Has this ever happened to you? You’re writing an exciting scene between two people, but when one of your characters stares at the other — you realize — you can’t picture that person at all.
Or have you ever written a character in a room, and it’s just a generic room and none of the details are popping up, so you end up listing off furniture?
Being vague in your writing is sometimes effective, it lets your reader fill in the gaps. However, there are other times when your lack of specifics can cause confusion or make the reading experience less visceral. If a reader is picking up your book to be transported to another world or to be immersed in a story, you can’t just describe a room as a room or a person with, you know, eyes, brown eyes.
This is a problem I struggle with as a writer because I have two weaknesses that cause me to falter.
The first weakness is that, often, I’m unable to picture the complete image in my head. A severe case of this is known as aphantasia. People with aphantasia aren’t able to create a mental picture.
While you’re imagining your story, you might find your mind blind to certain visuals. This is a paralyzing feeling. A common symptom of aphantasia is not being able to recognize someone’s face, even though you recognize the person’s name. This sometimes happens while you’re writing. You have a character, but you’re unable to imagine a face for this fictional person. In summary, don’t ever ask me to describe someone for a police sketch.
The second weakness that causes my writing to suffer is that I lack the vocabulary to fully describe a person, place, or thing. What colour is to a painter, vocabulary is to a writer. The more words you know the more colours you can add to your story.
For example, describing a flower as red is not as powerful or specific as describing the flower as vermillion.
But it goes beyond colour. Describing someone as decrepit is more powerful than just calling someone old.
Now that I understand my problems and weaknesses, how do I go about fixing these issues and improving?
Well, when I’m writing the first draft, I don’t even worry about these details. I don’t let the eye color of the characters or the layout of a room or the details of a Chekov gun slow me down from getting the story on paper first.
After I’ve completed my second or third draft and once I’m confident that the story structure is strong and there is a satisfying ending, that’s when I turn my attention to the details. Once I have the sketch figured out, that’s when I’ll apply the colour.
But, as I mentioned, this is the part I have trouble with. I have not figured out a fool-proof solution, however, I have found a few techniques to help me battle through my lack of mental images and limited vocabulary.
The first thing I do is what many artists do — I find references.
If I’m writing a character, I pretend I’m a casting agent and find photographs of people, usually actors, models, or celebrities of some sort. If I need to describe the way the character looks, I’ll reference these photos to make sure that the image of this character is consistent the whole way through.
If I’m creating a setting, I’d go to a location similar to the one in my story to get a sense of how it feels. If I can’t travel to such a location, because well, I write dystopian fantasy, I’d find pictures on Google to show me what that place looks like. It won’t be the full experience, but once I can see it in my mind, my imagination can take over from there.
I also find concept artists that are creating illustrations that match the mood, tone, and imagery I want to create with my words. I will then write descriptions about that piece. This method allows me to construct the details separately and then transfer them to the project I’m working on.
As for increasing your vocabulary, there’s no quick solution. Learning a new word is like turning on a dimmer switch, not flicking on a light. You need to encounter a word over and over again until it sticks in your head. The best way to increase your exposure is to write down any new words that you are unfamiliar with, read the definition, and begin incorporating them into your own writing. Don’t wait to see it out in the world again. If it’s a unique word it could take months and years before you encounter it again. Use it often so you become more and more familiar.
Reading is the best way to find new words. But it is your job to admit that you don’t know them. Don’t just scan past them. Stop and mark them down. I like reading on a Kindle because I don’t even need to pull out the dictionary. All I need to do is hover over a word and I get a definition of it. Then the word is added to a dictionary for me to reference.
As a challenge, for each writing session, incorporate one unfamiliar word, a word that you didn’t know before you started. It’ll go a long way to growing your vocabulary. But learning new words is not something you should rush, for the risk of using them incorrectly.
A vague description of a character, an item, or a setting makes for a dull reading experience. It’s your job as a writer to immerse your readers in a story. When the moment calls for it, make sure you can give them the details they need to visualize the scene clearly in their heads.
We all have strengths and weaknesses as creatives, and not being able to fully visualize a whole world in your head is something most of us normal people struggle with, not only people with aphantasia. So don’t be so hard on yourself. Identify your weaknesses and slowly strengthen them.
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