In this day and age, with all the tablets, HD TVs, iPads, Imax screens, and e-readers, it seems the world has become an entirely visual place. High-definition in visual (and sound) has come to be expected. How does this explosion of technology affect what we write for our reading audiences?|
Research in the sciences has shown us that approximately 60% of readers are primarily visual readers. In other words, they respond extraordinarily well to visual cues, and they - quite literally - visualize the events and scenes described by a writer. You'll hear these folks say, "I could see it perfectly in my mind's eye," or "I saw it like a movie in my head."
If a writer were to completely omit visual description, then visual readers would feel the lack and not enjoy the reading experience. At first, they might not be able to explain what was missing, but eventually they *will* determine that there is something not there, and they're less likely to read that author in the future.
However, too much of a good thing causes problems as well.
Different Ways of Learning, Different Intelligences
According to Harvard professor and psychologist Howard Gardner (in his book Multiple Intelligences), there are nine types of intelligence:
· Visual-spatial - visualizing in your mind's eye
· Verbal-linguistic - adeptness with words and languages
· Logical-mathematical - using math abilities and reasoning, logic, and abstract thinking as well
· Bodily-kinesthetic - hands-on movement-oriented learning
· Musical-rhythmic - aural capabilities enhanced by sound and rhythm
· Interpersonal - learning in a group by discussion and experimentation
· Intrapersonal - learning independently using intuition, feeling, and one's own understanding of the world
· Naturalistic - taking in data and information within nature-oriented surroundings
· Existential - focused on philosophy of life/living and all the questions that have to do with existing
Most people take in information using a combination of several of these styles, but it's not a mistake that they're ordered the way they are. Visual-spatial and Verbal-linguistic definitely lead the pack.
So how many of these nine areas can you include in your writing in order to appeal to the intelligence styles of the widest audience? It's possible to appeal to more than the visual and verbal by the way we structure our books and use description. If your book is plotted and structured well, it will appeal to the Logical-mathematical types. Action scenes and pacing appeal to those with Bodily-kinesthetic skills. And your word choices and combinations can have a nice rhythm and "sound" to the Musical-rhythmic.
But above all, your judicious and effective use of description is going to have the most impact on your readers, and that means you need to appeal to the senses.
What Appeals to Readers
Accommodating different readers' styles and intelligences can only be done when we use sensory detail in a variety of ways. Overusing the visual is a trap. But how does that look on the page?
Over the years, as I've taught students, judged contests, edited novels, and written my own stories and novels, I've come up with general thumbnail advice about the percentage of use for the senses:
· Sight - 40-50%
(Note: I know the percentages add up to more than 100%, but the usage of each has a range that depends upon the author's style and the type of book.)
· Hearing/Aural - 20-30%
· Touch/Texture - 15-25%
· Smell - 10-20%
· Taste - 10-20%
· Extra-sensory/Intuition - 0-15%
What do these percentages mean? I believe description that includes more than 50% in visual cues is too much. The visual is a very important sense that simply must be present, but the other senses are critical as well. Writers often include hearing, but touch, smell, and taste are regularly omitted or used minimally.
If a writer overdoes visual details, then touch, smell, auditory, and taste descriptions need to be beefed up. Overusing visual has the effect of making a story seem like the author has only skimmed the surface - as if s/he was watching TV and reporting only what can be seen on the screen. Deeper characterization, scene-setting, and world-building, of course, require the use of all senses in a nice balance. That balance is going to be a bit different for every writer - hence, the percentage ranges above.
If we list the learning styles/intelligences and think about the kind of descriptions and language that would appeal most to various readers, it would look like this:
|Type of Intelligence
|| Sensory Details That Most Appeal
||Visual, Aural, Touch/Texture, Smell, Taste, Extra-sensory/Intuition
||Touch/Texture, Smell, Taste
||Visual, Aural, Touch/Texture
||Visual, Aural, Touch/Texture, Smell, Taste
||Visual, Aural, Touch/Texture, Smell, Taste, Extra-sensory/Intuition
Two-thirds of these intelligences benefit from the visual, but what about the other third that doesn't?
How many times have you heard someone say, "I don't read much. I'm a hands-on person, and reading doesn't appeal to me very often." I would argue that those who make that claim are bodily-kinesthetic learners, and their imaginations aren't engaged by narratives that are largely visual. They need to be able to imagine bodily sensations, textures, and smell and taste.
The same goes for those who are musical-rhythmic. It may be that they're listening to music and reading poetry more than diving into novels. Perhaps if each writer included more of the other senses, the musical-rhythmic learners would be drawn in.
Lastly, there are the intrapersonal types who I suspect are reading paranormal works at a higher percentage than other types of writing because of the extra-sensory elements. Paranormal writing requires a good grounding in all the senses or they don't appeal to those seeking an emotional experience. Read anything by Stephen King or Dean Koontz and spend some time highlighting their use of the sensory and extra-sensory in their books. Their ability to appeal to so many types of intelligences is part of what has made them masters in the areas of horror and suspense.
Ways to Emphasize More than the Visual
When we read, our minds and imaginations grow quickly tired of abstractions, and in many cases, the visual is far too abstract. For example:
A maroon-colored curtain opened to reveal a wooden chair in the middle of the wide stage. A man stood in front of the chair. He wore a yellow shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. When he finally looked up, his eyes were wild.
Every bit of this is flat telling. You can get by with this kind of exposition for a short while, but soon it needs to be followed by some action and sensory detail or many readers will zone out.
I can think of two major ways to liven this up and appeal to more readers:
1. Simply include more sensory detail than just visual description:
A maroon-colored curtain made a whisking noise as it opened, and a faint billowing of dust came off the curtain as someone backstage pulled on the cords. A wooden chair, the legs deeply scratched, sat in the middle of the wide stage. A man stood in front of the chair, a human manikin frozen in place. He wore a yellow shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. When he finally looked up, his eyes were wild.
2. Or the writer could go one step further and include a person through whom to filter the description, in which case the details become even richer because we feel the bodily sensations WITH her:
A maroon-colored curtain made a whisking noise (aural) as it lurched open (kinesthetic/touch), and a faint billowing of dust came off the curtain as someone backstage pulled on the cords (kinesthetic/touch). A wooden chair, the legs deeply scratched, (touch/texture) sat in the middle of the wide stage. A man stood in front of the chair, a human manikin frozen in place (touch/texture). He wore a yellow shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. When he finally looked up, his eyes were wild.
A maroon-colored curtain made a whisking noise as it lurched open. Janelle saw a faint billowing of dust come off the curtain as someone backstage pulled on the cords. She resisted the urge to sneeze. A wooden chair, the legs deeply scratched, sat in the middle of the wide stage. A man stood in front of the chair, a human manikin frozen in place. He wore a yellow shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes and reminded Janelle of someone she hated, a boyfriend who'd once slapped her so hard that she'd worn a hot handprint on her cheek for hours. When the man onstage finally lifted his head, his eyes were wild. Her mouth went dry as his gaze seemed to burn through her.
You will notice that including sensory details (and the metaphor as well) make for a longer description. Fiction requires objective details (concrete facts), but subjective details are what make the piece come alive because they provide the reader with feelings and sensory experience, and those details will take up a bit more space.
A maroon-colored curtain made a whisking noise (aural) as it lurched open (kinesthetic/touch). Janelle saw a faint billowing of dust come off the curtain as someone backstage pulled on the cords (kinesthetic/touch). She resisted the urge to sneeze (smell-related). A wooden chair, the legs deeply scratched, (touch/texture) sat in the middle of the wide stage. A man stood in front of the chair, a human manikin (metaphor) frozen in place (spatial/touch/texture). He wore a yellow shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes and reminded Janelle of someone she hated, a boyfriend who'd once slapped her (spatial/touch/texture) so hard that she'd worn a hot handprint (spatial/touch/texture) on her cheek for hours. When the man onstage finally lifted his head, his eyes were wild. Her mouth went dry (taste) as his gaze seemed to burn (spatial/touch/texture) through her.
Omitting Visual Clues
Is it possible to omit the visual completely? A writer can get away with almost no visual cues and include a very intellectual process of description only in certain types of "literature," but I think that writing would come off as experimental and read oddly. Even a blind writer will need to include visual description, or run the risk of not selling the book because the agent, the publisher, and/or the reader will instinctively know something is missing. Even people who have been blind from birth have an entire lifetime of experience with visual description - both giving it and receiving it. They've had to figure out ways to make sense of the visual all their lives because 97% of the people around them are sighted. A sight-impaired writer still will have to rely on visual detail and description because visual detail is essential to all writing and expected by all readers.
An example: A sleuth walks into the room where a man has been bludgeoned to death. How is the corpse resting? What do the wounds look like? How does the blood pooling around his head look? What clues surround the body? There may be smells to describe, but the crime scene techs and the cops are not going to let the sleuth touch or taste the corpse and the items in the room. There's no issue with hearing anything because the guy's dead and not making a sound. You can filter many sensory details through the sleuth, but much of that will come via the one major sense the character will rely upon: the visual. Even if you have some other character describe the room to the sleuth, you're primarily in the realm of the visual.
Another example: You're writing a love scene and the lovers are getting hot and heavy with one another. If you stick with visual description, it very quickly drags:
Lola kissed Susie. Susie returned her kiss with passion and rubbed Lola's back with questing fingers. Lola began to feel almost faint with excitement and stepped back, pulling Susie on top of her on the bed. Lola looked into her girlfriend's eyes, amazed at what she saw there, as she reached to caress Susie's breast...
Blah, blah, blah… We're watching the scene - seeing it in our minds' eyes - and it reads flat. Boring. Also a little voyeuristic. Soon enough we can expect Slot A and Tab B. We've also got body parts (questing fingers) seeming to act of their own accord.
The description needs less abstraction, less visual blow by blow, and a whole lot more texture/touch, taste, and smell. I know that love scenes are a dime a dozen and that you almost can't help but be derivative, but the scene will read much better if this is rewritten as I suggested above: 1) by including more than the visual; and 2) by filtering the sensory more effectively through one of the characters:
Lola kissed Susie. With her eyes closed, the scent of Susie's perfume seemed stronger, and the taste of her mouth reminded Lola of strawberries and cream. Susie returned the kiss with a moan. She rubbed Lola's back, her fingers sending little shots of pleasure to Lola's groin. Breathless and faint with excitement, Lola stepped back, pulling Susie on top of her on the bed. Her girlfriend's weight settled upon her, firm, solid, her skin molded so perfectly into Lola's curves. She looked into Susie's eyes, amazed at the intensity she saw there. She reached to caress Susie's breast...
As is apparent in the previous examples, the love scene ends up nearly doubling in length, but that's necessary to provide enough sensory touchstones to appeal to a wide variety of readers.
Lola kissed Susie. With her eyes closed (reverse visual), the scent (smell) of Susie's perfume seemed stronger, and the taste of her mouth reminded Lola of strawberries and cream (taste). Susie returned the kiss with a moan (hearing). She rubbed Lola's back (kinesthetic/touch), her fingers sending little shots of pleasure (touch) to Lola's groin. Breathless and faint (touch/bodily sensation) with excitement, Lola stepped back, pulling Susie on top of her on the bed. Her girlfriend's weight settled upon her, firm, solid, (touch/texture) her hot skin molded so perfectly into Lola's curves (touch/texture). She looked into Susie's eyes, amazed at the intensity she saw there. She reached to caress Susie's breast...
Final Notes and Recommendations
To offset the tendency of the visual to be flat and boring, start injecting other senses wherever you can. You'll be surprised at how much your writing will sparkle.
If you want to learn more about writing description and detail, I highly recommend these two books:
Word Painting: A Guide to Write More Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan
Description & Setting: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Believable World of People, Places, and Events by Ron Rozelle
© 2011 Lori L. Lake
From her untitled book about writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. Lori can be reached at Lori@LoriLLake.com and welcomes questions and comments.