Friday, February 26, 2016

Writer Super Power #4: Sight

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

Welcome back to our Friday series on Writer Super Powers. Today we're talking about the most relied upon of all the super powers: sight.

I could have started this series with sight, I suppose, but I wanted to ease my way into it because the truth is, we have a tendency to default to sight. When we set out to describe a person or a place, when we set out to show our readers something, we lean heavily on our vision. That's not a bad thing, but I hope that by covering hearing, smelling, and tasting early on, you understand that all of our senses should be attuned to the world around us and that your writing will benefit if you give each of them their due attention on the page.

What the WRITER sees
If we're going to approach vision as a superpower, let's put ourselves in the shoes of a couple heroes (one super, one slightly less so) who have sharpened their gift of sight into a veritable weapon.

Let's start with Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock has a very specific way of looking at the world. When he searches a room (or a body!), he's simultaneously trying to understand the how and the why behind what he sees. He once told Watson, "You see but you do not observe. The distinction is clear."

Superman, on the other hand, has all sorts of special vision abilities. He has x-ray vision and heat vision and superhuman vision. With that last one there--superhuman vision--he can can see farther into the distance and with with more accuracy and detail than the rest of us.

Sherlock and Superman couldn't be more different, but they share the ability to see in detail. An ability you have buried somewhere deep inside and must take pains to hone.

It is your job to set the scene for your audience and you must buy into Sherlock's admonition up there--there is a distinction between seeing and observing. For most of us, observing doesn't just happen. It takes practice. And this is where a journal just might come in handy. Carry it with you--to the doctor's office and to lunch break, to the shopping mall and on the school bus. Wield your pen and practice observing. Scratch down details. Be specific.

Don't write: The bus is hot today.

Write: Sweat gathers in the creases of the driver's neck, dampens his collar. He drags a hand through a mop of graying hair, taps the steering wheel impatiently as I pass. His fingernails are black--crumbs from the pulverized cookie spilling from his torn shirt pocket.

Will you fill your fictions with every detail you observe? No, you won't. But making an effort to see the small things, the intricate things--making an effort to write them down--will help you form a very healthy habit: including detail in your stories. Details make for an authentic and credible read. Details transport the reader.

What the CHARACTER sees
How you describe what your character sees is crucial to the success of your story. No two characters will observe a scene in exactly the same way. Their goals, desires, relationships, backstories, heritage and mental state all play a part in what your characters are seeing at any given time.

A twenty year old spy who has been sitting quietly for hours, waiting for his mark to enter a room will notice vastly more about the scene than a six year old sprinting through with a lollipop in hand. Your observations must be true to the character.

Restraint is important here. I've just spent a bunch of time telling you that detail is important. And it is. Vitally. But you must resist the urge to simply tell the reader what things look like. Your keen observational skills must be sifted through the filter in your characters' heads. Show the reader details, but only details that your narrator would notice. Practice, friends. It's the only way forward here.

What the READER sees
With each of the other senses we've covered, I've encouraged you to tap into memories and nostalgia, to remember that sense descriptions dredge up things for a reader, intentional or not.

And while I wouldn't want you to discard that advice altogether when you're focusing on sight, your writing will suffer if you assume the reader can see what you see.

I run into this a lot when I'm working with young students. I'll start a story with a phrase like, "You know how horrendous it is driving in city traffic, right?"

When they stare blankly back, I'm reminded that they couldn't possibly know what it's like to drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic. They've never driven, for crying out loud. And even if they've been in the car while a parent navigated the kind of scene I'm describing, they haven't experienced it as a driver. They need me to paint the picture. They need to see what the driver sees.

When an author can take a common sight and transform it into something compulsively readable, you know they've struck something true, they've found their voice. This too takes a considerable amount of practice: weaving detail and voice together in such a way that moves the story forward and does not overwhelm the other. It's an essential skill that you can only perfect by observing and then writing.

Make a habit of carrying some blank pages with you. A pen. Remind yourself that there's a difference between seeing and observing.

And when you get caught staring, when someone asks, "What you looking at?" tell them they'll have to buy the novel to find out.

To kick off this whole practicing habit you're about to adopt, do this: 

Look around the room you're sitting in and tell me what you see. Do you have to tell me everything? No. But tell me something and spice up that something with the kind of detail Superman would notice.


  1. JUST now I was thinking about this as I was working on my WIP and, getting really frustrated, I was retreated to your blog =) ANYWAY I am now refreshed and rejuvenated and ready to give this sight thing another shot. I think one thing us writers (or at least myself) get frustrated about is that we except a sort of formula for the whole sight thing and for it to happen instantaneously. UNFORTUNATELY, like most in life, skills aren't honed and gained with the snap of a finger. It's all in the journey.

    Thank you for your ever inspiring words!

    1. Hooray for rejuvenation! I need that so often. Yes! Journey, journey, journey. Thank you for sharing.

  2. The guitar strap drapes casually over the guitar, a yellow strip dividing the crimson and green ones. Fraying edges run down the length, adding to the instrument's rustic appearance. The gold and silver strings rise upwards, pulled taut like tighropes.
    Another guitar hangs next to it, this one a darker shade. A thin, sleek cammo guitar strap hangs over the body. The strings, although pulled just as taut, look different against the darker background.

  3. She stared at the pile of sweaters on the bed. They were thrown down carelessly, one on top of the other, without any pretense of folding. Gray, blue, brown - heavy, medium and thin. Smooth knits, glittery knits, bulky corded patterns. Formal and casual.

    Jess shook her head. "Sweater nut" didn't even begin to cover it.

    1. Love this! And maybe Jess will share? I rather like sweaters myself.

    2. Haha, sure!! :) Sweaters are awwwwwwwwwesome!

  4. I’m legally blind/visually impaired (the word I use depends on how I feel that day) so sight is something I struggle with in both real and imagined worlds. And I always make at least one of my main characters visually impaired which, I discovered, was harder than I thought.
    You’re right, this is a visually world. Everyone, even my fully blind friends, wants to know what things look like. And it’s easy to describe an object, but it’s hard to describe how we see it. Does that make sense? I’ll try to explain in case it doesn’t.
    I can make a vague description about a person, talk about height, hair color, eye color, all information that people usually look for. But, for my characters with visual acuities similar to mine, all of that would not be evident (so I guess that’s similar to what you were saying about how each character will see ascene/setting differently). She could see skin and hair color, but not the eyes. My heroine would have to be intimately close to see a person’s eyes. But there is still the other sensory details that can be used to give a description: the sound of their voice or the scent of their perfume. I also have another character, a weretiger, who has amazingly keen sight, but does not see much.
    I also realize that in my writing I either overwrite visual scenes (trying to compensate for what I can’t see but my character can) or underwrite because I have no idea how the scene would look to someone with better vision. And because of how visual the world, I realize that I generally neglect the other senses, even for my visually impaired characters.
    This comment ended up being far longer than I anticipated. I’m really enjoying this series.

    1. Thank you for this insight- as someone with 20/20 vision I wouldn't have understood before.

    2. I love, love, love your thoughts on this. I have never read a book from the point of view of a blind character. I've read about blind characters, but never been given a glimpse inside their heads. I wonder if you would ever consider giving that a go? You have such insight.

    3. I want to write a book w/ a blind MC. Thanks!

  5. Raquel gazed abstractedly up at the cabinet door above her desk. It was a white-painted door, white like milk or cream; and there were three things pasted up on it.

    One was a picture of St. Joseph. One was a picture of the Virgin. And one was a sheet of blue-lined paper, scrawled all over with penciled lines of bad cursive handwriting.

    A to-do list, in other words. The practical embodiment of confusion, exhaustion, and stress generally.

    The contrast was amusing. Especially since the Virgin was placed directly above the to-do list . . . looking down at it with calm brown eyes, smoothly parted hair, and a quiet air of "This, too, shall pass."

    She was probably right.

    But it was hard to remember sometimes . . . especially in the middle of your senior year of college.

    Raquel grinned a little. Maybe that was why the picture was there, anyway.

    As a reminder.

    1. Awwwwwwww--thanks so much, Rosie!! :-)

    2. Wonderful! Detail and voice. Makes for a killer read.

    3. Thank you!!! You just made my day!

  6. She feels the warmth of the room compared to all the other rooms in the house- it's from the computers, no doubt. Pens, notes, and her brother's toys are scattered about. She's alone in the room, but she knows what goes on. Editing, video-watching, coding, school, writing, and even reading. The dark purple-mahogany walls give it a cozy feel.
    I hope that gave everyone a nice view of the office room.

  7. The red chairs are uncomfortable, to say the least. You are always squirming, trying to find a comfortable spot. The dim lights were making it hard to read, and the singing zombies weren't helping either. The musical was only a week away. . . and it was about as tidy my bedroom.

    1. Oops. Change in POV

  8. Wow, that could be a great advantage, especially if you were writing in first person perspective of a visually impaired or blind person. Reading a story with mainly or only touch, taste, sound, and smell would be really unique, interesting, and - dare I say - eyeopening for anyone who has never experienced the world without sight, myself included. It makes me think of Daredevil (awesome blind Marvel superhero who uses his other senses at a higher degree to make up for his missing one).