Theatre of the Mind

Recently, I was chatting with my cover artist (Javenny and Transient City) and Dan commented he really enjoyed working on my novels because they ‘read like a movie’. Aside from being quite flattered, I examined why this was so. I certainly visualize each scene in my stories but does it always translate to the page and even more importantly, to the reader?

An essay on writing I read many years ago by Samuel Delany, advised his technique is to describe in detail what the character is touching, seeing, doing, hearing, etc. while they move or are engaged in dialogue. We can’t all be Delany but when I remember to consider his method, I try to incorporate it.

But there are the pitfalls and the forgetful moments. Looking at pieces where I’ve not created a sufficient visual, I see a few reasons. First, when I’m creating first draft, often I’m writing flat out; I see action and dialogue but don’t have time for the descriptive details, fearing I’ll forget where my enthusiasm is taking the story.

A second excuse no doubt stems from my background writing short stories where idea, plot and character may take centre stage. Descriptive background is a victim of brevity. This isn’t always true; one of the shorts I’m proudest of, Knights Exemplar (On Spec #90, Fall 2012) is a very visual tale. The environment plays contrast to the gathering fighters, one more opponent for them and the townspeople to combat.

The third culprit may be a lack of ‘seeing’ the setting. I haven’t exploited the panorama of the story to its full potential. A recent critique of a fantasy novel observed some of my scenes suffered from ‘white room syndrome’. In this book, I have a very clear vision of each scene but my execution was obviously lacking. I need to revisit those weak points and immerse the characters in their environment and with economy of words paint a better picture.

This visual dynamic is a talent I demonstrate, if my artist is to be believed (and I take positive comments very seriously!), but to improve my consistency is the goal. If my readers can imagine themselves not just reading words but seeing pictures, then the prose is more memorable.

Theatre of the mind is a phrase often used to describe radio drama. Unique in media, radio employs only sound to paint its pictures, the listener creates the theatre from the voice inflections of the actors and the sound effects. Occasionally a narrator may intrude but the break is brief. Many historians point to its visual competitor, television as the executioner of radio drama, citing even bad TV held more interest than superb radio. Not entirely true: the British, Canadian and other radio drama departments continued to thrive up to the present. American radio drama died because the networks sold more advertising on TV than their abandoned radio departments.

My appreciation of OTR (Old Time Radio) does help in trying to create an image in as few words as possible, and using dialog and narrative both to accomplish same.

This added depth isn’t merely a ‘nice-to-have’, I see it as another tool in the writer’s kit to be used well. To stand out from the many other excellent books and stories my audience could be reading. Get them to come back, even if they don’t examine ‘WHY’ in detail, entertainment value for their time and money investment is what I strive for.

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