Running at the Image


Yes, yes, I understand that this blog has been dark for three years, and yes, yes, I fell off the face of the planet. But the important thing is...

That in the meantime, I've discovered Twitter and have had a blast chatting with other writers, indie and published, about the craft of writing--one of my favorite subjects. And so I'm going to be devoting a good deal of time to talking about how to write. I'd like to think that after thirty-four novels, all published by the biggest houses and all but one of them still in print, that I've picked up a few tricks along the way. And I'd like to share them.

Since many of the writers I've come across are just starting out, I thought I'd talk about a problem that I discovered in my own writing when I was new to the craft, one that I think is common: a failure to run at the image.

What do I mean by "running at the image?"

I use it to mean avoiding abstraction and insufficient detail when writing a scene--in other words, to give the reader a level of step-by-step detail so that s/he can share the same image that's in the writer's head. I also use it to mean avoiding filtering the action through your point-of-view character's head.

First, I must cop to the fact that I discovered this term while reading the late John Gardner's THE ART OF FICTION
Gardner uses a very effective metaphor: Fiction should be "a dream" from which the reader doesn't like to be awakened. In order not to wake the reader up, it's our job as writers to give the reader a vivid, continuous dream. Here's what Gardner has to say about vividness and continuity:

A scene will not be vivid if the writer gives too few details to stir and guide the reader's imagination; neither will it be vivid if the language the writer uses is abstract instead of concrete.

Example: Let's describe a scene where two snakes are fighting. And let's say that I wrote the following:

Turning, she saw two slithery creatures attacking each other with hostile maneuvers in their inhospitable abode.

Okay, dreamer, what do you see in your mind's eye when you read that sentence? I don't know about you, but I'm immediately put off by the term "two slithery creatures." We could be talking two Cthulhus for all I know. So right away, I've awakened a cranky reader whose attention--which should be on my story--is now focused on trying to figure out what the heck the writer is talking about. Can you SEE this image?

If you can, you're not reading--you're fantasizing, and more than likely, your fantasy and the writer's don't match. At some point, you, the reader, will discover that fact when the writer says something later that completely contradicts the image you have in your head.

Hostile maneuvers: What do you see there? What the heck ARE these slithery creatures DOING? And what on earth do you see when I say "inhospitable abode?" These are fancy words, and I'm first to admit that I'm as enthralled by fancy words as much as the next writer. But these words aren't pulling their weight.

Very often, I'm tempted to resort to Latinates--words of Latin origin. But as Gardner points out, these words often don't evoke vivid, concrete images in the reader's head the way a good old Anglo-Saxon term will. Let's rewrite that sentence about the snakes.

Turning, she saw two snakes fighting in among the rocks.

Can you see what's happening a bit better? Good! It means we're evoking an image. In fact, we're running up to it.

Now, why don't we run even more directly straight at the image, and remove our third-person point-of-view character (she) as a filter. Let's dive at that image!

She turned. In among the rocks, two snakes were fighting.

Ooh, we're starting to get somewhere. Now, the reader is actually imagining the same thing the writer is! And if the writer gets used to doing this, s/he can start to take pleasure in crafting the most vivid scene possible.

She turned. In among the rocks, two snakes whipped and lashed, striking at each other.

The writer can take it from there. You can bring the rocks more clearly into focus--are they smooth, jagged, dusty, in the shade or harsh sun?--and spend some time choreographing the snake fight so that we see it in glorious detail along with you.

Another metaphor (mine) is that the writer has a little camera in his head, which records every image his point-of-view character sees, step by step, instant by instant. And the continuous part is important. But since I have a book to write, I'll save the discussion of the necessity for continuity at a later time.

Keep reading and keep writing, friends!


Helpful info, Jeanne. Camera in the head - I like that. Welcome back from the blog netherworld.

I hadn't thought of constructing a scene that before. I like the idea of imagining having a video camera and recording what I'm seeing in my head. Sometimes it's hard to put that in words.

Hi Jeanne,

I had never heard that term before, but I like the way you describe it. Sometimes writers love the words, and the classics we admire use the big words so beautifully.

For the rest of us, though, simpler is better. Description is most vivid when the author is using them to paint the scene rather than using them for their own sake.

I love your work! Currently I'm reading The Burning Times for the millionth time.


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