March 24, 2019

Painting Pictures With Words

This is a new thing for me. What I mean when I say a "new thing" is writing a blog post without using any inline images. Normally, I will break up a post here and there with either an image or a video or possibly some text formatting in order to give the piece a bit of shape.

Not today.

I'm taking a bit of risk with this. I get some fairly decent traffic, but it's still not enough to make a living on, so the desire for me to pretty this up with flashy images is high. I'm a writer, though, and pictures, for the most part, are not part of my standard operating procedures.

There's the old adage, "A picture is worth a thousand words," and it's true. In fact, in 2011 I started a project where I would post a picture and people would submit a 100-word paragraph to me about it and I would stitch ten of them together to make a thousand-word essay about it. It was a cool exercise and it helped me get a sense of what words come to people's minds when they see an image. I found this quite relevant seeing that, as a writer, I'm responsible for performing that same act—only in reverse.

It's not an easy task.

Certainly, there are other ways to consume the written word besides reading them. There are many folks who enjoy audiobooks, many more still who listen to podcasts (which are just people speaking words), and there are even those who use braille, which for me represents the holy grail of users who provide feedback. You see, the world is dominated by the sighted. Just about every interaction we have involves a visual component. We even use phrases like, "See it in your mind." Well, what about those who have never seen anything? How would my work resonate with them? Would it resonate at all?

I don't have any of my work translated into braille (that I am aware of) but I would like to see how that works out one of these days. For now, I've decided that a decent half-measure would be to write a post and keep it as simple as I can. Words and characters as they would appear in a novel, with paragraph breaks and sentence length—and strategically placed em dashes—my only tools for altering the visual structure of the piece.

How'm I doing?

A common problem with many writers both new and old... er... experienced, is purple prose. It's also often referred to as "flowery". When trying to paint a picture for the reader it's easy to slip into the habit of tossing in descriptor after descriptor like rice at a wedding (or rice and toast when seeing a performance of the Rocky Horror Picture Show).

"The woman glided across the sparkling marble floor, silently, on shimmering blue satin slippers as the brilliant midday sun shone through the only stain glass window in an otherwise gilded ceiling, which reflected the sunlight and sent it dancing throughout the room."

That might not be the best example, but you get the idea. When you try to dress up your text with a few fancy words, more than a few commas and end up telling the reader more things than you're showing them then you've got an issue. It's a constant struggle and when I am writing a novel it's always at the forefront of my mind. If I were to re-write that previous paragraph I'd go with something like this:

"The woman's slight frame combined with her satin slippers on the marble floor allowed her to move without sound. The midday sun shone through the stained glass window in the ceiling and it warmed her face. There were few shadows but that didn't mean there weren't places to hide. She tilted her head using small movements to improve her chances of picking up the sound of anyone lurking unseen in the nooks and crannies of the vast cathedral."

I think that's much better. Certainly not award-winning narrative, but you can see the difference, yes? In the second paragraph, we've learned much more about the character and the story than in the first one. She's moving without sound on purpose. We know she's in a church. We know it's a bright, sunny day. I don't know about you but I want to know more. Why is she walking quietly in a seemingly empty cathedral, but concerned that it isn't empty, in the middle of the day? There's more to this story and hopefully, it's written in such a way that the reader will want to find out more.

Question:
If they each were the opening paragraph of a book, which one would you be more likely to continue to read? (And no, there isn't a third choice of "neither").

The job I've committed to is putting together collections of words that don't paint a picture for the reader but help them paint the picture with me as we move through the piece together. If I feed them too much description then I'm stifling their imagination. I give this advice to other writers about writing sex into non-romance books: Less is more. If you give someone enough to get the idea of what's happening their mind will fill in the blanks better than any of your words will be able to. But, sex sells, right? Sure it does, but that doesn't mean you need to spill all the dirty details in order for it to be effective. It doesn't take much to go from engaging to gratuitous and when that happens you risk losing your reader.

So, it's a delicate balance that the writer must strike when they sit down at the keyboard and start their journey. I have got to tell you, though, when it works, when you get in that zone and you can close your eyes and let the visions in your head flow through your hands onto the page, there are precious few feelings as good. It's in those moments you're most likely to have painted a picture with your words and brought something into the world, not just for people to read, but for people to experience.



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