There is a justly famous art theory book called Drawing On The Right Side Of Your Brain by artist and educator Betty Edwards. While my art skills are not particularly impressive, I found this book fascinating and have managed to apply one of the central concepts to my writing.
Edwards speaks of the tendency, when drawing, to sketch out what you think, rather than what you see. One of the examples that she used was in drawing hair. People know that hair is composed of individual strands and so that is what they draw. However the visual experience of hair is that it can look like something very different, a fluid or a translucent solid or thick ropes.
Many of the book’s exercises involve learning to see things as if you don’t know what they are–discarding the conceptual symbol that our left brains want to put in place of the sensory experience of our right brains. (Scott McCloud’s extraordinary Understanding Comics covers much of the same ground from a somewhat different perspective.)
Rather than drawing “hair”, Edwards encourages artists to look just at the line and color and texture of that thing that is in front of our eyes. Let the viewer see through your eyes, she or he will decide that it’s hair.
That’s a technique that I try to bring to my writing. As a shorthand for talking about my books I refer to a “battle scene” or a “love scene” or “that scene were everybody just sits around and talks some more”, but while I am writing I make a serious effort not to think that way.
Instead I ask myself, how would I describe a fight if I didn’t know what a fight was? What actually happens–who does what to whom, and how does it look, what does it sound like, how does it smell? This is–I think–what people mean by “show, don’t tell.”
It’s very freeing, actually. Instead of thinking, “what kind of scene happens next” and then feeling forced to pick from a handful of options I simply ask myself, “what would I see next?” Maybe someone throws a punch, but that doesn’t mean that I am locked into x number of words of people fighting–sometimes the situation doesn’t escalate into a full fledged brawl. Maybe my characters kiss, and then back away without taking off their clothes.
I think that the conceptual symbols in prose can be as limiting as the conceptual symbols in the graphic arts. That’s what people mean when they ask, “how do I write a fight scene?” or “how do I write a sex scene?”–they want a set of symbols to put into their book. Instead, I try to concentrate on describing what the reader would experience if she or he was standing in my character’s shoes.
I’ll just tell you what happened. You can decide what it was.