for a very large violin, such as a ‘cello.

I must tell you more about Feet’s feet, because they are very remarkable feet indeed. They go off at different directions under him, very sharp, so if you see Feet standing on a corner it is very difficult to tell which way he is going, because one foot will be headed one way, and the other foot the other way. In fact, guys around Mindy’s restaurant often make bets on the proposition as to which way Feet is headed when he is standing still.

This is all we’re told about Feet Samuels’ appearance, and yet I’m sure that everyone has enough of an idea what he looks like when reading the story.

Another thing you can do is use all the senses. While most people are visual, we all get information from multiple senses, and some advice I’ve seen given is that if you use at least one instance of each sense in a given two-page passage, that will give more of a sense of place than just a visual description would:

The barroom was dark, and the scent of urine and stale lager hung over it, so thick you could taste it, and my jacket stank of it for weeks afterwards. The jukebox was playing some shitty country tune, and as Tammy Wynette or whoever it was cried about her dead dog, I pushed my way to the bar, choking on the smoke. I leaned on the bar, and discovered my hand was in a pool of acrid liquid I could only hope was beer.
It was my kind of place.

Now, I wrote that in about ten seconds, so it’s clearly not great, but you’ve got smell, taste, touch, sound, and vision all in there. The only visual cue there is that the room is dark, but I still think it creates a fairly decent sense of place.

And finally, there’s the assumption of familiarity. This works particularly well in a particular kind of children’s book, especially when combined with the telling detail — “Now, everyone knows what a dragon looks like, but this dragon was a very peculiar dragon indeed, because he had two tails. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a two-tailed dragon before, but they can’t fly as gracefully as other dragons…”

But you can also do this with adult fiction as well. “Every town has a bar like that. It’s the place where you go when you need something sorted out, and you don’t care too much about how the sorting is done, or whose legs have to be broken to get it sorted. And the Chimes was absolutely typical of its type, except in this one regard — the landlord was convinced he was running a respectable establishment”

The reader will immediately fill in what she thinks that kind of pub musty be like, and so long as you don’t say anything to contradict that mental image, she’ll just assume that her mental image matches what’s in the story.

But this is the single most important point — if you can’t do visual description, you have to let the reader do the work, and you can’t contradict their mental image without pulling them out of the story. Sometimes you want to pull them out of the story, of course — “AH! You thought the black man was the criminal, but really he was the policeman. AH! I subverted your expectations!” — but mostly you don’t. So you want to make sure that if you’re giving sparse descriptions, you front-load EVERYTHING that is going to matter. If in chapter three the main character hides behind the sofa because she thinks there’s a burglar, you’d better have mentioned in chapter one that there’s a sofa there, or the reader might have spent two chapters imagining a room with only armchairs in (or if you’ve been really sparse with the description, she might think your main character is in the kitchen).

I’m sure there’s more that can be said about this — I’m sure there are more things *that I do*, even — but I’m a relative novice as a fiction writer (only one novel and three short stories sold to professional markets) and I don’t want to pretend to an expertise I don’t have. But I hope this is of some help to anyone who, like myself, simply can’t “see” things in their mind’s eye.

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18 Responses to On writing when aphantasic (attn @LoyaulteMeLie )

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    Thanks for this, genuinely useful advice — whether or not a writer is aphantasic. I always find physical description tedious (in others’ writing and my own) and it’s good to see some strategies for avoiding it nicely laid out.

    All that said, I think you’re being a bit rough on “show, don’t tell” here. It’s true that that advice is often caricatured by bad wannabe writers as “use lots of physical description”, but the advice really goes a lot deeper than that, and is a lot more helpful. About the best thing I’ve seen on this is the first two thirds of Thought Verbs (up to the “And while you’re avoiding …” where he gets distracted and starts suggesting something completely different).

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I couldn’t disagree more with Palahniuk’s advice, actually. It’s great advice if you want to write something that could be adapted straight into a film, or a particular type of action adventure, but the whole advantage text has over the visual arts is that it allows one to capture a character’s interiority, and to talk about ideas rather than just the physical world. I can’t think of a book I really care about that wouldn’t be rendered unreadable by that advice.

      • Mike Taylor says:

        Then we will have to disagree. The purpose of Palahniuk’s advice is not to replace interiority with exterior observations, but to use the latter to help the reader feel the former — in a deeper way than they will if simply told what a character thinks or remembers of feels. In other words, Palahniuk is not advocating that we should do a different thing, but do a thing differently.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          He says “Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.”

          Being able to convey the abstract, rather than just the tangible, is precisely what I want to do by using text. Take, for example, the opening of Swann’s Way by Proust ( https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/p/proust/marcel/p96s/chapter1.html ). You simply *couldn’t* do that using Palahniuk’s advice:

          “For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say “I’m going to sleep.” And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This impression would persist for some moments after I was awake; it did not disturb my mind, but it lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to choose whether I would form part of it or no; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for the eyes, and even more, perhaps, for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, a matter dark indeed.”

          Take out the stuff about thought and you have:
          “For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say “I’m going to sleep.” And half an hour later I would awaken; I would try to put away the book, and to blow out the light; my eyes were prevented from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning; and I would find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for the eyes.”

          Follow his advice about leaving a character alone and you have:
          I find the first passage much, much more interesting than the second — and certainly more so than the third.

          To take another example, a random selection from 1984 (http://www.george-orwell.org/1984/6.html)
          Bits like:
          “He wondered, as he had many times wondered before, whether he himself was a lunatic. Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one. At one time it had been a sign of madness to believe that the earth goes round the sun; to-day, to believe that the past is inalterable. He might be alone in holding that belief, and if alone, then a lunatic. But the thought of being a lunatic did not greatly trouble him: the horror was that he might also be wrong.

          He picked up the children’s history book and looked at the portrait of Big Brother which formed its frontispiece. The hypnotic eyes gazed into his own. It was as though some huge force were pressing down upon you — something that penetrated inside your skull, battering against your brain, frightening you out of your beliefs, persuading you, almost, to deny the evidence of your senses. In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable what then?

          But no! His courage seemed suddenly to stiffen of its own accord. The face of O’Brien, not called up by any obvious association, had floated into his mind. He knew, with more certainty than before, that O’Brien was on his side. He was writing the diary for O’Brien — to O’Brien: it was like an interminable letter which no one would ever read, but which was addressed to a particular person and took its colour from that fact.”

          If you take out all the thoughts from that, and leave it with just the descriptions of ” the physical actions and details of your characters” you’re left with:

          “He picked up the children’s history book and looked at the portrait of Big Brother which formed its frontispiece. The hypnotic eyes gazed into his own.”

          Physical descriptions don’t — cannot — convey the abstract, and Palahniuk is specifically arguing against the abstract. But at least for myself, I live far more in the abstract world of ideas than in the physical world, and most of the writing I appreciate most does as well.

          • Mike Taylor says:

            I suppose if you want to write like Proust, you have a point. For myself, I’d rather write like (say) John Le Carré.

            • plok says:

              What, all the time?!

              • Mike Taylor says:

                Let’s say that, while I don’t want to write like John le Carré all the time, I don’t want to write like Proust any of the time. Because I don’t want to read it. (I have to admit, I didn’t even plough through to the end of the except that Andrew provided. I am glad he enjoyed his cake, though.)

                Orwell is a different matter, of course.

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  3. plok says:

    To each his own, of course, but Andrew’s pre-empted the high ground a bit here by bringing Wodehouse and Runyon in on his side! Ol’ Chuck is never gonna be able to beat those guys in a thumbfight…

    • plok says:

      Also, I don’t think we need to fear for Show Don’t Tell…it has so many supporters…
      But, I never thought of the obstacles an aphantasic writer might encounte!. Most interesting! I would say this counts less as “advice” and more as “help”, so I would suggest you go and get yourself a nice piece of cake.

  4. po8crg says:

    Well, that explains why I thought I couldn’t draw until I tried sketching from life.

    My visualisation is symbolic, rather than literal, which makes it impossible to draw what things look like unless I’m actually looking at them. I can see words written (well, printed) out.

    I can visualise the Harry Beck Underground map, but not the actual shapes – people complain that some line has been straightened or curved on a new version of the map and I (a) never notice and (b) don’t care because the topology hasn’t changed, and it’s the topology that matters; if two such maps are topologically homeomorphic then they are the same map in all ways that matter.

    When I’ve tried descriptive writing, it’s always been non-visual; and I’ve had players in RPGs I GM’d complain that I described how they felt about things rather than describing how they looked. I had trouble understanding the difference – the relevant thing about how something looks is how it impacts on my feelings – and reverted to just not describing things or (when online existed) just downloading a pic and showing them.

  5. ianosmond says:

    One thing I’m wondering about — you mentioned thinking that a description of a space might be good in a text adventure.

    Are you able to enjoy text adventures? To me, there is no form of art that would be MORE reliant upon the ability to create images in one’s mind from text. How do you interact with them?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Well, the same way I enjoy any other text, really — I don’t create mental images, I just read.
      (That said, I’m not very *good* at them, because a lot of them involve manipulation of a physical environment).

    • Mike Taylor says:

      As a 35-year veteran of text adventures — I first played them in the 1970s, wrote and sold my own in the 1980s, and created what may have been the first multi-user text adventure to run over the Internet — I have a view on this. Two who adventures games I’ve played that gave me the strongest sense of atmosphere were Zork II and Adventureland.

      The former makes perfect sense: it’s beautifully written, quite wordy, and takes some trouble to evoke a sense of time and place, so that the many surreal things that happen are happening against a backdrop of a solid-feeling world.

      The latter — which in fact was the first adventure game on a microcomputer — is very different. The atmosphere could not have been more minimal. Many location descriptions are literally two words (“dismal swamp”, “large cavern”, “royal anteroom”, “sunny meadow”) and in one case a single word (“forest”). It’s much harder to understand how it manages to generate any atmosphere at all. Admittedly part of it might have been just that so early in the world of computer games, I was willing to do more of the work myself, but I think that the technical limitations of that game left it little option but to go with the very minimal descriptions that forced the reader to fill in the details.

      So what I take away from this is the both descriptive approaches can work really well; and that how well either approach is done matters more than which approach is taken.

  6. Oliver Townshend says:

    Ah interesting, now I know why I skim over boring descriptions in books, because they are just words to me. I’d have to try and draw them to understand them. And it possibly explains why I enjoy comics, and got utterly baffled by the events of Lord of the Rings.

    Another author to cite would be Robert Graves. I had a chat with Colleen Mccullough about I Claudius in the video shop I used to go to, and one of her comments was that “of course Graves gives almost no description of anything”. And I never noticed.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Indeed. And of course Graves is writing in first person, with a strong central character, in found-document format… he’s doing most of the stuff I talk about here.

  7. gavinburrows says:

    Though it was written specifically about drama, Brecht’s ‘Street Scene’  still seems to me one of the most instructive things ever written about writing. It boils down to the fact that we all instinctively know how to tell a story and that’s how we can stand on a street corner and effectively recount an anecdote. And writing’s just an extension of that. Rather than a whole bunch of clever stuff you need to learn from some guru with his ‘How To Get Rich By Stringing Words Together’ self-help manual.

    You tell an anecdote to convey a point, and anything else is extraneous. The worst writing is the stuff which strains to be good writing. It’s like music which inserts a drum solo in the middle of a song. TBH I’d never even heard of Aphantism before reading this. But for a writer it may be less an obstacle to overcome than a benefit, like rationing your adverbs.
    That said, different forms of writing to convey different points, so what is or isn’t extaneous isn’t set at a uniform level. To pick up Mike’s example, there’s ‘Doctor Who’ episodes aplenty where the writer wrote ‘dismal swamp’, ‘featureless corridor’ or ‘not-a-quarry-at-all-honest’. Which is exactly what the designers went ahead and built. And it doesn’t matter at all, because what we need to do is watch the characters in the foreground and too much window-dressing behind them will just be distracting. It would be like starting a joke with “a man walks into a bar”, then spending the next five minutes describing the internal decoration of the bar. But while a storm in an adventure story may simply be an obstacle for the hero to sail through, the storm in another story might be there to reflect the protagonist’s turbulent state of mind.

    • plok says:

      “We all instinctively know how to tell a story and that’s how we can stand on a street corner and effectively recount an anecdote…to convey a point, and anything else is extraneous.”

      A wonderful way to put it! Though my awkward ellipsis makes it kinda ugly. I always like to think that the human brain just generates and/or locks into story-stuff automatically, that this is everybody’s common inheritance and so nobody can possess it more fully than anybody else. What’s that line about the guy who worked at the New Yorker, who was asked to review a book on How To Write?

      “The only way to write is well, and it’s your own god-damned business how you do it!”

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