Seeing is Believing

During May our bloggers will be taking a look at those essential components of expressive writing – the five senses.

Whether it’s a descriptive passage, a nature poem, a travel article or a fictional scene, there’s nothing quite like capturing the look, the feel, the sound, the smell, and even the taste of the place (and who and what are in it) to create atmosphere, enrich our writing and bring the whole thing vividly to life!

We kick off with VIV HAMPSHIRE talking about the sense of SIGHT

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The one sense I would least like to lose is my sight. Much as I enjoy listening to music, hearing the birds sing and chatting to friends on the phone, I think I could just about cope with going deaf. Not being able to taste or smell my food would be sad but not devastating, and I’m not sure how losing the sense of touch is even possible, but not being able to see is almost unimaginable and would, for me, be utterly unbearable.

I make judgements about people’s character and mood from the expressions on their faces. I notice their body language just as much as the words they say. I love colours, flowers, reading and writing, solving crosswords, the independence of just hopping on a train or walking about town by myself gazing into shop windows…  Yes, there would be ways round it, I suppose, if all that visual stimulation suddenly disappeared from my life. I could run my fingers over the faces of those who’d let me, breathe in the scent of the flowers, listen to audio-books, dictate my stories into a machine, get someone to read out crossword clues to me and lead me around by the hand, and I would always have my memories to fall back on… but somehow it just wouldn’t be the same.

I absorb information using my eyes. Tell me how to do something and it will probably go in one ear and out the other, but let me see it for myself and I will understand and remember it. It’s what’s known, in the educational world, as being a ‘visual’ learner. A similar process goes on in my head when I’m reading, and especially when I’m reading fiction. If the author is able to describe the scene in all its pictorial glory, from the interwoven colours of the sky to the rolling shapes of the hills, and show me the main character in words that encapsulate everything from the sweeping flow of her hair in the wind to the delicacy of the tiny lace stitches on her collar, then I will be able not only to picture it all in my ‘mind’s eye’ but to throw myself instantly into that fictional world and believe in it absolutely.

Many writers just don’t seem to have the knack. I often find when I’m already well into reading a novel that I still haven’t been told the colour of the heroine’s hair. Once I didn’t even know she was black until about halfway in! Or I realise that, although the short story I’m reading is set in someone’s kitchen, I have been given no information at all about the décor. Some readers might say that it doesn’t matter, but it does to me. How can I picture the scene? It’s like having to solve a crossword without being given the clues. Thank heavens for the illustrators, I say! It has been said that a picture can paint a thousand words and, without their input on a novel’s cover or at the top of a magazine page, it would sometimes be almost impossible to imagine the ‘who, what and where’ from reading the words alone!

But there are some writers who manage to get it exactly right, conjuring up a vibrant snapshot of a character, mood or place, through the use of simile, metaphor or just a few incredibly well-chosen words. Here are some of my favourite visual descriptions, old and new:

 Her skin was scarred like a weather-cracked apple. (H.E. Bates)

 She opened her eyes, and green they shone, clear like flowers undone for the first time. (D.H. Lawrence)

 She had a meagre bit of hair plaited up so tight it pulled her eyes sideways. (Helen Dunmore)

 Gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. (Emily Bronte)

 The whole city is blushing, her buildings ruddy with shock. The canal is molten. The water, reflected on the houses, dances on the brickwork. The windows are on fire. (Deborah Moggach)

 An oak desk suggested permanence, the mahogany cabinet gave confidence. The chairs danced teak to teak. (Roger McGough)

The bridge holding between stone fingers her cold bright necklace of pearls. (Leonard Cohen)

Join us again on 7th May for more from the magical world of the senses, when Elaine Everest will be talking about SOUND

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5 thoughts on “Seeing is Believing

  1. Thought-provoking. The human mind is amazing in helping the body to adjust to and compensate for traumatic change. The blind intuit and perceive the world differently from the sighted, drawing the essential from another bank as it were. I am one of those who doesn’t need a great deal of a character’s outward appearance. Just an outline will do unless the details are integral to the story. In reading I make a contract with the author to complete her work and make it whole. To me it’s a joy of discovery. I don’t want to know what’s in the gift box before I open it. I’m not dismissing all description, just the non-essential. I’m happy to supply the extra brush strokes should they be needed.

  2. A very comprehensive post, Viv, and I love your quotes, particularly “The bridge holding between stone fingers her cold bright necklace of pearls”. However I’m at one with Moya in wanting to fill in the details myself. It’s essential to give an outline, a certain amount of information, to one’s readers but I think they must also be given some credit with regard to their own imagination. Too much information can be as bad as too little. When I write I always have a picture of my characters in my head and as long as a few details are provided the reader will create his or her own personal image.
    Having said that, I recently saw a photo of someone I’ve been corresponding with for some time and the shock of finding out that she looked nothing like I’d seen her in my head was quite astounding – and difficult to adjust to.

    • Yes, I do agree. I certainly don’t want TOO much description, but enough to help me picture the character the writer has created, not one so of my own imagination that there comes that shock Natalie describes when you realise how wrong you have been! My example of the black character I had imagined as white is a fair example, I think. We need to be told enough not to be way off the mark, but left a few tantalising blanks to fill in for ourselves. Just a few words can say so much – as I hope my examples prove!

  3. Viv, I really enjoyed this piece, very thought provoking. Sight is a very precious commodity and one we all take for granted. I get a small glimpse of what it would be like to lose it when I remove my glasses and agree it must be one of the worst senses to lose.

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