The magical canvas of the imagination


I’ve heard some writers say that when they write, they use their words like a video camera. What they put on the page has to fit within the visual frame of a film screen or it doesn’t work.

Using this metaphor, they couldn’t merely write “Ted is angry,” because how can the camera show that? But if they said, “Ted’s cheeks became red and he bared his teeth like an angry dog,” that’d work.

I like to take this metaphor a little further and say:  The prose writer’s canvas is the imagination of the reader. 

Without a budget, and in just a few words, a writer can take the reader to the moon or Mars. We can plop them into a bubbling soup of molten lava at the heart of an erupting volcano, or put them up on a cloud couch in heaven looking down and sipping tea. And all while they’re reading on the bus to work!

What I like about this metaphor is how it nudges the writer towards creating an experience for the reader, rather than a lecture.

This metaphor is, in fact, a way to get yourself firmly rooted in your point of view, whether first, third or omniscient.

Now, I’m as guilty as any writer out there of falling in love with my own words. I think this happens when I’m writing from MY point of view.

But if I see the reader plopped inside the experience of the words, whether it’s first person, third or omniscient, I’m less likely to go all purple. It’s less about how brilliant I am, and more about the roller coaster ride I’m taking them on.

Another benefit of using this is it forces writers to show, not tell.

Here’s an example from a recent Guardian article by Joshua Williams on his anxiety. Notice how he takes you inside his anxiety attack:

“…there was no good reason to be covered in sweat. The train was steady; there was no good reason to be stumbling down the aisle, legs shaking. There was no need to feel faint. Or to be seeing through an ever-narrowing tunnel. Or to have a tingling in my arms. Or for my heart to be pounding through my rib cage. I wasn’t at all hungry; there was no good reason to be buying a ham and cheese sandwich. But I was, because I was having a panic attack and I didn’t know what else to do.”

In this paragraph, he shows us passage of time, transition from one place to another. We feel his sweat, see with his tunnel vision. We can feel the rock of the train, the trembles in his limbs. The desperate, confusion of his mind.

The canvas of the imagination is made of more than just 2 dimensions.

You don’t need special glasses, only words. 

Here, anything is possible.

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