Translating the Movie In My Head

As someone who sees her fiction work in terms of scenes, translating those scenes from visuals in my head to words on a page is probably the most difficult part of writing.

This morning, I awoke sluggishly as a scene played out in my brain. It was a familiar ‘surprise’ used in many thrillers: a dorknob turns, the door opens. A man seen only from mid section to the tips of his fingers enters. He has on a nondescript tan raincoat and black gloves. He walks forward a few feet and we become aware he is standing in a living room. He pauses. In the stillness we can hear the muffled laughter of children playing. The man turns to the right and begins to walk quietly up a staircase, his shoes making no noise on the carpeted steps. On the next floor, he moves quickly down the hallway, pauses in front of a door, turns the knob, and opens it. Inside the room, decorated for a young girl, are two children, playing on the floor. They look up wide-eyed at the intruder, who walks towards them. Suddenly, the expressions on the childrens’ faces turn from startlement to joy. “Daddy!” they exclaim, flinging themselves at the man.

I have described this scene the way it might be viewed in a film (although obviously, it’s not formatted as a screenplay). It took me less than a minute or two to ‘see’ this scene in my head, complete with suspenseful background music. It took me so much longer, lying there crafting the sentences, to come to where I felt I was just beginning to get a handle on how this scene would play out in a novel. In fact, I didn’t finish it. I worked it along until the point that I realized I was probably never going to use that scene because it was too cliched, and there was no point in polishing an apple that wouldn’t be eaten.

But it did make me think about how we translate images, picking just the right words in just the right order to get them to help our readers play out the scene in their own heads more or less the way we saw it first.

But why bother?

I have a friend whose writing is pretty much conversation. He’s minimalist when it comes to scene-setting, and I don’t think his story suffers for it. Anyone making a film from one of his works would have to supply most of the visual context. He ‘hears’ the conversation and he writes it down. I hear the conversation as part of a movie in my head. The characters are moving, gesturing, and I feel the need to capture that when I write the scene.

Like my friend, I believe that only what moves the story forward should be included, but for me that can include socio-political asides. I think the main difference between my friend’s work and mine is that he is telling a story as simply as he can. Hemingway would agree with this. I, on the other hand, am always world-building, and always on the lookout for ways to anchor the reader to my world. I don’t think one way is better than another, though my friend’s minimalist writing allows the story to move more quickly, which would probably make it more salable these days, where time has become even more of a commodity.

I’m unlikely to give up my style of writing, so I’ll continue to struggle with getting the scene on paper to match the one in my head, but I don’t mind. I know those worlds – they like me there.

Are you visual? Do you struggle with getting the scene down properly? Or do you favour the minimalist approach? Let me know.

2 thoughts on “Translating the Movie In My Head

  1. I’m definitely visual. I can’t do what your friend does; I like to picture a scene my head and try to translate my thoughts to words. Descriptions are nice, and often when I’m reading something I try to visualize what’s going on. I think with your friend’s method I would end up thinking of a mediocre and plain background.


    • Obviously, I agree with you. With being descriptive you give the reader a fuller glimpse into your world. On the other hand, some readers have told me they prefer my friend’s approach (more like a radio play), so they can add the details themselves. Thank heavens there’s room for both styles.


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