Rosanne Dingli

Rosanne Dingli

Monday, April 25, 2011

Authors and the visual arts

Pic courtesy Timothy's sketchpad
Writing classes often advise emerging authors to give a lot of attention to all the senses. 'Include smells,' they say. 'Include textures and sounds. Mention the taste of things.' These tutors are right. Humans have five senses, and use them constantly, whether they are aware of the fact or not. Writing needs to suggest real life.

Beginning writers need to take care with this aspect of writing, however: bombarding the reader with every single sensory notion in every scene, or giving too much information about a character's experience of one, can have an off-putting effect. Are you sure your reader wants to know what every scene smells or sounds like? It can be over-kill to compare noises and aromas continually. It is much more effective to mention these things occasionally, and with a lot of thought and planning.

Humans are, after all, very visual - and what they do while they read is build a mental 'picture' of what the author suggests. It is rarely a mental noise, or a mental smell! And this is where the literary arts have a similarity to visual arts such as photography or painting. Such artists suggest mental imagery that prompts the reader's own store of memories and experiences. Words are as powerful as pictures in suggesting emotions such as fear, joy and exhilaration, and a few words are enough, just as a few strokes of charcoal in a sketch or a vague black and white photograph are sometimes enough to provoke a whole flood of memories.

A bleak landscape, a family group ... they are images we all have in our heads, but they are not all necessarily identical. Reading a book, we tend to like suggestions much more than literal and minute descriptions, so that we can fill in the picture with our own imagination. A reader's own thoughts play a very important part in the activity of taking in a novel, just as they do when they see a sketchy rendition of something that looks vaguely familiar.

The role of the author must be understood in this relationship between one who creates a story and the receptor of that narrative. It is a kind of dance, where one leads, but occasionally stands back to allow the other a very personal space in which to conjure pictures of their own.

Is this why reading is so satisfying? Readers often say they prefer the book to the movie that follows. Is it because the movie is not their own visualization, but that of the director?

Let me know what you think - how you like sensory aspects in what you read. If you are a writer, tell me how much prompting you feel your readers need to conjure a scene you create for them in their minds. Tell me whether you feel there is some sense in calling writing a visual art.
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  1. I agree abrolutely, Rosanne. I too usually prefer book to films, because there is some leeway for my own imagination.

    As for caring about the details of smell and taste, it frequently irritates me, because you can 'see' the author counting out the various senses in an artificial way.

    Just get on with the story!

  2. Experts say smell is the most evocative of all the senses for triggering memories but it needs to be be used sensibly, not in a forced way.
    I think we've all had cases where we've seen a film from a book and thought - that's not what the characters look like!Reading allows for the imagination to come into play.

  3. Interesting thoughts, Rosanne. I tend to perceive the world around me very visually so that is the sense I use most in my writing. When I get to the editing stage though I find scenes that for some reason don't come to life can be sparked by a judicious - less is more approach - sprinkling of other sensory information.

  4. Nice article, Rosanne. I believe including too much sensory description in some scenes can come across as forced and boring, yet other scenes demand it. Often, the climactic scene begs the use of multiple senses to get across the character's depth of interaction with the action and the environment. Say, for example, someone is facing a life or death moment. It's very true that things slow way down and we become aware of everything - so much so, that certain smells or sounds or tastes can actually bring back the fear of that moment for the rest of our lives. This is true with other critical moments - whether good, scary, funny or deeply moving.

    As you say, writers must be aware of what suits each situation. I believe too much description of any kind if used in the wrong places will inevitably make readers stop reading. :-)