While working on my Master of Fine Arts, I came across a paper I’ve since lost the source of that discussed Ernest Hemingway’s use of description.
In it, the article’s author said that Hemingway described things similar to the movement of a film camera. He’d pan across scenes, moving left to right or vice versa, or start on a wide shot and slowly zoom into a close-up.
I’ve thought about how this trick helps me visualize a writer’s scene description—but I never entirely understood it until recently.
Lately, researchers have discovered that our brains respond in a similar way, whether in real life or a book.
Annie Murphy Paul discusses this in her article "Your Brain on Fiction" from the New York Times:
The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction—with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions—offers an especially rich replica.
Therefore, organizing our descriptions of how we’d view an object or scene—left to right, right to left, near to far, or far to near—helps orient our mind’s eye.
I’ve also noticed how a scattershot approach to description, darting all over a scene, often makes it harder for me to visualize the geography of a space.
So, if your readers feel confused about your descriptions, reshape them in a more flowing and unbroken line, so they see it as if it was actually before their eyes.