Now you see it, now you don’t by Bill Kirton

A sky
A friend claims she doesn’t have a ‘strong visual sense’, and asked me how I create visual images for readers. It’s an interesting challenge and one I hadn’t thought of before. I write DVDs for training, safety and promotional purposes and the actual visuals there are obviously very important. But that’s not what she means. In those scripts, I call for real images and visual sequences – it’s not a question of conjuring them up in the text.

I’ve never read stuff about this, so I can’t offer theories – all I can do is stop and think of how I use visuals and what dictates the way I describe or convey them. And I think the answer to that is that I work backwards, starting from the reaction I have or a character has to what’s being seen. If it’s a beautiful scene, a sunset, the look of a lover’s hair or eyes – things like that – I try to imagine how I’d feel as I looked at it, then isolate and describe the aspects of it that provoked that particular response. In other words, the visual isn’t just a scene or setting, it has a function, it impacts on the characters or story.

If I write ‘The sky was blue,’ readers are justified in thinking, ‘It usually is,’ ‘So what?’ and other less polite things.

On the other hand, ‘The sky was a limitless, translucent
Another sky
dome, stretching its porcelain fragility over them, inviting them to dream,’ would make the reader slam the book shut and throw it as far away as possible. So I prefer linking what’s seen with what’s experienced, as in ‘The blue of the sky was an insult, made a mockery of the darkness within him.’ I’m not suggesting that’s any good, just trying to work out my approach to visuals.

I remember writing in The Darkness about the experience of being in total blackness – not just the lack of images when you close your eyes, because you still sense light through your lids, but the almost tangible absence of all light. I actually sat in a cupboard to experience it. (Does that make me a Method writer?) It makes you redefine yourself, rethink just about everything.

In The Figurehead, the visuals were part of my attempt to convey early 19th century Aberdeen, with its horses, square riggers, items of tradesmen’s equipment, stalls laden with slippery fish, and the general busy-ness around the harbour. But they all had to be linked with sounds and smells to create a textured experience. I suppose I’m saying that visuals, rather than being objective elements in a context, are inseparable from the story’s progression or the characters’ impulses.

A tree?
I’m probably remembering this wrongly, but I seem to think I read that Stendhal didn’t know the colour of Julien Sorel’s eyes because, as he said, ‘If you see the colour it means you’re looking at them, not through them.’ My sister-in-law once told me that what she missed from my books was indications of what the characters looked like. Since then, I’ve deliberately tried to include little asides about clothing or appearance, but it obviously doesn’t come naturally to me. I sort of feel that a straightforward description of what something looks like may well evoke the thing but it also introduces an observer (i.e. the writer.) As a result, it interferes with the narrative, where there should be no observer, simply the characters doing what they do.

And the more I try to examine how I use visuals, the less clear it is for me. So anyone else got any ideas about it?


JO said…
I begin by closing my eyes - which is an odd way to get at visuals - but the most striking thing comes to me in the dark, so that's what I write. The colour of the sky might be irrelevant, but the sough of wind in the trees, or twitter of a bird, or smell of smoke from a bonfire, so the work of all the descriptions for me.
Jan Needle said…
When I was studying English (subsidiary) at University, the lecturer said something like"The brilliance of Congreve is that he doesn't even feel the need to describe his characters. His writing is so powerful that when you read his plays, you see them in your head." As a drama student (Main subject) I pointed out that the characters were on the stage in real life. She was actually astonished. I don't think it had occurred, As an English lecturer, that plays were actually performed. Make of that, Bill, what you will!
I see everything I write constantly and clearly. It often gives me sleepless nights and bizarre dreams. I don't put it all into a novel, but I think it informs what I write. I suspect it's down to starting out as a playwright. I sometimes describe characters, but mostly that's through the eyes of other characters - how they perceive them and with a light touch. One of the big problems beginning playwrights have seems to be not to realise how visual the medium is and how it's their job - or one of them, anyway - to write what they see - to orchestrate, and to be aware of how something looks. And this even applies to radio. You can't write 'they fight' and hope for the best! When they were writing teachers' notes for my stage play Wormwood, still studied in some Scottish schools (it fits in well with environmental studies!) they rang me up and asked me deep questions about the meaning of one of the character's names. When I pointed out that since he is never named in the course of the play, and he could just as easily have been called Actor Number One from the point of view of the audience, it became clear that they too had never thought of the performance. And yet a play is an organic thing that changes every single time. I spent a lot of time on our school board banging on about kids not seeing plays in performance and yet studying them for a whole year without the most important visual dimension! Much food for thought and debate here, Bill - thanks for such an interesting post.
Lydia Bennet said…
Visuals, especially colours, are very important to me and I like writing which engages all the senses, without slowing down the pace or becoming waffle. As for characters, I've noticed that protagonists often have little described about their personalities or even their appearance apart from a couple of 'markers' - perhaps this makes it easier for some readers to identify with them? i've noticed this about children's books especially. eg harry potter has his scar and specs but most of the descriptions of him are about what he is, not who he is. We don't need to describe people too thoroughly.
Mari Biella said…
This is such an interesting question, Bill, and one I've never really given much thought to! Personally, I often find as I'm writing that the story gains flesh - and that includes the visual aspects. Often, at the beginning, people and places are quite sketchy in terms of what they look like. But gradually, as the story develops, so do they. They become clearer and more detailed in my mind, until at last I know them intimately. And, for me personally, they're always a vital part of the story as a whole. This approach can lead to some inconsistencies when I read the first draft back, which does increase the amount of editing I need to do, but it just seems to work for me.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, everyone, for such interesting responses.

Jo, I can see the value of closing one’s eyes. It frees the imagination so skies don’t have to be blue, and the wind in the trees can evoke shapes and colours inaccessible in the literal world.

Jan, one of the joys of lecturing back in the 70s and 80s was that a broad, cultural education was on offer. OK, there were plenty of those like your lecturer who’d lived so long in academia that they had no idea what reality was, but the rest of us were free to make associations outside the proscriptions of the syllabus. I could even make videos of the same Molière scene played as both comedy and tragedy. And Racine's characters suddenly became real people, struggling to live up to the elegance of the verse they were speaking. And all performed by students, whose subsequent textual analyses were far more interesting as a result.

Catherine, I enjoyed your fascinating insights into drama and the surprising blindness of some otherwise highly intelligent, cultured people when it comes to taking drama off the page and onto the stage (or, even more interestingly, the radio). Reading your comments makes me want to get back to writing plays again. As you say, it’s a literary form that’s never static and it’s fascinating to see one’s words take a different life with each production. I suppose that happens with readers, too, but we never experience that (unless they write a review).
My first radio play was a revelation for me. I heard an actor suggest a particular interpretation of his character to the producer and not only did the producer respond with a totally different one but I was lucky enough to get a review in the Times, where the critic offered yet another version. I’m not sure any of those readings had occurred to me when I was writing it but they were all legitimate.

Lydia, I think you’re right, as readers we need to be given the freedom to create our own image of the character. ‘Attractive’ to one person may evoke totally different visual traits than it does to another. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t particularly like seeing films or TV versions of books I’ve read and enjoyed. I’ve seen several Madame Bovarys but not one of them has looked liked the one I conceived when I first read the book aged 18 or so. On the other hand, if you asked me to describe my version of her, I couldn’t. Maybe visuals get in the way.

Mari, I’ve only read two of your books so far but in each, the precision of the psychological detail and the care you took with the changes going on in their minds gave a very powerful impression of who the character was and what they were becoming. As I reflect on them now, I’m not sure I know much about their appearance. But that’s not a criticism. I think, as you say, your ‘intimate’ knowledge of them means that you’re inside them looking out à la Stendhal. As for inconsistencies, academics have had a field day writing articles about how Emma Bovary’s eyes change colour 3 or 4 times in the course of the narrative.
Nick Green said…
I think you have to ask yourself why you are describing whatever it is you are describing. Is it to set the scene? Is it to ground your action in some recognisable reality? Is it to confound expectations? Or are you just showing off and painting pretty pictures? The 'why' will determine how you describe something in the physical world.

I tire of books that say things like 'she had brown hair' without this being relevant in any way (not even to illustrate how ordinary she is). If it's not important, we should leave it out.
Bill Kirton said…
I agree, Nick. That's perhaps why, when the friend posed the question, I didn't at first have an answer. It never occurs to me to want to paint a pretty picture unless it's relevant and has some purpose. On the other hand, there's no doubt that visuals can contribute significantly to atmosphere, mood and the rest. I had to read Bleak House at school and I can still quote bits from (I think) the great second paragraph about the fog.

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