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Unlike with other art forms, the writer’s material exists completely inside his or her head. There is no clay or paint or instrument to interact with. And once the writing is done, nothing exists outside of the reader’s cognitive experience of it, and cognition is predominately visual. 80 percent of everything we perceive is visual information. Indeed, the retina is not only a part of our central nervous system it is also the only sense organ that is part of the brain. “The eye of the imagination,” “The mind’s eye,” these expressions persist for good reason.


Written language can elicit a vast array of sensory perceptions—sounds or even smells, but what it does most powerfully is elicit an image. It is why so much literature has been adapted into films, plays, comics and other visual art forms. If reading and writing belong to the realm of the mind, a keen sense of vision is more important to the art of writing than almost any other skill.


What visual artists are trained to do is to capture the nature of their subjects by amplifying the qualities that make that subject distinct or noteworthy. An artist may choose, for example, to accentuate the white of shimmering moonlight on the ocean, or exaggerate the droop of the lower eyelid to capture a downtrodden mood. When I paint or sculpt a character I need to recognize what gives a face a certain expression or a body a certain gesture. I need to decide which features to accentuate in order to fully capture the character.


In his studies of the visual brain, Semir Zeki, professor of neuroesthetics at University College London, has noted that the brain of the artist has the ability to abstract the essential features of an image and discard redundant information. Is this not what fiction writers strive for when creating characters and establishing a rich believable sense of place?


Furthermore, no amount of plot and intrigue will change the fact that effective story-telling relies on imagery. In their recent paper, “You See, the Ends Don’t Justify the Means: Visual Imagery and Moral Judgment,” Harvard professors Elinor Amit and Joshua D. Greene establish that we are hard-wired to respond emotionally to pictures. When moral dilemmas produce strong visual images in our heads we are far more likely to react emotionally to them and emotional reaction is the premium of great story-telling.


Almost every aspect of writing fiction requires vision, and vision requires disciplined seeing. In my workshop, The Visual Art of Fiction, I train students how to look and see critically, like an artist. I share a range of techniques on how to access the most visual parts of the brain and how to translate those visions into stories. I teach writers how to cultivate the habits of an artist and how to put those habits to use. If you would like me to teach at your institution or for more information please contact me.

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