If I Can See It

I have the most difficulty when I need to introduce a new setting or situation. This is usually, but not always, at the beginning of a chapter or scene. I have an idea of what is there, but it’s all intellectual, not visual. And if I can’t see it, I can’t describe it. If I just say, “A man came up to me,” what do you see? Not much. If I say, “A tall man, well dressed, rather pale, and with an anxious expression came up to me,” now you can see him. (I’d have to revise that a few times to make it work in the context.)

The difficulty comes when I’m too concerned with moving the story forward to spend much time on settings, situations, characters, sometimes even actions in early drafts. If on a second draft I correct for text, for grammar, for logic, I eventually realize that no matter how well written it is, I still can’t see it. It’s still just a man — a silhouette as it were. 

Especially if the setting, the place, the situation, is complicated, involving character action and reaction. It can take me a long time to figure out what things look like, sound like, feel like, smell like — to describe what really is there, not what I just think is there. So I take the twenty minutes, or two hours, or however long I need to make the setting, a paragraph perhaps no larger than the first one above, sensorial rather than intellectual. If I can’t see it, then you can’t see it, and it’s so easy then for a reader to just drop out of the story.

 There is a real difference between what I know in my mind, and what I experience with my senses. I don’t want to be outside the story, looking in. I want to be inside the story, experiencing it. For me, it’s worth the effort.