Writing is not a visual medium, not in the way that photographs, paintings, or movies are visual. Yet there are readers and writers who think of it this way. It’s quite common for writers to describe “the movie in my head” or “seeing the scene and just writing it down.”
There are two potential problems with this approach, from a writing perspective. The first is that the visually oriented writer often doesn’t realize that not all readers work the way she does, resulting in bewilderment when their work is criticized for things like grammar, style, or syntax. For an extremely visual writer, the sentences are not important. Sentences are a means to an end, the vehicle that creates mental pictures, like the pigments in a painting or the tints on a strip of film. Unfortunately, neglecting sentences in favor of the mental movie often means neglecting all those readers who do not “see a movie” when they read.
The other, more insidious problem is that writing is not telepathy. No matter how clearly the writer visualizes a scene and how minutely he describes it, his readers are not going to construct exactly the same scene in their own heads. Many, if not most, of them will come close, but even those who read visually will not construct exactly the same mental picture from the same set of words.
This is because words are more than their meanings. Words have personal resonances that depend on the life experiences of individuals. For instance: I grew up in Chicago. My idea of a river is the Chicago River or the Mississippi. When I read the word “river” in a story, I picture something that can handle steamboats and barge traffic. I’ve been to places, however, where the local waterway was five feet wide and maybe three feet deep, barely able to handle a string of canoes traveling single file…and they still name it a river, and I have to believe that that narrow channel is what they picture when they read the word “river” in the same story I read. Which is more than enough to result in major differences in the mental pictures each of us construct of the landscape, even if we (and the author) agree on the images that are evoked by every other description and phrase in the story.
There is no possible way for a writer to control this. A visual author who gets hung up on the reader getting exactly the same “mental movie” as the one he has in his own head is courting madness. Even if you get a group of intelligent, articulate beta-readers, you won’t hear the same things from each one, because they’ll each bes interpreting your words according to slightly (or majorly) different mental biases.
This is especially true because a lot of readers these days don’t have the patience for the long descriptive passages that are necessary if a writer wants every detail of a scene clear in the reader’s mind. It may matter to you that there is a pencil sketch of Abraham Lincoln on the wall, a decorative porcelain egg in the middle of the table (just slightly off-center under the brass chandelier), etc., but unless the sketch and the egg tell the reader something useful about the characters or the plot, a lot of them will tire of such details very rapidly. Hence the emphasis, in writing advice, on the “telling detail” – the one thing about this person or place that’s unusual, that packs a whole lot of information and “feel” into a very small amount of description.
Writers have to accept (or at least learn to ignore) the fact that their readers are not going to produce exactly the same image from the words-on-the-page that the writer has (or wants them to have). We try, certainly, but it’s never going to be perfect.
You can’t give a reader the experience in your head unless you really are a telepath and can somehow broadcast your thoughts every time someone reads what you’ve written. What you are doing, as a writer, is giving the reader a whole bunch of building blocks and telling them to build a house or a skyscraper or a castle. They won’t build the exact same house or skyscraper or castle that you were picturing in your head, but as long as what they build pleases them, they’ll be happy. If that’s not good enough for you – if it’s really that critically important for your visually-inclined readers to “see” exactly what you “see” – you’re in the wrong field; you need to be making movies instead.
Readers are, in a sense, collaborating with writers in creating the story experience. Neil Gaiman has several times told the story of a particularly memorable scene from a childhood favorite book, in which the protagonist rode through the night, unable to see far in the dark, with the wind whipping his cape and the snow swirling about and his fingers slowly growing cold and stiff on the reins. And then he finally found the book and turned to his favorite scene and read “They rode all night in a snow storm.”
You can’t predict when a simple sentence like this will strike that kind of chord in a reader, evoking a vivid mental picture of an dramatic multi-page scene that never existed. You can only be pleased when it happens, and glad that you have such excellent collaborators.