Writing Right with Dmitri: Visualising The Black Box

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Words, words, words. That's what we're made of. Herewith some of my thoughts on what we're doing with them.

Writing Right with Dmitri: Visualising the Black Box

A man in green with a feather in one hand and drawing a theatre curtain with the other

Due to a childhood accident involving a missionary, the Bible, and too many episodes of Dr Kildare, I started university as a pre-medical student. This lasted until the migraines and my terrified organic chemistry instructor convinced me that the whole business was going to end badly, probably in an explosion which took out a lab or two. Before I completely abandoned the idea of becoming the Great Freckled Hope of somewhere along the Zambezi, I had an enlightening experience in Biology 101, courtesy of a teaching assistant named Mr Leaf. (I am not making that name up.)

On the first day of Bio lab, Mr Leaf announced that to become real scientists (rather than the fake sort), we had to learn to observe. Then he placed an object before us. It was obvious what this object was: a cigar box, painted black and nailed shut so we couldn't peek inside it. Our first task was to describe the box 'scientifically'. We could use the rulers provided, and we had ten minutes.

I looked, measured, thought, scribbled a couple of lines. Then I waited while my fellow student Harvey, a brilliant young man who I suspect is now running the Mayo Clinic, wrote and wrote and wrote. I felt inadequate. Mr Leaf clicked his stopwatch and asked for feedback. Harvey shared his description of the box, which began like this:

The object is black, but not shiny. It consists of 12 edges. The first edge is 2" tall. The first edge is connected to 4 other edges...

This went on for quite a while, but you get the idea. When Harvey was finished taking us on an exhaustive tour of the cigar box, Mr Leaf nodded. 'Anybody else?' I timidly ventured that my description was, er, a bit shorter. I read it aloud:

The object is an opaque black rectangular parallelepiped measuring 2" x 4" by 9.5".

Harvey said, 'Huh?'

Mr Leaf laughed. 'Yeah, but if you look up 'parallelepiped' in the dictionary, you'll know what you were looking at. Which is more than you would from that mess you wrote.' It took a while for the lesson to sink in, but I eventually figured out that I was more of a writer than a scientist. As I said, Harvey probably went on to pioneer astounding breakthroughs in genetics. (He particularly enjoyed mating fruit flies. I remember a strain called 'wild females'...)

The point of this illustration is that it is our job as writers to describe things so people can see them in their minds. The process goes like this:

  • You make a picture in your head.
  • You describe it.
  • Reader reads your description.
  • Reader has a picture in his/her head.

If you want to describe it, you have to see it first. You can do this. You have a magical tool right in your head which stores images indefinitely. As I was writing the paragraphs above, I could see that cigar box on the lab table – and that was forty years ago.

The hard part is describing what you see in a way that lets others see it, too. This is such an important task that a writer should spend most of his/her time on this, rather than fiddly plot twists. If the reader can't see it, the reader can't follow you. Take this example from a science fiction short story.

In this story, the writer (okay, me) wants to tell us that these farmers have found a really ugly statue in their field. At the moment, we don't know what planet these farmers are on, or very much about them at all, but the ugly giant head that has popped up on the South Forty is being described in appalling detail:

It stood on its shoulders, this head, standing up out of the sparse grass. It was hideous – its neck seemed too thin to support the head, which sported a ribbed bone plate with seven vicious-looking spikes sticking out from it. Underneath that were ropy appendages tucked behind protruding organs where its ears should have been. Two sightless eyes looked out at the pasture above a sharp probiscis, and underneath, two fat slugs that must have been lips curled in a sneer.   – 'Colossus', by Dmitri Gheorgheni

Okay, okay: the punch-line here is that these farmers are living in a New York of the far-distant future. The 'ugly head' belongs to the re-emergent Statue of Liberty. Although the reader has taken the appearance of the farmers for granted, by the end of the story, it is clear that these people do not resemble humans very much – which is why they think the statue is so ugly. For the purpose of the story, the better the reader can visualise the statue as a frightening object with a proboscis, etc, the more effective the story will be when the frame-of-reference shift takes place. Even if you're tricking the reader with your description, you need a good description. Perhaps especially then.

A science fiction story needs good descriptions, because the reader is often being introduced to unfamiliar sights. The same thing is true of fantasy, speculative fiction, or even a good children's story:

I don't know whether you have ever seen a map of a person's mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child's mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island, for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose.   – Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie

Astonishingly, although Barrie seems to be discussing an abstraction, you and I just got pictures in our minds reading that. I can see those mental maps. Read it over a couple of times, and you'll see how he pulled it off.

Then go and do likewise.

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

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