Years ago I saw a terrific IMAX film called To The Limit. In it was a scene I never forgot. A champion downhill skier was sitting on top of a mountain, skis and poles by her side. Her eyes were closed and she was moving her arms and upper body as if she were skiing downhill. She was picturing the course with its turns and moguls as she traveled down the mountain in her mind. She forced her brain to prepare for those turns and bumps by visualizing the course over and over. Something similar to muscle memory ie: when you play an instrument and your fingers seem to move on their own almost apart from your brain.
This visualization technique can be very useful in writing. Close your eyes. Picture the scene you’re about to compose. A family about to sit down for dinner. What does it look like? How many people are there, who are they? Two adults, two children. What are the ages, sex, and ethnicity of the individuals? What are they wearing? What is the room like? Who sits where?
Sounds totally boring. But the way you set the scene visually, has a huge impact on your story. Close your eyes again. You’re in a kitchen, white crooked cabinets, dirty fingerprints on the doors, dishes in the sink. No windows. Floor is black and white tiles, heavily scuffed and greasy. The table has no cloth, just bare, scratched wood. Chairs do not match. Refrigerator has one child’s drawing stuck on it with magnet.
The adults are about forty, the man is black, the woman white. Mom is wearing tank top, shorts. Dad is in a spotty tee and jeans. The kids are a boy, nine and a girl, twelve, both with latte skin. The girl is wearing torn jeans, t-shirt falling off one shoulder and her face is in a perpetual sneer. The boy is chubby and his forehead and upper lip are sweaty. On the table is a platter of suspicious looking meat, kind of pink and gray. Rap music pounds in the background. Both parents and daughter text and surf on their smart phones.
No one seems to be interested in eating except the boy. He stabs at the meat and brings a piece to his plate. His nose curls up and he pushes plate aside, leaves the room. A huge gray cat jumps onto his chair, then onto the table. He begins licking the piece of meat on the boy’s plate. No one shoos him away.
If you painted this family portrait, you already had a definite image in mind. As a reader, however, you provided us with copious amounts of useful information. We know it’s warm, maybe it’s the summer in the south. We know quite a bit about the parents and the kids, in terms of attitudes and interests. We know something about their home life (at least at the dinner table.) We know a lot about their attitudes, toward themselves and each other. We see the interest they show their smart phones but the lack of interest, respect and caring for each other.
We also know the food was spoiled, but the cat didn’t mind. And I could picture the house (more likely apartment), the heat, the jarring sound of rap music, and the sad plight of the boy.
Visualization is more than just “description.” It’s not just a brown leather couch sitting atop a Persian rug in front of a teak coffee table. It’s not just a blond wearing high heels and red lipstick or a wet dog shaking after his bath. It’s about emotions, attitudes, the idiosyncrasies of the characters.
When my cop, Mead is feeling the acid rise into his throat, he doesn’t complain about it. He just pops a few Tums. When my character, Maggie, is anxious, she doesn’t whine. She paces the room, throws her arms around, babbles a mile a minute.
Your character might chew her nails to the quick and always be embarrassed about them. Or maybe she throws mugs against the wall (very satisfying as long as they’re not too expensive to replace.)
Visualize a woman. She’s not just a blond in a blue dress, wearing high heels and red lipstick. She’s a woman, teetering outside a motel room, black roots showing through the teased mass, blue dress torn at her hem, lipstick smeared like a clown. Picture her. There . . . there she is. You can see her clearly. You know her.
Write your scenes as if they were movies. Let us see what’s happening through your words. You’re the director.