A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to talk about The Cutting Room at a neighbourhood book club. Someone asked me if the main character’s house was my own. “You seemed to know it so well,” she said. She could picture it, probably because I did it first.

The house was not mine, but I had sketched the floor plan and yard in detail as I was writing. I had to. Perhaps due to my background as a film and video director, I consider visualization essential in writing. The believability of a character relies in part on the realism evoked by the world they inhabit.

While precision is important, the detail should not be explicit. It’s part of what I call the understory—the plot, setting and character ‘data’ that are crystal clear to the writer and largely invisible to the reader. It’s always hard to know just how opaque to be. Lending a scene Alex Colville realism may have its merits, but it can also deny readers the chance to paint it for themselves. It crosses the line from showing to telling (but that’s a blahg entry for another day).

What I’ve found is that it’s best to write a scene first for its intent, then revisit it to determine what role the visuals should play. I’m generalizing, I know (the luxury of blogging), so let’s take an example: you’re describing a romantic dinner between two main characters. You may be able to visualize the restaurant—say they’re dining al fresco along a canal—and that certainly suggests some pretty pictures. But what’s really important is what’s going on between the characters. To an extent, you have to ignore everything but the practical features of the location. The trick is to call just enough on the surroundings to support the story.

In my novel, The Cutting Room, there is very little physical description of the characters, especially not the main ones. I think most readers are able to picture them in their minds’ eyes. This is the reader’s magic, not mine. The more time we spend with a character in any book, the more we get to know them, the more we ascribe characteristics that don’t otherwise exist.

Writing is actually a product of all the senses. I suspect it’s a common fault among aspiring writers that we get hung up on what we think we see (we’re awfully visual critters here in North America). We forget the power of sound, smell, taste and touch in a narrative, and to help shape believable characters.

If you ever get hung up on a scene, look to your senses, or those of your characters, for the ‘what if’ triggers. What if that object in your character’s hand feels like a weapon? What if the scent or stench that hits your character when she enters a room makes her suddenly think of home? What if.