Friday, February 02, 2007


Sometimes I'm envious of movie makers. They want to show something horrific, they just splash it on the screen and it's in your face. You may turn away, but the image has already imprinted itself on your neurons. Visual stimuli are potent for all humans other than those who are blind. We can see what is put before us.

Writers don't have the same luxury, and that's because our medium is not a silver screen but the imaginations of our readers. Literally, readers determine the effectiveness of our prose. Unless the reader can imagine what we describe, we fail. And while visual systems work largely the same in all people who see, imaginations come in a tremendous range of forms and strengths. Ever wonder why others rave about a book that you couldn't force your way through? It's because that book engaged their imaginations and not yours.

This doesn't mean that your imagination is weaker. It's just different. Or, maybe your imagination is stronger than the average. Maybe you weren't engaged because the images that others saw were old hat to you. I think this explains in part why rereading well-loved books from our childhoods can be disappointing. Our imaginations have moved on since that time, have grown fuller with experience.

I began thinking of such things because I'm trying to write a scary scene and it is damn hard. I can see the scene perfectly. If it happened in real life it would scare the bejeebers out of me. But how can I translate what I see into the words that will make others see the same? I suspect that I can't, at least not perfectly. Instead, to write this scene I have to step outside of myself and into a potential reader's imagination. I have to analyze how my words might be interpreted by someone with a different kind of imagination. And I have to remember what is perhaps the most important rule of writing horror.

Let the reader's own imagination do most of the work. The writer is only a facilitator of that process.


Susan Miller said...

Wonderful advice and something that my readers touched on a bit commenting on a post. Thank you for that, Charles.

Michelle's Spell said...

I hear you on that one! I think film is such a wonderful medium. But I'm doomed to writing -- alas, acting wasn't for me!

Erik Donald France said...

Great post. I wonder how much difference there is by gender. Men are supposed to be more visual. I wonder if there's a breakdown in genre type for readership, in general? Imagination does beat movies in many ways -- Notes on a Scandal was a perfect book, with more nuance than the movie, even though that version is very very good, too. Luckily, we can enjoy multiple forms, right?

Sidney said...

I was thinking about film and visual artists in a similar way the other day in relation to the self-doubt question.

It's kind of the flip side of your thought, I think. I know I'm over simplifying, but it seems like say a costume designer can evaluate the quality of his/her work easier than a writer can for the very reasons you note.

You can check historical costume design against period pictures or paintings and tell if the designer re-imagined things well. (I know designers agonize too, I've seen Project Runway, but I'm still envious.)

Evaluating a book's plot or even a scene like you're describing is much more subjective.

So of course writer's go crazy especially since for the most part writing requires you to be an autodidact and learn first by analyzing others, then writing and analyzing your own work.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Yes! The trick is to write a scene that doesn't get bogged down in words, but comes alive in the reader's mind. Easier said then done.

Danny Tagalog said...

I like what you say about imaginations moving on - it's evident, but I haven't thought about the changing movement - does it regress or does it develop?

It's also interesting the reactions to that bizarre video on my blog. I agree with your comments - using a little boy and including imagery which includes real tears and using handcuffs is disturbing - reminding me of the alleged suffering for art the producer's child of Lou Reed's "Sad Songs" underwent, After being told that their mother had died, their wailing was recorded and was tacked on to the end of the track.

I don't think I could do this kind of thing, even in pursuit of an 'artistic' vision.

"Let the reader's own imagination do most of the work. The writer is only a facilitator of that process."

I like this, but it must be so hard not to get bogged down (as JR said).

Stewart Sternberg said...

You know, sometimes when I am writing, I sit back and do a picture board for my work. I try and get a film maker's perspective, wanting to see it as though on screen.

Kate S said...

Well, I'm trying again--tried to post yesterday but blogger at it. :)

I liked this blog, Charles. I had been thinking along similar lines just before I read it. Like you, I have a scary scene in my mind, but have trouble figuring how to write it. I was thinking it would be so much easier in a film.

If you figure it out the secret of bringing alive a mental image for everyone else, let me know. :)

H.E.Eigler said...

Nice post! I agree that film can show in an instant what writers toil over for hours but don't you feel like we have more control? More control to stretch out the scene? To make every detail its own instead of mashed together with the rest of the what's going on in the frame? More control to focus?

I don't know, sometimes I think we have it easier. We can get the reaction we're looking for if we write well.

Steve said...

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud has a great wee two-panel scene. A shot of a hand with knife upraised, and a cutaway to to a building exterior with a terrible scream splitting the night.

The reader's imagination does murder more foul than anything we can write, draw, or film.

Be glad you're a writer and not a filmmaker. we rule our private worlds. The weather and locations always cooperate, actors don't have to be cajoled and coerced, the DP won't use the wrong film stock for the effect you wanted, the lighting guy will never tell you what you want is impossible, and if you decide in the editing room that you need any new footage, none of your investors will threaten to murder you.

Good luck with the scene!

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

I am not as cheap as that Sternberg fellow. I take actual photos and use them as visual references. Obviously, if the scene you want to write is totally fabricated, you can't take a photo. That's OK, I just wanted to poke at 'ol Stewart. What I do, Charles, is leave the room. I leave my computer. I come back, stand in the doorway and imagine the scene shifting. I add sounds and smells that may not even relate directly to the scene. I stand there as long as it takes to get a chill up my spine and my synapses popping. Good luck!

Charles Gramlich said...

As several commentors pointed out, the movie folks have their own problems, and we do have more control over our writing than any single individual on a movie set is likely to have. My envy definetely wasn't for the "life" of a movie producer as much as it was for the relative ease with which an effect can be shown visually as opposed to having to be described.

Lucas Pederson said...

Great advice! It is truly hard to convey what you see in your mind's eyes into words that will hopefully spark the readers imagination. I know I have failed a lot. But I'm working on it. Again great adivce, thanks.

Donnetta Lee said...

Glad I stopped by to read the post and also the comments. I believe that there are as many interpretations to what is written as there are readers. The act of perceiving is an individual act. That means the writers task is a complex one--a tale that can be perceived by all-no matter the perspective-and understood, comprehended in a like manner. A manner the writer intended. And, hey, where would those movies be without the writer's who brought to life the ideas in the first place! Donnetta