#87: How to Add Visual Elements to Tactile Descriptions

On Twitter, @birdinflyte_ (she/they) asked for help with “Trying to translate my kinaesthetic visualisation into s’thng that doesn’t make vision focused folk say Add More Description We Can’t See It.” When I asked for clarification, they wrote:

I seem to get that reaction no matter what I write. Right now it’s farm-based fantasy. I don’t visualise visually, never have, only kinaesthetically. Natural instinct for description is t/f movement/touch/interaction, then smell/taste/sound, then vision sketched in round the edges. And then I get told to add more description bc it’s “action in a bubble of fuzzy grey” – clearest crit of my style.

Ex: MC is plowing. I get the uneven ground under her feet, the feel of the reins + plow handles, the way the jolting plow jars her arms what she says to + about the horse pulling it, the swooping turn at the end of furrows, how the sun warms diff sides as she crosses field. For me that’s enough to make the scene clear, but it doesn’t seem to be enough for readers. Most desc adv I’ve found is less vis more other senses, and I’m going the other way, if that makes sense?

Dear @birdinflyte_,

I love your example, which for me is splendidly evocative! In my mind, I immediately get visuals to go with it, drawn from my own experiences with fields and horses and sun. But I can see how someone who’s more oriented toward the visual—or who doesn’t have personal experiences with the things you’re describing—might want a little more to go on.

I recommend writing your first drafts the way that feels natural to you. You want to get the story out and on the page without worrying too much about this sort of thing. Then go back through and add visual elements wherever you have tactile, kinesthetic, and material ones. Visual elements include:

  • color and pattern
  • size, and relative size
  • shape and outline
  • decoration and embellishment
  • visible indications of age, quality of manufacture, cost, place of origin, upkeep, etc.
  • for a person: skin (color, tattoos, freckles, moles, sunburn, blushing, etc.), hair (texture, color, style), clothing and footwear, jewelry, assistive devices, objects they’re carrying

It will feel incredibly obvious that the cast iron skillet is black or that the stainless steel pot is gleaming. It will feel totally superfluous to say that the heroine is taller than her older sister or that her jacket has a little house charm hanging off the zipper. But all these things help to set the scene by setting up implications and questions: the skillet and pot are owned by someone who keeps them clean and free from rust; the heroine and her sister probably tease each other about relative heights and ages; why specifically a house and not some other kind of charm?

You may have to put the visuals in by rote at first, but you can do it in a way that feels natural by relating them to other elements that you’ve written:

  • The sun warming her arms now warms her tanned, freckled arms.
  • The horse is now a tall black horse with a ragged black mane and tail.
  • The soil is now reddish.
  • The field is now a square two-acre field.
  • The reins are now shabby leather reins held together in a couple of places with silver duct tape.

Then use those visual elements to develop your character or your story:

  • She delights in her freckles; they’re like constellations on her skin.
  • She struggles to mount her horse because he’s tall and she’s short. His black hide gets hot to the touch in the sun.
  • The reddish soil is how she knows she’s home in Australia; she sees pictures in American farming magazines and the dirt just looks all wrong there.
  • When she goes skydiving, she loves being able to immediately spot her square field among the surrounding trees.
  • Every time she sees those make-do repairs to the reins, or the terrible job she did trying to trim the horse’s mane and tail herself, she remembers how broke she is and feels depressed—or gets determined to work harder and bring in more money.

In short, for everything and everyone you describe in some other way, you can ask two questions: “What does this look like?” and “What meaning is carried by its looks?” You don’t have to do this for every visual element, but doing it for even a few will help them feel more real to the reader as well as to you. You might be surprised how much they add to characterization and help to anchor a character and a story in the world.

Sometimes there’s no obvious answer to the second question. I have an ugly brown sofa because it was the only color IKEA had for the specific sofa I wanted, and I cared more about getting the right type of sofa than about what color it was, so the color is genuinely meaningless to me (a rarity in my life, as I care very much about color). But even those meaningless things can acquire meaning. When the ceiling leaked and the sofa got water-stained, I enjoyed not being too fussed by it; the sofa was already ugly, so who cared if it got uglier? And then our shy tan-brown tabby cat started hanging out on the sofa and we kept accidentally almost sitting on her because she was camouflaged. If you were writing about me as a protagonist, the sofa’s otherwise uninteresting color would be a useful way to introduce elements that might be relevant to plot or characterization. Maybe the story is a comedy and there’s a recurring joke about nearly sitting on the cat. Maybe it’s a romance between me and the person who comes to repair my ceiling. Maybe it’s a drama and I get into fights with my partner about whether to spend a lot of money on custom couch covers to hide the water stains. The visual is a hook, a way for the reader to be drawn into the story.

For an exercise, try finding meaning, characterization, or an emotional hook in visual elements of some objects in your house. Did you adopt a black cat because they’re historically less likely to be adopted due to superstition? Do you always wear white socks because you buy them by the dozen so you never have to hunt for a pair that match? Is your fridge covered with last year’s holiday cards because you’re never sure when you’re allowed to recycle them and you’re anxious about being socially judged for doing it too soon? It may take a little effort at first (of course the cardboard box is brown and boxy, what more is there to say about it?) but keep digging and you’ll find something (every time I see the brown grocery delivery box in the middle of my living room, I mean to take it out to the recycling, but I’m easily distracted, so I keep forgetting).

Another exercise is to go through a few books in your genre and highlight all the instances of visual description. Are there patterns in what tends to get described explicitly and what’s left for the reader to fill in? Learning what’s common in your genre will help you meet your readers’ expectations. Which tactile or kinesthetic descriptions have consistent visual implications? You can build a vocabulary of terms that satisfy both your preferences and your readers’ needs.

As a rule of thumb, you will need more visual description for things readers are unfamiliar with (things that only occur in particular locations or cultures, extraterrestrial or fantastical species that you made up from scratch) and for things that have many possible visual descriptions (usually things that come in a lot of colors, shapes, sizes, etc.). You probably don’t need to say that the sun is yellow-white, because most people on Earth have seen the sun, but you do need to describe the sunset, because every sunset is different. Two centuries ago, you wouldn’t have needed to say that an earthworm is pink; now, with so many more people living in cities and having little exposure to nature, it probably wouldn’t hurt to specify.

You’ll generally need more description early on in a story, when you’re introducing a whole lot of new things at once. Integrating it without slowing down the narrative is a topic for another post, but in very brief, prioritize the visuals that are meaningful for what’s happening in that moment, and leave the rest for later. It’s fine to describe someone or something over time rather than all at once. Nothing stops a story in its tracks like a paragraph (or a page, or several pages) of the protagonist looking in the mirror and narrating their detailed self-description.

If all of this sounds absolutely exhausting, you can try writing a protagonist or narrator who’s not a visually imaginative person (or, writing with care and employing the services of a sensitivity reader, write a protagonist or narrator who’s visually impaired). Establishing that up front will let you off the hook for including visual description, because it will remind and encourage the reader to fill in the blanks on their own. But learning how to incorporate visual information is a useful skill, so do give it a shot. An editor or beta reader can help you figure out how much is too much, and with practice, you’ll get a feel for it.

Happy writing!


Story Nurse

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2 thoughts on “#87: How to Add Visual Elements to Tactile Descriptions

  1. Maybe also check your reference group? I would kill(not really of course!) to have more authors go your way. It is so incredibly annoying to have to plough through page after page of outfits and scenery. Do you have access to a different group of readers to see if they feel the same?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a reader, I actually prefer tactile descriptions to purely visual ones. They feel less like a movie that’s been transcribed, I think they make better use of the written medium.


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