I'll likely never write a screenplay, but lately I find myself thinking more about visual matters when I write. Thinking visually, challenging myself to be sure that the prose is not just polished, but that it has legs – that it can leap off the page and play out across the little screens readers carry around in their heads. After all, this is the place where we hope our stories live, at least for a little while.
I didn't used to think about this so much until a few years ago at a conference, when I heard an author talk about the need for writers to think more about scenes – not just that we need to write more scenes when appropriate, but that the thinking process we use when we sit to write -- especially when we are having a little trouble figuring out where to start – should hew closer to where the screenwriter (or maybe even the playwright) begins. That is, with a visual scene in mind, that it's both helpful and vital to think about what we want the reader to visualize first, and then what should that reader "see" next and next, and so on, one visually relevant scene after another. Scenes in which something happens, the story moves along.
He talked about the need to think in terms of how we'd write it if in fact it were going to be an actual film scene. How does it open? Where is the camera? Which character moves where and when? Who will say what and what's the reaction? What does the setting look like, sound like? What colors are involved? How will the characters show what they are thinking and feeling? When does the scene end and how? Does the new scene grow out of this one, or will it take place somewhere else -- physically, emotionally, chronologically?
At another gathering of writers, I heard a different writer say that before he writes, he thinks about what the movie trailer of his story might look like, and this gives him the rough outline of his narrative arc.
At first I thought this was a lot more applicable to fiction than nonfiction, but now I'm convinced that it's just as important. Sure, some forms aren't as responsive to this technique – the meditative or lyric essay, maybe – and certainly we want to allow for reflection and the narrator's interior landscape to act as bridges between actual scenes. Still, there is probably a lot of value in thinking about how a reader will (or won't) be able to translate our words into a mental picture.
Lately, when I revise my writing, I find myself scribbling "scene?" in the margins more and more frequently. Also, "need visual details" and "what's it look like?" And in other margin notes to myself I am noticing missing elements that might be prohibiting a reader from getting that vision in their head, and I note things like: Add weather! Describe her dress! Show how big the park is! Talk about the color of the horse! How does this new character arrive?
The reward seems to be when a reader says, "Oh, I can really picture that."