Visual style is rarely discussed in relation to novels because, with the exception of graphic novels, the novel is not an obviously visual medium. Yet the words on the page generate images in the reader’s mind and in this sense many novels can be said to have a visual style.
Sara Crowe is a wise woman, and I’m tickled pink she brought this issue up because it’s not an aspect that is widely discussed, yet it’s a vital part to my own decision making.
Visual writing is one of those big ticket items I look for when reading manuscripts. To me, it’s part of the author’s voice – it’s what distinguishes their writing. Tactile references are one of the many elements that pulls me into someone’s story because it allows me to live the story three dimensionally.
Two common mistakes I see with visual writing is the idea of MORE and BIGGER; more words, more plot, bigger scenes, more dialog. In a word; visual overload. There are some things I really don’t need to see. Honest.
Visual writing creates depth, quality, and pacing, not quantity. If a character is going for a morning jog, how does he view the rising sun? Does the morning mist hovering over the grass look like an angel’s breath on a bed of emeralds? Visual style isn’t an extension of the writing, but rather, is seamlessly embedded into the writing so that the reader isn’t even aware of its presence. It’s not about adding more – but enriching what already exists.
Visual style also carries over to dialog, and I’m a big stickler for dialog that belongs and dialog that is filler and serves no purpose. Dialog also carries the responsibility of creating movement of the story, so there has to be a reason your characters are having a particular conversation. If it’s just idle chit chat where they talk for pages and pages about the weather and whether the beagle remembered to pick up more tequila, who cares? It has nothing to do with the story, so get it outta there.
Since your characters aren’t on stage or in a movie, we can’t hear the voice inflection or see the facial or body movement, but we still gotta see the dialog. This is where authors tend to rely on adverbs, and the result is dry because it’s all tell, no visual. Here’s an example:
“Here, have a Twinkie,” Gale said graciously.
“I’m on a diet. I shouldn’t eat that,” Wanda said sadly.
It’s clunky because of the adverbs and dialog tags. It lacks visual cues. Result; dry, stilted dialog. Let’s try it again.
Gale spied the Twinkie resting on top of her bag of Fritos and remembered her struggle to zip up her pants earlier that morning. She looked at Wanda, a slip of a thing who never ate and weighed ninety pounds soaking wet, and laughed at the irony. “Here, have a Twinkie.”
Wanda’s eyes lit up and she reached out with shaking, hungry fingers. Just as quickly, she dropped her hand in her lap, her voice barely above a whisper. “I’ can’t. I’ll get fat.”
See the difference? One is simply a dry conversation and the other is visual, proactive, and specific. It takes the reader to a different place that doesn’t interfere with the scene, but rather, it enriches it.
You can’t write visually if you can’t think visually. And you can’t write visually unless you have a good command of language because visual writing tends to be more lyrical. It’s not always easy to get on paper what you see inside your head, and I usually help try to break that block by suggesting writers block out a scene blow by blow. Take the scene above. I would have asked the author how they saw that scene. Talk it out with yourself, and go for the tactile jugular about what you see.
- What are the characters wearing
- where are they
- what smells are in the air
- what sounds can they hear
- what’s the weather like
- what are they thinking
This will help you block out your scene in a visual manner. You won’t necessarily use all these in one scene, but it will help you choose which visuals do fit in with the scene. And I’m not saying that a character crossing the room needs to feel the carpet beneath his feet, stoke the fire roaring in the fireplace, blah, blah, blah. That’s overwriting – and a whole other blog post.
Visual writing/style is vital to writing, in my opinion. It’s the equivalent of the beagle’s margaritas minus the tequila and half can of beer. Yah, it’s that important.