What Came First: The Scene or The Word?

I read an interesting tweet written by an up-and-coming author named Ksenia Anske that went a little something like this:

“My problem is not in what to write. I see stories in my head like complete movies. My problem is in how to write it all down.”

And I couldn’t relate more.

Like many writers out there, I have an active imagination. The stories I want to tell live in my head: I can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel what’s happening to or around my characters.

For instance, a scene I’m working on right now in Dark Flesh takes place on a foggy bridge. Aaron and his daughter are tracking someone through the undead infested city, and they’re searching the bridge for clues on where he might’ve gone.

The details are so apparent to me; if I were a director, if I could build the sets and cast the actors, I would be able to get the feel just right. However, translating all of those little things that happen simultaneously into a linear writing form can frustrate me sometimes. If I choose sight and smell, then I may miss out on describing the sounds, or is it okay to describe all of the stimuli in a scene? Isn’t that too much detail?

I ask myself: how can I possibly distill everything that’s going on in my head, what seems like real life, into words on the page?

How We Construct Reality

Even the scripts for films and television shows are quite barebones. If you’ve never done so before, take a look at scripts for your favorite movies. Most detail is left out because ultimately the director chooses what everything will look like. It just seems like such an easier transition from mind to reality than mind to paper. You’re creating the thing itself in a film or television show whereas in writing you’re creating symbols, representations for whatever you’re talking about, be it a bridge or a zombie or a mysterious black trunk  . . .

But what do you think? Do you have difficulty describing your scenes and characters as they live in your head or is it easier to paint a picture using words?

As an exercise perhaps I’ll take one of my favorite movie scenes and describe it in prose as if it were a novel. What details would I choose to emphasize in my description? Hmmm . . .


26 comments on “What Came First: The Scene or The Word?

  1. For Me the pictures add color to the words the way a painters brush adds color to the canvas .I get where you are in your head with all of this. So yes pictures are a good start.

  2. I’m a very visual person, I like to take photographs or borrow pictures from Google and alter them in Photoshop. Actually having the image in front of me really helps. 😀

    • I like that idea. I’ve done it a few times when I’ve wanted to get a better idea of what my characters look like.

      I haven’t used Photoshop nearly as much as I would like to. Seems like a great way to create something for Tumblr blogs. 😛

      I’m curious: in what ways do you alter the pictures?

      • Take Characters for example, if I have a particular idea about the general outlook of a character I usually Google the traits I want and then alter the ones I don’t. This can include simple things like eye and hair colour or something a little more complicated like a scar. I do similar things with settings. It’s just a matter of playing around. 😀

      • That sounds like a lot of fun! I’ll have to give it a shot sometime, especially with settings. Since I’m writing an apocalyptic story, maybe I’ll take a picture of New York and alter it to make it look rundown and abandoned. 🙂

  3. I can relate to this. I wish I had a device that translated the movies in my head into words on the page. The goals is to avoid your vision from being flat on the page. But, it’s a balance because you want to avoid using every adjective in the world to convey the senses of a scene. I guess we just have to keep writing to master it.

    • Thanks, Sydney. I tell you, if you ever find that kind of machine, I’d pay a mint for it. 😛

      The balance part can be hard. It’s even tougher when I enjoy writers who tip the balance one way or another. Some of my favorite authors have written in excruciating detail while others have been minimalist in their description.

      It’s hard to know which path to follow! 😛

      But you’re right, we just have to keep writing to master the written word, eh?

  4. I can agree with this. What I see doesn’t always end up on the paper the way I thought it would – especially when I give the scene to someone else to read and they come back with something completely different (i.e. one flawed protagonist was seen as an absolute bully). If there was an easy way to transform vision into verse, I’d almost welcome it – even if it risks altering another reader’s interpretation/imagination.

  5. Well, first of all I’m not a writer. But what happens to me when I do write something down is the opposite (I guess): ideas are not properly formed until I write them down 🙂 By writing I get the inspiration, not the other way around!
    Crazy enough, uh?

    • You play music, right Serre? So writing down the words inspire you, and you can sort of see what you want to do? That’s fascinating.

      If I could sing even a little, I’d try it for inspiration’s sake. 😛

      • Aaaaah not at all, I wish I was able to write music/lyrics! I wish I had musical ideas running inside my head just waiting for me to put them on paper! 😦

        I write random stuff, nothing more than blogs, basically humor&life, so I don’t usually have a whole story in mind, it just begins with a spark, a line or something. But until I write it down it has no substance, the only way it can flow and keep flowing is if I start writing.

        I don’t know if this makes sense at all!

      • It definitely makes sense. Sometimes I feel that way too. The words help feed my imagination. Other times, my imagination is already running around, and the words can’t keep up. 😛

        And this is why I need to learn Italian. I visit your blog and see a lot of music related stuff, so I figured that you were a musician.

        One day I’ll be able to read your stuff. one day!

  6. I read somewhere – ‘in the beginning was the word’ – but the word always needs a context – right scene expands from the first few words – ‘foggy bridge’ or ‘coal miners’

    • I’ve definitely been inspired to expand on a scene after putting just a word or two down. Those tend to be some of the most fun scenes to build since, as you mentioned, they expand outward.

  7. I too view stories like movies. By the time I get the basic outline done of the scenes and what needs to happen in them, I feel like I’ve already lived the story, seen the story, and told the story. Which is why I have many outlines and no finished stories. I find the actual writting of them more difficult because I feel like I am reinventing the wheel by that point.

    • Interesting: so do you feel it’s a chore trying to describe what you already have in your head? Or is it that you feel as though others have done a great job of describing things and you’re just another voice trying to do the same?

      • No. I feel like I already know the story, it’s already done. The actual writing it out in long form now feels like a chore and no longer the fun, creation process. It goes for the joy of creating the characters and plot and living the entire story in my head to ‘work’ on something already mentally finished.

      • I know what you mean. I tried Dragon Speak Naturally, and the problem I faced was that I had to keep stopping to edit the writing. It wouldn’t pick up the words I said correctly, perhaps because I speak too fast sometimes.

        But telling my story outloud does seem to be easier than writing sometimes. Perhaps we’re part of that old tradition of oral storytellers. 🙂

  8. Pingback: My Weekly Update – Writing Assignments Accumulate | Sydney Aaliyah

  9. Hey Mike, I’m a little late to this party but wanted to add my comment… 🙂

    Since most of what I write is flash fiction, or short stories, I’m already contrained by the form to pack as much in as few words as possible. I also trust the reader will come prepared to add their own interpretations to things. We don’t need to spell out every detail, because people are constructing their own unique movie in their head. It doesn’t matter (to me) if the reader makes the lead character blonde instead of red haired. IF that detail is important enough for any reason, I’ll give it to the reader as a clue they need to know that.

    In fact, in many of my stories the characters do not have names. This is a choice I’ve made to allow the reader to bring even more to the reading of a story by imagining who is talking here… and piecing everything together like a puzzle.

    Thanks for bringing up this topic, I think it’s a great discussion to have!

    • I truly enjoy when you comment, Carol. I’m always reminded of an important lesson.

      I sometimes forget that the reader is an active participant in creating the story world unlike movies and television shows which pretty much fill in all the details for them.

      In a good book, as you alluded to, the reader comes prepared to inhabit the world, flesh it out as they see fit.

      I guess I get caught in the middle somewhere because some of my favorite authors are very descriptive, yet others give little and still leave a vivid impression in my mind.

      Thanks for sharing. 🙂

      • Thanks so much Mike. There is room for many kinds of writing – some people prefer more detail, some less. Even I was surprised by how much I really enjoyed Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which is SO descriptive, tons of adjectives, and yet – it works. But if you put a spare, bare bones short story or flash piece in front of me (or more likely that’s what I’m writing myself…) I enjoy that too.

        Great dialogue and keep up the great work here on your blog!

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