Giving your readers "feels"—Crafting the Visual Page Part 2: Case Study
Updated: Jan 17
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In our last blog post, we talked about writing not just so the words create an image in the readers head, but so that they create a visually pleasing corresponding image on the page. Literally, with line and scene breaks and deliberately placed punctuation and dialogue.
Today, I want to do a sort of case study for this using Nobel Prize Winner for Literature José Saramago's brilliant but disturbing horror Blindness.
I started writing another post about this book and it dawned on me half way through that this book is the perfect example of what I was talking about in the last post. So today, I want to go over what he does so you can understand the last post better and expand of the ways that you can do it too.
The point of both these posts is to help you understand that a novel is not merely a story you have in your head that you want to get onto paper (although it is that), but from cover to cover, it is also a work of art. Everything is part of the story, every word and all the white space around those words is part of that artwork.
Blindness by José Saramago
When it comes to creating a visually stunning story, José Saramago is a master. His novel Blindness (Amazon affiliate link) tells the story of an epidemic of blindness that sweeps a city, and the chaos that ensues. The novel is brilliantly written, and the descriptions of the characters and their experiences are both horrifying and fascinating.
Saramago's use of language creates a vivid picture of the events unfolding in the novel. He expertly uses sensory detail to bring the reader into the world of the blind, and the way he slowly increases pressure through the novel is top-notch. The result is a novel that is both harrowing and beautiful, one that will stay with you long after you've finished reading it.
The guy is a Nobel Prize winner for a reason, and that is obvious with this book.
We all know about show, don't tell and how our aim should be to help the reader feel the story through strong imagery and concrete prose. But this book does that and more by also making us feel the character's emotions not just through apparent sensory details, but sneakily, through the literal placement of words on the page.
I'm not really sure how to explain this, so let's dive right into examples so you can see what I mean.
How Saramago brings the reader down to his character's level.
I was blind to the mastery of Blindness for a long time.
That was lame, sorry.
But I bought the book years and years ago, remembering being told by my sister that the movie was disturbing. I never thought about it after that, as usually happens with books on my shelf. Most of them having sat there for years with an intention to be read that has long since faded.
I have a book buying problem. I'm sure a lot of you can relate.
Anyway, when I finally did work up the motivation to read it, I looked inside and saw that the whole thing was basically one huge chunk of text, barely a paragraph break to be seen. I was a little put off by that, and there is sat on my shelf for another year or so.
I did get around to it, needing a horror to read so I could write some much needed content, and I didn't put it down once I started.
When finished, I could say I really enjoyed it, it still sends shivers down my spine when I think about some parts. But the more I write about it, and the more I'm forced to think on it, the more I realize it is one of the most masterfully written books I have ever read.
Because nothing it is superfluous, nothing is not without purpose, even the fact that there are only sparse line breaks.
Things about Blindness that at first feel strange:
Few linebreaks, large blocks of text.
No names, just descriptions "The Doctor," "Doctor's Wife," "Girl with Dark Sunglasses," etc.
No Quotation marks.
Dialogue is lumped together in single paragraphs with dialogue from different speakers separated by commas.
Sparse punctuation aside from commas.
This threw me off at first, but I quickly got used to it. Weirdly enough, I had recently just read Blood Meridian (Amazon affiliate link) by Cormac McCarthy which was written essentially the same way. No dialogue punctuation, but this time only the main character "The Kid" remained nameless.
But anyway, all these things which at first seem like strange literary choices have a definite purpose: To make the reader feel like they are in the story. To make the reader a participant and drive home the theme.
Blinding the reader.
All the above mentioned aspects of Blindness work toward on specific aim: To make the reader feel as blind as the characters.
Below is an example of dialogue in the text that illustrates exactly what I mean:
This warning was enough to send them back inside, and they conferred amongst themselves, And now what do we do if they won't bring us any food, They might bring some tomorrow, Or the day after tomorrow, Or when we no longer have the strength to move, We ought to go out, We wouldn't even get as far as the gate, If only we had our sight, If we had our sight we wouldn't have landed in this hell, I wonder what life is like out there, Perhaps those bastards might give us something to eat if we went there to ask, after all if there's a shortage for us, they must be running short too, That's why they're unlikely to give us anything they've got, And before their food runs out we will have died of starvation, What are we to do then, They were seated on the floor, under the yellowish light of the only lamp in the hallway, more of less in a circle, the doctor and the doctor's wife, the old man with the black eaypatch, amongst the other men and women, one or two from each ward, from the wing on the left as well as from the one on the right, and then, this world of the blind being what it is, there occured what always occurs, one of the men said, All I know is that we would never have found ourselves in this situation if their leader hadn't been killed, what did it matter if the women had to go there twice a month to give these men what nature gave them to give, I ask myself.
And keep in mind that quote is a single sentence, period to period, in the text.
That probably was pretty confusing to you. Who was talking? How many people are talking?
But what you might not have realized right away is that forcing the reader to ask those questions is the point. It would make little difference in your understanding of the scene if you were to close your eyes and have the passage read to you by various unknown actors.
You are asking the same questions that the blind characters are asking in their heads without having to be told they are even thinking it. Because their thoughts have become your thoughts.
Who is talking to me? Is that someone else talking now? Do I recognize that voice?
You have become a participating actor in the narrative, you are there with them, and the way Saramago crafted the story to make that happen is beyond brilliant. It makes the events in the story feel so raw and real that you could vomit in some parts and still manage to find beauty is such a horrible situation. It is a master's hand at work, no doubt about it.
Meta-Symbolism: Something I made up just now but am convinced is a real thing
When some start writing fiction, they become convinced that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. They pack their heads with all these rules about how to create believable characters and plots, and convince themselves that if they don't follow them to the letter, their stories will be total failures.
In Blindness, nearly every rule and norm is broken, it is almost entirely "telling" in the sense that modern blog advicetisvits (advice + activist = advicetivist. Def. a person who thinks that because they have seen a piece of writing advice circulate on the internet so many times it must be writing gospel handed down by Thoth or Ogma themselves.)
Yet, even though it disregards your precious rules of show, don't tell and scoffs at your baton-pounding grammar policing, it remains an emotional, captivating, engaging, and image-filled ride.
And it does all that while keeping the characters at a distance from the reader, which I am going to talk about soon in another post.
After spending a lot of time going back and studying this book, picking it apart and trying to figure out the inner workings of it so that someday I may be half as good a writer as José Saramago, I have come to a conclusion.
The greatness of this book is possible not only because the writing is so precise, but because José has considered ALL parts of the book to tell his grusome tale. The literal meaning of words, the symbolic meaning of words, how the words interact with each other, and how the words interact with the reader.
It is writing on such a deeper level than I have ever considered before this book. Yes, I wrote a post about the visual look of words on the page and how that can give your writing more impact. But that was just surface level stuff born from a background in typesetting and having edited for so long.
But this is beyond that. This crafts the actual look of the words, but also integrates that into the theme. There is the symbolism of being blind in the novel, and then there is the meta-symoblism of making the reader feel that theme without even knowing it.
We hear about close POV that brings the reader closer to the characters and attempts to remove the authors voice from the narrative so the reader can get lost in the story. Blindness shows something beyond that. A thematic closeness that doesn't just remove the author's voice, it removes the reader too. It doesn't draw them into the story, it makes them an active participant in it.
I'm going to leave this one here for today. I don't have any advice on how to achieve this in your own books. Honestly, it is so far beyond my skill level, I'm not sure I could even get close. I'm just happy I noticed it as a thing that is possible.
It's an aspect of writing to consider. And I hope that by merely noticing it too, you are able to add another level of depth to your own novels.
I recommend picking up the Blindness and taking a look for yourself. Saramago can teach you so much more than I can.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tessa Barron is the Editor-in-Chief at Foul Fantasy Fiction and Bear Hill Publishing. She specializes in developmental editing and writes Fantasy and Science Fiction when she is able to find the time under the pen name Turi T. Armstrong.