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 was teaching her brain to prepare for those bumps and curves 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 is crucial in writing. Close your eyes. Picture the scene you’re about to compose. Perhaps it’s a cop getting ready to interview a suspect. From Val McDermid’s The Torment of Others, visualize Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan:
“Carol stared through the two-way mirror at the man in the interview room. Ronald Edmund Alexander looked nothing like the popular image of a pedophile. He wasn’t shifty or sweaty. He wasn’t dirty or sleazy. He looked exactly like a middle manager who lived in the suburbs with a wife and two children. There was no dirty raincoat, just an off-the-peg suit, an unassuming charcoal grey. Pale blue shirt, burgundy tie with a thin grey stripe. Neat haircut, no vain attempt to hide the way he was thinning on top.”
Picture the room and a man seated there through the glass. Visualize the suspect, very possibly a child molester, and feel Carol’s frustration at his very ordinariness, the exact antithesis of what she expects a monster to look like. Could she be wrong? Are we being misled by his description?
Follow Harry Bosch in Michael Connelly’s Reversal, when he makes a trip to Fryman Canyon Park, an unexpected natural enclave above the madness of LA.
“Fryman was a rugged, inclined park with steep trails and flat-surface parking and observation area on top and just off Mulholland. Bosch had been there before on cases and was familiar with its expanse. He pulled to a stop with his car pointing north and the view of the San Fernando Valley spread before him. The air was pretty clear and the vista stretched all the way across the valley to the San Gabriel Mountains. The brutal week of storms that had ended January had cleared the skies out and the smog was only now climbing back into the valley’s bowl.”
Harry has been here before and is familiar with the area, its quirky smog patterns and unpredictable weather. Now, so are you.
Visualization is more than “description.” It’s about engaging the senses (see an earlier blog I wrote about this) to get a visceral feel for the scene. Picture a brown leather couch sitting atop a Persian rug in front of a teak coffee table. Now give the couch history–every crack in the leather represents a different house it has lived in or a different person who curled up on its soft hide. It was loved, it was beaten, it was ruined. Even a couch can have personality. What does it say about its owners?
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. Direct.