I remember once when I was sitting at home with my oldest son, (he was eight at the time), and he snapped at me, “Why do you keep laughing?”
We were supposed to be enjoying silent reading time, or perhaps I was enjoying it a little too much because I couldn’t stop laughing out loud at a particularly interesting scene.
I totally empathized with his snippy reaction and didn’t snap back. When you’re a reading teacher to young children, the struggles they encounter and the achievements they share are beautiful to behold. A good teacher models how to interact with text. As a mother, this should be no less important.
“This is a really funny scene,” I told him. I explained to him that there were bad men that were trying to hurt one of the good main characters and they probably weren’t expecting her to react in the creative way that she did.
He hopped from the couch and planted himself beside me. “Mom, there’s no pictures on the pages of YOUR book!”
I explained to him that readers must create mental images in their minds as they read in order to better comprehend the words provided by the writer.
He wrinkled his brow, clearly suspicious and wondering if I had gone mad? Nah, just kidding. Although he did side-eye me, I explained to him some of the word choices the author used that directed my own pictures.
Of course, I didn’t share everything about that scene. He was eight and it wasn’t appropriate.
Years later, I still break into a chuckle thinking about the scene. The jarring irony cracks me up for the fact that one of the main characters in the book is an incredibly reserved, book-smart aristocrat. In this hilarious and violent scene, she’s able to fight off her abductors with a boiling teapot (oh so fittingly British, after all the novel takes place in Regency-era Great Brian) and a frying pan. As I read in my head, my mind’s eye created a fully-fleshed out movie in vibrant color, sound, and smell. I could even hear the snarls and yells (like music to my ears) when her abductors received burns and caught iron to their faces. They probably assumed that because she’s a “lady” that they didn’t have to catch those hands.
Glorious! I didn’t see that coming! 🙂
I laughed because of the utter and delightful humor the author graciously slipped in this bloody good British fighting scene. Also, this was the first time I had the pleasure of witnessing this particular character acting so “Mary Mary Quite Contrary”.
Reading and writing are really fascinating. What’s even more fascinating is how the human mind interacts in response. It’s amazing how a mere word combined with other words has the ability to inspire, depress, persuade, entertain, etc. In most books, especially fiction it’s the writer’s job to gift their readers with clues and descriptions that aid them in their literary journey found within the pages of the book they are reading.
It’s like once you’ve opened the book, you and the author are inexplicably linked (pun intended).
Basically, if an author describes a red pumpkin, its flesh carved to resemble a devilish Jack-O-Lantern sprouting banana-looking legs baring razor-sharp teeth, that image (no matter how weirdly nightmarish) should indeed POP into your “mind”.
So, let’s revisit one of my former students who, like my own kids, is also an awesome kiddo. In a previous post, I shared his experience on how he struggled with staying engaged while reading books because a lot of the time he felt lost and that his mind was simply . . . blank. He said that my descriptions in one of my middle grade novels helped him to “experience something” even though he was unable to actively picture it. That’s all well and good, but . . .
But of course there’s a caveat.
What about hyperphantasiac (is that even a word? well, it is now!) readers? What if especially vivid descriptions drive readers with hyperphantasia insane! In fact, one of my beta readers shared that critique with me. He said, “What’s with the description of that cheeseburger and milkshake? I enjoyed it, but it was almost overwhelming. I wanted a cheeseburger. It made me hungry! You need to do something about this.” His specific feedback gave me plenty of incentive to slice and dice.
That said, I must admit that during drafting time, I struggle with painting settings in my short stories. When I provide too little (discovered upon a second read) it’s almost as if my mind had supplied the missing parts. Weird. And then when I’ve provided too much, the detailed descriptions overwhelm the scene and the “Who cares” part of the plot is lost. Then there are other times when I’m so intimidated by the overwhelming images in my head that the desire to capture every lovely line and curious curve onto paper eclipses writing anything at all. Writing well is a matter of constant balance and to know what should remain . . . or go. And knowing is half the battle . . .
I own a plethora of books on anything from “clothing for every time period” to the “global history of narcotics”! My shelves are overflowing with resources! So, how does one distill all of these goodies into a scene? Page? Chapter?
It’s like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Sculpting a scene for readers must be “just right”. I will try to share tips on how to do that in a future post.
Until next time!