You know how it is, when you’re reading a really good book, you become so immersed in the story that you forget you’re reading? It’s like you’re inside the story, experiencing its events vicariously and viscerally — your body tensing and heart pounding during suspenseful moments, or tearing up when the character loses someone close to them.
This happens when the author has included enough details for us to so fully visualize what is happening that the scenes seem to come alive in our imagination. Good writers paint vivid pictures with their words, and then readers re-create those pictures in their minds, filling in any gaps with their own experiences as they read.
For writers, this complete engagement by readers is the ultimate test of our craft. To me, one of the highest compliments a reader can give is to say, “I was so engrossed, I couldn’t put your book down.”
This kind of writing does not happen by accident. If you want to completely engage your readers, you need to invest time and energy into writing vivid scenes. And to accomplish this, you need to be able to clearly visualize the scenes in your mind.
All art is about visualization. A photographer must visualize how her subject will appear in the frame — consider composition, lighting, and color — plan appropriately, and then take the photo at just the right time and from the right angle to bring her visualization to life. A painter must imagine the forms and colors, how to represent light and dark, on the canvas before picking up his brush.
The same is true of writers. In order to write a scene well, we must visualize exactly how we want it to appear in our readers’ minds.
What do I mean by visualization?
I mean going into your mind’s eye and remembering (or imagining, if you’re writing fiction) the specific sensory details of the setting, characters, actions, and so on. You need to include what you see, hear, smell, taste, feel on and within your body. Your mind’s eye is like a multi-sensory camera that can move in so close you can see the pores on your character’s skin, see the tears forming in the corners of her eye, feel the wetness on her cheek; or you can pull the camera back and view the scene as from above, hear the wind howling the trees, hear the crack of lightning in the distance. The details you discern are different, depending upon whether you are close or at a distance.
As an exercise, I often ask my students to sketch a map of the setting they’re writing. It’s always amazing how many details emerge in this process they thought they’d forgotten.
Why is visualization important for writing?
When you write, your scene is your subject. You have to study it from up close and far away, examine it under different lighting and in different weather, view it from different perspectives and in different situations until you have a clear image of it — the place, the character, and all its events — in your mind.
You have to go inward to visualize, and that means closing your eyes and transporting yourself into the scene you’re writing. You can’t just see it; you have to BE there. (It can help to breathe slowly and deeply, calming your body and entering into a kind of dream state.)The more fully you conjure it in your imagination, the more successful you will be at writing a scene that is rich in detail. Click To Tweet
First, you need to visualize the setting. If you’re writing memoir, that means remembering it in as much vivid detail as possible. Without setting there is no scene. Events don’t take place in a void. They take place in . . . well . . . a place. Your scene’s setting contributes to the atmosphere, the mood, and affects the actions of the characters, as well as how the readers imagine what happens within it.
Once you have the setting firmly in mind, imagine it from the perspective of every character that inhabits it.
Visualize the characters, the conversation, the smells and sights and sounds of the place and the people in it. The more fully you conjure it in your imagination, the more successful you will be at writing a scene that is rich in detail. A scene that will fully engage your readers.
At this point, if you’re saying to yourself, “I’m not good at that.” Or, “I don’t know how to visualize,” let me reassure you that this is something that everyone can do. You did it when you were a child playing pretend games of “house” and “school” and going on imaginary adventures. Perhaps as an adult you’re just out of practice, and so you need to exercise your “visualization muscle,” so to speak. You need to learn how to play pretend again.
- Before visualizing: In a paragraph or two, write about your first memory.
- Then, close your eyes, take a few deep, slow breaths until you feel your body calming, and in your imagination travel back in time to that moment.
- Look around in your mind’s eye. Where were you? Who was with you? What was happening around you?
- Go deeper in your imagination. What was the weather like? What were you wearing? Smells? Sounds? The taste in your mouth? The feeling on your skin? What were you feeling emotionally?
- Was there conversation? Who said what? What did their voices sound like? What were their mannerisms as they spoke?
- Now, open your eyes and rewrite the memory based on everything you just experienced (visualized) in your mind.
- Read both versions of your memory. Which version seems more present, more alive and real? (I’m going out on a limb here and say that it’s going to be the 2nd one.)
Visualization is an important skill for all writers to develop, but especially for memoir writers, because you have to engage the imagination to reawaken the sensory experiences of remembered events.
Including those sensory details in your prose will truly make your scenes come alive.