When you sit down to write a scene, do you see it play out behind your eyes like a movie? Can you close your eyes and bring to mind images of each of your characters? If you’re like the majority of writers, the answer to both those questions is a resounding YES.
If, on the other hand, you’re like me, you may be peering at the questions and wondering what that would be like.
Until last year, I thought people were making it up when they said they could see what they were writing (or reading) like a movie. The concept had about as much credibility as people suggesting I count sheep to help me go to sleep.
And then, about a year ago, I was lost in the procrastination-halls of the internet when I clicked on a BBC article about something called “aphantasia”. Suddenly, I discovered that not only were people not making it up, but that being unable to create visual images in your mind is a rare condition, affecting less than 2% of the population. By definition, aphantasia is a condition wherein someone doesn’t have a functioning mind’s eye.
Not only do I not see movies as I write, I can’t visualise, well, anything. At all. I don’t even dream in pictures. I have absolutely no concept of what it would be like to see things that no one else can see.
When I tell people this, the first reaction I get is generally disbelief. That’s followed quickly by shock and confusion. (For the record, that’s exactly how I feel when people tell me they can see things in their head.) And then I get the question: “But if you can’t imagine things, how can you be a writer?”
First of all, my imagination is just fine, thankyouverymuch. As my parents, teachers, and friends from school would tell you, imagining things has never been a problem. But therein lies the problem: We tend to use the words ‘imagine’ and ‘visualise’ interchangeably.
From the Oxford Dictionary:
Visualise: Form a mental image of; imagine
Imagine: Form a mental image or concept of
So, no, I can’t visualise anything. But I can imagine things just fine. I just imagine them conceptually. If you’re curious what that would be like, try this exercise:
Read each word in the below list, taking a moment to imagine each of them:
Chances are, when you got to the word ‘justice’ there was a fraction of a second between the time you read it and the time you came up with a visual representation of the concept. During that moment, you had an understanding of the word — you could imagine it — but you didn’t have a visual image to go with it. That’s what it’s like inside my head all the time.
All of which is interesting. At least, I hope it is. But the question is: Why am I telling you all of this?
What does this have to do with writing?
Aphantasia doesn’t prevent me developing stories and characters, but it does make it difficult to write descriptions of what anyone and anything looks like. For a long time, I didn’t think that was a problem. I generally skip over description when I’m reading for what should be obvious reasons. But, as it turns out, most readers like to have at least a vague idea of what places, people, and things look like. So, over the years, I’ve developed a series of tools to help me add visual description to my writing.
Statistically speaking, there are likely to be at least a few people reading this who also have aphantasia. But hopefully these tools are helpful even if you have the amazing ability to see things in your minds.
1. Practice writing descriptions in real-time
When I walk away from someone, I immediately forget what they look like.
No, that’s not exactly true. I remember what they look like, I just can’t call up an image of them in my mind’s eye. So, for all practical purpose, I’ve forgotten what they look like. To counter that, I craft visual descriptions of people when I meet them. While I’m saying hello, I’m also mentally telling myself: “She has shoulder-length blonde hair tied back in a ponytail, sparkling green eyes, and a Grateful Dead t-shirt.”
When I sit down to write, I have scores of ready-made descriptions to mix and match. I do the same with places and objects that interest me. Even if you don’t have aphantasia, regularly practicing simple descriptions in your head can only improve your writing.
2. Remember that less is more
One of the biggest thrills for me as a writer is having someone read my work and say: “I could picture that scene perfectly.” It’s a kind of magic to give readers an experience that I’ve never had. But, as it turns out, you can go overboard with visual description.
As I learned through trial and error, a couple of specific details is really all it takes. In fact, the more complicated and comprehensive the description, the harder it is for people to create their own little mind’s-eye movie. To wit, raise your hand if the description in the section above caused you to imagine the Grateful Dead girl wearing pants, even though I didn’t mention them.
3. YouTube is your friend
One of the hardest things for me to write from a descriptive perspective is action scenes. I can only imagine (ha!) how much easier it would be if I could visualise a car chase in the comfort of my own head. But, being that that’s off the table, I turn to my good friend YouTube.
No matter what crazy thing your character is doing, chances are someone has already done it. And filmed it. And then uploaded their insanity for the world to see. Whether your protagonist is crashing his car into a frozen lake, learning to fight with a longsword, or using a lemon to start a fire (no, seriously), you can find it on YouTube. And seeing something play out in reality is a huge help in making descriptions more authentic.
What other tricks do you use to write visual descriptions? Do you have aphantasia, or know someone who does?
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