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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