What You See is What You Get

There is an interesting aspect to vision that many people aren’t aware of. When we look at something, it seems as though we are viewing a homogenized image, as if the body’s camera has all of its pixels activated and every nuance is just waiting to be observed.

Except that we’re not. It is a fascinating fact that the end result of what we see is much different than what our eyes actually observe. Our brains translate two separate points of view, compare and constrast shades of color, and translate the dramatic delineation of objects into a picture perfect scene. While the eyes supply the nuts and bolts of an image, the brain interprets and makes sense of things, filling in the blanks by merging available information with previous experience.

Most of the time, this system works well. Our cognitive ability, combined with the movement of the head to scan an area, usually enables us to see what there is to see. Sometimes, though, we think we see things that upon second glance are really something different, like when a cat runs across the road but then we realize it was a fox, or when we look down into the Grand Canyon and things appear to be 2-dimensional even though we know they are 3-dimensional. 

In many ways, this is similar to the picture that happens in our heads when we read.  The author supplies bits and pieces, and the reader fills in the blanks. Most people don’t need 100% of the image to see what’s going on. A character might be “a six year old female, 3’4,” sixty pounds, with braided blonde hair, eyebrows in a darker shade, blue eyes and knobby knees,” but, “A chubby little girl with blonde braids and a determined expression” is really all the reader needs, unless the knobby knees figure into the story somehow.

For centuries, readers have depended on this flow of communication between author and psyche to provide enduring mental images. These days, however, there seems to be a tendency for writers to either blatantly spell things out (always showing, never telling) or to skip details entirely (eliminating adverbs and adjectives), leaving the reader bereft of the joy of “the movie in your head.”

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett,* is one of the most engaging books that I’ve read in a while, and I happily stayed up late to finish it. The reason that I didn’t give it a higher rating was because after I read it, I didn’t experience my usual reliving-the-best-parts-of-the-story-in-my-head-later afterglow. It was just, “The End.” I was able review the course of events in my mind, and had mental images of the toilets on the lawn, Mae Mobley perched on the pottie in the wrong bathroom, and the stain on Miss Celia’s carpet, but there was a depth of field that was missing. 

What I suspect was at the heart of the problem, was the current trend of deleting most adverbs and adjectives. For me, that removes a lot of the visual aspects of a read. I don’t think that stories should be hazy with purple prose, but I like the subtleties of language that adverbs and adjectives can supply. I enjoy knowing about the quirky eyebrows on the teacher, or that the mother said something in a mysterious way. Those details are parts of the picture that the author has painted, and I want to see them. I don’t go to an art museum to look at a coloring book and fill in the pictures myself — I want to see a completed masterpiece, the world as the artist sees it.

Similarly, I want to see a story through the author’s eyes. If I like it, I like it, if I don’t, I don’t. If a writer wants to fill in some information with an adjective, I’m all for it. My vision is a little skewed, anyway.

* To see my review of The Help, click to read the first-half and final-review posts.


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3 responses to “What You See is What You Get

  1. Good analogy – the brain is such a fascinating and powerful machine. 🙂


  2. Layinda,

    This is a powerful quote: I don’t go to an art museum to look at a coloring book and fill in the pictures myself.

    I love the nuances of language even though I’m not one for long passages of description.

    You made a great comparison here.


  3. Well Done! Thank you for defending the current pariahs of fiction: the adverb and adjective. This purge of modifiers has persisted long enough. I like to compare them to salt and pepper: many foods without them are bland, but if you overuse them, you’ll ruin the dish. I think many writers take the many “How To” manuals and lists of “Rules for Writing” too literally. If we all adhere to them, we will all write and sound alike.

    As to description of character and setting, I believe that “less is more.” For a minute, picture Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet in your mind’s eye. If you’ve read it, I’m sure you have a very clear impression; she’s one of the most-loved heroines in fiction. I dare you now to scan the novel for any description from Austen that is responsible for creating that image. I guarantee you that you won’t find it. She says next to nothing regarding Lizzy’s appearance.


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