A novel is not a movie; writing a scene is not the same as filming one.
It is amazingly easy to forget this, when we are constantly bombarded with visuals in our everyday lives, from movies and TV, to YouTube and those animated ads that are all over the Internet, to the photo of Cousin Greg’s new puppy that he emailed everyone. We’re conditioned to think visually.
This can become a problem for writers, most especially for the sort of writer who gets a strong mental image of a place or scene that they want to convey to the reader exactly as it appears to them. Unfortunately, writing is a highly imperfect form of telepathy. Furthermore, it is inherently linear: it arrives in the reader’s brain one word at a time, one sentence at a time. A three-page description of the view from a mountaintop or the chaos of a battle is never, ever going to have the same instant impact as a three-second shot in a movie.
So what do you do if you want that kind of impact in your story?
First, you have to accept that you aren’t going to get the same effect, and what you do get is going to have to build up, rather than arriving instantly. What the camera does is different from what words do; trying to imitate the camera with words is never going to be really satisfactory. Second, you remember that what you are after is the impact; the actual description is simply the means to an end. So, third, you look at all the things words can do that a camera can’t do, and you focus on getting the impact you want through them. In other words, you play to the strengths of the written word.
Smells, textures, and sensations are not things that are easily conveyed by a photograph or movie. A written description of a mountaintop view that includes only the sharp peaks and sweeping vistas is missing a bet. Oh, you want the peaks and so on, but sketching them with a light hand and then mentioning the snow-cooled breeze and the scent of the pines, or the cold damp seeping through the POV character’s boots as the snow melts, or the slip of stones or crunch of snow underfoot, will make the scene more vivid and personal in a way the camera can’t.
Which brings me to my second point: writing can be personal in a way the camera isn’t. Cold water seeping through boots, the gag reflex triggered by a nasty smell, the sting and itch of a mosquitoe bite – all can make prose more immediate, because seeing someone else get bitten by a mosquito isn’t the same as putting the reader in the head of the character who’s just been bitten. Two of the most commonly used viewpoints, first-person and tight-third person, let the writer give the thoughts and feelings of the viewpoint character; omniscient allows for the thoughts and feelings of anyone who is present. And since the whole point of describing a majestic view or a chaotic fight is usually to make the reader feel the way they’d feel if they were there, this is a huge advantage. Showing the reader both the scene and the viewpoint character’s emotions/reactions can go a long way toward making a scene feel overwhelming or confusing to the reader, as well as to the character.
In first-person, and to some extent in tight-third person, one can sometimes slip into stream-of-consciousness writing for a paragraph or two, to really get the viewpoint character’s feelings and reactions across. This is particular useful during battle scenes, disasters, and at other times when the character is getting a confusing amount of information all at once. It’s also fun to write, which means that one has to keep an eye out for doing too much of it at once and ending up with a confused reader.
The history of a place or the background behind some action is another thing that the written word can do more easily than the camera, though this is something that the writer needs to handle carefully. It’s easiest to slip in smoothly in omniscient; in tight-third and first-person, getting this kind of backstory in depends on the knowledge and personality of the viewpoint character – what they know and what they would think about when faced with the particular situation. Knowing that the peaceful valley the character is looking at has been the site of key battles for centuries can create a lot of emotional resonance; on the other hand, one has to be careful that one doesn’t end up with a boring history lecture rather than something that actually deepens the effect of the scene.
When it comes to the actual visual description itself, less is more. It’s tempting to spend three or four pages waxing lyrical about every detail, but frankly, most readers these days are going to skim or skip any chunk of straight description that goes on that long. Also, two people looking at the same majestic view may both be deeply moved, but it will be different things that move them; consequently, getting too detailed usually means losing more and more of the impact on every reader who does not happen to find the same things moving as the writer does.
On the other hand, if the writer provides a few of the right visual details, plus some sounds, smells, and sensations, plus the viewpoint character’s reaction, the reader will generally fill in what’s missing with his/her own details…and the resulting image will be more powerful because it’s tailored to fit each reader by the readers themselves.