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Seeing stories

During the holidays, I had an interesting discussion with jenny_moss about visualizing stories. It's something I've been meaning to write about for a while, so I thought it was about time. :)

I've always heard people talk about how they "see" stories as they read them, and gotten the impression that for many (most?) avid readers, while they're reading, a book plays out in their head almost like a movie. Which has always made me feel kind of deficient, because I don't "see" stories as I read them.

Occasionally, a very sharp description will give me an automatic image. But for the most part, all I have is a fairly blurry sense of what the characters look like and where they are, and all the rest is words. Sometimes, I make myself visualize a scene, because I'm getting confused as to where people and things are and how they're interacting, but that requires effort--it would be exhausting to try to read an entire book doing it. When I try to think of a single scene or moment in any story I've read that I do have a clear mental image of... Honestly, I can't do it. (I tried when I was talking with Jenny about this, and every time I thought I'd found one, I realized it was for a story that had illustrations, or that I'd see a movie version of, which is probably where the visual came from, rather than my imagination.)

What I do follow as I read, and remember afterward, seems to be mostly based on emotion. I'm very sensitive to how the characters are feeling and how the setting/events/etc. will affect them. The scenes I remember best after reading a book are usually the ones where the character was experiencing some strong emotion. I'd suspect this is why I have a hard time staying invested in a book when I can't at least partly connect with the viewpoint character, and why the only trilogies/series I tend to stick with are those with major characters I find particularly fascinating/involving (which is a post for another day).

I'm going to post later this week about how I think being a non-visual reader has affected my writing. For now, I'm curious to find out just how many people really are visual readers. If you have a second, please respond in the poll below. I'd be interested to hear your comments as well!

(Note: assume this refers to non-illustrated stories you have not seen movie or TV adaptations of)

Poll #1326387 Seeing Stories

To what extent do you "see" or automatically visualize a story as you're reading it?

I see the entire story play out as if it's a movie; I have clear mental images of all the characters and places.
I see the most important/exciting events; I have clear mental images of the major characters and places.
I have a visual impression of major events, characters, and places, but rarely anything detailed.
I have no visual sense of stories at all.
Some other variation I will explain in the comments.


( 31 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 6th, 2009 06:50 pm (UTC)
I can only picture things I know as I read. And descriptions from the writer help me out little. As I read and get to know a character I usually form my own mental image, but it's always in a dark room or cloudy world. It also only stays for that scene.

I skip a lot of descriptions when I'm reading because of this. My mind will only picture what it wants so all those details are just wasted words to me. I do better with authors that give me a basic image and let my imagination do it's own work.
Jan. 7th, 2009 02:18 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I've never been fond of long descriptions for similar reasons. And my mental pictures of characters are kind of like that... Mostly I have an impression of hair color and body shape, but their faces are blurs.
Jan. 6th, 2009 06:52 pm (UTC)
I voted for the second option. I am a slow reader and I see everything. What's weird though is that I'm not able to look at the main characters straight on. I don't see their whole bodies head to toe. Instead I will see through their eyes and, as my own eyes see myself, I only see the ends of their noses.
Jan. 6th, 2009 08:37 pm (UTC)
" . . . I only see the ends of their noses."

You are adorable, Jennifer. :)
(no subject) - megancrewe - Jan. 7th, 2009 02:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 6th, 2009 06:52 pm (UTC)
This is really interesting. And we are definitely different in this regard!I find my scenes are best, and the easiest to write, when I first take the time to close my eyes and visualize them as a movie. I go shot-to-shot in my head, pan and zoom as necessary, and rewind/redo until the "movie" is something I find exciting. Then I write a one-graf summary of it. And then I write the whole thing.

Perhaps I watch a leeeeeetle too much TV. :-)

I didn't even think about this before I read your post--but when I read, I get visual flashes in my head as I go. It might be a snapshot of a detail or a wide scene.

Jan. 7th, 2009 02:21 pm (UTC)
Hee hee, panning and zooming, that's kind of cool! I actually do end up picturing many of my scenes as I'm writing them, because I find it makes it easier to write them, too. I just don't do it automatically when I'm reading. :)
Jan. 6th, 2009 07:00 pm (UTC)
I'm able to picture things as I read, but it's not horribly detailed, although sometimes it gets pretty vivid. Usually though, it's just a general visualization of what's going on in the scene.
Jan. 7th, 2009 02:22 pm (UTC)
That sounds pretty similar to what I have--I mean, I have a basic idea of where the characters are (in general, and relative to each other), enough that I notice if something happens that doesn't fit that impression, but it's very foggy.
Jan. 6th, 2009 07:11 pm (UTC)
I read the words on the pages, and they're very clear in front of my eyes. But sort of hovering out of sight is a vague image of events being played out. If the author writes "she took off her clothes", I sort of stop reading and the image becomes clear as I picture the character naked (like a barbie doll - no genitalia). When I start to read again, the picture shrinks back to something vague. Kind of like picture-within-picture TV. Sometimes the words are the main focus, sometimes it's the images.

Which is why I think I have trouble writing descriptions. The images are completely clear in my mind from the few words on the page, so I'm never sure how much more is needed to allow others to "see" them as well.
Jan. 7th, 2009 02:23 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I had trouble with descriptions for quite a while, too, because long descriptions generally don't do anything for me... and it's hard to convince yourself to write something you think you'd find boring to read. :D
Jan. 6th, 2009 07:21 pm (UTC)
This is a subject I find really interesting. I'm a highly non-visual person--I honestly can't picture anything if I'm not looking at it. I think this is why I really like lyrical, evocative passages of description (as long as they exercise some restraint). I feel like, given the right details, I can form a kind of informational picture, rather than a visual one.

Even though my visual imagination is awful, my auditory one is good. I hear dialogue and inflection when I'm reading, and often, I invent an appropriate narrator. This means that I can't stand things that don't have a good internal rhythm, because they clunk really hard on my imaginary ears. In fact, I find some books (even books coming highly recommended), I can't read at all, just because they don't happen to sound good.
Jan. 6th, 2009 07:54 pm (UTC)
Yes! This is true of me as well (being an auditory reader, I mean). Although I do picture things as I'm reading them, but that just makes me value rich, evocative description all the more, because it helps me bring my fuzzy mental picture into sharper focus.

For that reason I find it annoying when a writer doesn't tell me important details about a character's appearance until I've already formed a mental picture of that person. If I'm halfway through a book and the author casually mentions that the hero has a mustache, for instance, I get quite peevish.
(no subject) - megancrewe - Jan. 7th, 2009 02:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - brennayovanoff - Jan. 8th, 2009 04:21 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - megancrewe - Jan. 7th, 2009 02:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - brennayovanoff - Jan. 8th, 2009 04:24 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 6th, 2009 08:41 pm (UTC)
Thanks for bringing this topic up, Megan. V interesting.
Jan. 6th, 2009 08:56 pm (UTC)
Interesting to ponder. I don't think I really see books as a movie. I find that settings and sometimes people or objects in the book often stick with me as a strong visual--maybe not even an accurate visual from what the writer described. At one point I posted some Harry Potter fan art I'd done before the movies came out and I'd forgotten I used to see Dumbledore as a handsome middle-aged man with dark hair. Now, when I look at the books, he's described in there like he was in the movie, but in my mind, he was something totally different until the movies came out.

I guess I see more of a collection of vivid yet mostly static images, the parts of the book that stood out the most.
Jan. 7th, 2009 02:27 pm (UTC)
Interesting that you had a very different image of Dumbledore than how he's described! I think I've done that before, too, where for some reason a character came across one way to me from the start, and somehow I managed to gloss over/not notice the descriptions that contrasted with that idea. :D
Jan. 6th, 2009 09:04 pm (UTC)
I have a very good visual imagination, but it doesn't apply to my reading for some reason - likely because I'm sufficiently obsessed with text to adore it for it's own sake, without wanting any added imagery cluttering up the crisp beauty of words on the page. I'm more likely to 'hear' a story than I am to 'see' it while reading.

Jan. 7th, 2009 02:28 pm (UTC)
Yes, I find it strange in myself, because I am a very visual person generally. I'm a visual learner, and my memories are very visual, with lots of clear detail. But for some reason it just doesn't apply to stories. Like you said, maybe I just don't like cluttering up the words. :)
Jan. 6th, 2009 09:20 pm (UTC)
Cool topic, and I'm very interested to hear what everyone has to say!
I answered, "other". I don't see things like a movie, but I'm not quite willing to say that I don't 'see' anything, either. The nearest I can come to describing the sensation is to say that it's something like a memory, or a memory of a dream (I am always transported by reading such that I'm not really conscious of the real world); some aspects may be vivid, like a character's hair, or a sound, or an aroma, while others are shadowy.

By way of background - which may be interesting to someone, or may just be me rambling on :) - I have never liked fiction that depends heavily on pretty words. I like dialogue or descriptive action - stuff that moves the story forward. I still hold the writing to high standards!

Also, this is the third time in two weeks that I realize I desperately need a books or reading icon!!!!
Jan. 7th, 2009 02:29 pm (UTC)
I'm with you on preferring dialogue and action--that's one of the reasons I tend to prefer young adult books over adult books these days--with the adult books I'm often going, okay, let's get to the good stuff! YA generally moves more at my preferred pace. :D
Jan. 6th, 2009 09:30 pm (UTC)
I'm very visual -- extremely. I don't see all the details, but I do see most of them. I can close my eyes and picture every scene -- which is partly why I don't describe them much (weird)...I think I feel like it's overkill to describe what I see so clearly. But yeah, I marked the second one, but now that I think about it, I should have marked the first. I can picture every book I've ever written in my mind -- as if it is a movie already and I've seen it.

In fact, that's part of why I think I struggle with distance/closeness in my MCs. I see them from the outside -- so when I'm writing, even in first person, there's still some distance. They're a character in a movie/story, and sometimes I'm not sure why they're acting the way they are. I have to guess.
Jan. 7th, 2009 02:31 pm (UTC)
It's interesting that you find your visualizing a problem--Jenny mentioned something similar when we were talking earlier, that she had to stop herself from telling everything that she saw the characters doing and just focus on what was important for the story. I can see how having a mainly visual impression of the story would make it hard to get inside the characters' heads.
Jan. 7th, 2009 12:47 am (UTC)
If I don't see it, it's because the writing wasn't good. If the writing's decent at all, it's very vivid. :-D
Jan. 7th, 2009 06:18 am (UTC)
What an interesting post! And honestly--I don't know. I think I have a blurry mental picture that changes as the book progresses. What I do always see clearly, though, is when a character is wrong--like when you see the movie version of a character and it's just so OFF and you're sure you didn't imagine it that way but you can't quite put a finger on the way you DID imagine them.

Does that make sense at all?
Jan. 7th, 2009 02:32 pm (UTC)
That does! I think it's pretty similar to how I "see" stories--definitely I notice if someone seems off in a movie (e.g., I couldn't tell you what I thought Nick from Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist looked like, but he definitely didn't look like Michael Sera, LOL).
Jan. 7th, 2009 02:07 pm (UTC)
I really wanted to take part in that poll, but I really couldn't find an answer...I mean, to me, I guess it depends more on diction and such things whether or not I get visuals. If I like the flow of things I may maintain a visual, but like you I really have to concentrate when I read or nothing comes of it, and it is kind of exhausting. It is nice when I don't have to try so hard and things just play in my head. I started reading this book recently(not that I ever finished it LOL) but I keep thinking it was a movie, but really it was book. And even now I can't think of any of the words, but in my mind it was a dark staircase and two people were talking...well anyway, so I guess it was pretty vivid...Hope that gives you something...anything...:/

Man with the suckage..
Jan. 7th, 2009 02:33 pm (UTC)
No, that makes sense. :) And it is hard to explain these things! I still can't really explain how I "see" stories non-visually... because I'm usually a visual person, so it's hard for me to describe something that's not visual!
( 31 comments — Leave a comment )

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The Clouded Sky
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A Sky Unbroken
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Skyscape/Razorbill Canada, 2015

The Way We Fall
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Disney-Hyperion, 2012

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Disney-Hyperion, 2013

The Worlds We Make
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Disney-Hyperion, 2014

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self pubbed, 2014

Give Up the Ghost
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Henry Holt, 2009

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