Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Now you see it, now you don’t

by Bill Kirton
A writer friend once asked me how I create visual images for readers. It’s an interesting challenge and one I hadn’t thought of before. I write DVDs and other commercial scenarios for training, safety and promotional purposes and the actual visuals there are obviously very important. But that’s not the same. There, I have to call for real images and sequences – it’s not a question of conjuring them up in the text.

I’d never read stuff about this, so I couldn’t offer theories – all I could do was stop and think of how I use visuals and what dictates the way I describe or convey them. And I think the answer to that is that I work backwards, starting from the reaction I have or a character has to what’s being seen. If it’s a beautiful scene, a sunset, the look of a lover’s hair or eyes – things like that – I try to imagine how I’d feel as I looked at it, then isolate and describe the aspects of it that provoked that particular response. In other words, the visual isn’t just a scene or setting, it has a function, it impacts on the characters or story. If I write ‘The sky was blue’ readers are justified in thinking ‘It usually is,’ ‘So what?’ and other less polite things. On the other hand, ‘The sky was a limitless, translucent dome, stretching its porcelain fragility over them, inviting them to dream’ would make the reader slam the book shut and throw it as far away as possible. So I prefer linking what’s seen with what’s experienced, as in ‘The blue of the sky was an insult, made a mockery of the darkness within him’. I’m not suggesting that’s any good, just trying to work out my approach to visuals.

I remember writing in The Darkness about the experience of being in total blackness – not just the lack of images when you close your eyes, because you still sense light through your lids, but the almost tangible absence of all light. I actually sat in a cupboard to experience it. (Am I, therefore, a Method writer?) It makes you redefine yourself, rethink just about everything. In The Figurehead, the visuals were part of my attempt to convey early 19th century Aberdeen, with its horses, square riggers, items of tradesmen’s equipment, stalls laden with slippery fish, and the general busy-ness around the harbour. But they all had to be linked with sounds and smells to create a textured experience. I suppose I’m saying that visuals, rather than being objective elements in a context, are inseparable from the story’s or the characters’ impulses.

I’m probably remembering this wrongly, but I seem to think I read that Stendhal didn’t know the colour of Julien Sorel’s eyes in Scarlet and Black because, as he said, ‘If you see the colour it means you’re looking at them, not through them’. My sister-in-law once told me that what she missed from my books was indications of what the characters looked like. Since then, I’ve deliberately tried to include little asides about clothing or appearance, but it obviously doesn’t come naturally to me. I sort of feel that a straightforward description of something implies the thing and an observer and therefore interferes with the narrative, where there is no observer, simply the characters doing what they do.

And the more I try to examine how I use visuals, the less clear it is for me. So anyone else got any ideas about it?


Mark W. Danielson said...

You're right on target, Bill. It's difficult to write about things you haven't experienced. By the same token, you must observe what you experience to describe it well. Even then, some attempts work better than others.

Bill Kirton said...

Indeed, Mark, and sometimes you get more than you'd expected. I started wood carving classes when I was researching The Figurehead, whose main character is a carver. That was several years ago - I still attend the classes and my house and garden are full of my own figureheads, gargoyles and strange looking pieces of wood.

Jaden Terrell said...

This is a beautiful post, Bill. I can see you sitting in that closet to see what real darkness was like. I've experienced it in caves before, and once as a child, I woke up during a camping trip and found it so dark I wondered if I had gone blind.

I think maybe you are a Method Writer.