‘Hearing’ the words vs. seeing…

This came up yesterday at our work day at the Legion. Imagine if you will, a bunch of grumpy old men taking a break and sitting drinking Navy coffee… 🙂

Talking about the ‘old days’ before everything got transmitted via satellite… There was this antique thing known as ‘radio’, as in AFRTS. It was also transmitted on HF, Upper Sideband- Diego Garcia was 12,579 kHz daytime and 4,319 kHz nighttime. That one, a few of us remembered, having spent time there…LOL

That was how most of us on deployment or at sea got our sports…

That led to a discussion about books. RAH, E.E. Smith, Louis L’Amour, Robert E. Howard, Asimov, Spillane, Zane Gray, et al and how they painted ‘word’ pictures that, in conjunction with our imaginations, put us ‘in’ those scenes.

And it brought back even more memories of my grandfather out in his shop, a radio on listening to either baseball or football. He followed the Yankees (Mel Allen), and listened to Dizzy Dean and Peewee Reese, because he’d seen them play and knew they ‘knew’ what they were talking about.

Another memory was the family get togethers, especially in the fall, when the men and boys would be outside, crowded around one of the cars with the radio turned up to catch the college football game while the women did whatever they did inside the house (after they kicked us out).

Did replace actually going to the game? No. Seeing was always better than hearing the announcers, but the words they used, along with your imagination, could put you ‘there’…

As writers, we should be doing that with our writing. That begs the question, how much is too little, or too much that can put our readers ‘in’ those scenes? I don’t have a good answer, and I believe each writer has to find what works best for them.

I know I tend to write ‘sparse’ descriptions of the situation, environment, and characters, expecting the reader to ‘fill in the blanks’ if you will. I also tend more toward ‘showing’ action and less ‘telling’ what happened. Am I right? I don’t know, but that’s how ‘I’ do it.

What say y’all?


‘Hearing’ the words vs. seeing… — 22 Comments

  1. “expecting the reader to ‘fill in the blanks'”:


    Hitchcock understood that less can be more. He led the audience right up to the precipice of shock and horror, but he let their imaginations take over to fill in the blanks.

    The first audiences to see ‘Psycho’ had people screaming, passing out, leaving the theater, even being sick to their stomachs.

    I’d say it works pretty well.

  2. Might be on the grumpy … never mind. Imagination can work wonders on a little word sketching. Sometimes I could almost see or scent what you wrote.

  3. With few exceptions, I think that is why movies made from books were never as good as the books. For the most part my imagination was a better cinematographer than the movie guy. An exception was “2001 a Space Odyssey” the special effects were spectacular. However, Kubrick et. al. missed some exposition that I had to fill in for my friends.

    • As memory serves, Kubrick and Clarke worked closely together, and the book was released at roughly the same time as the movie. There were still some differences (Jupiter vs Saturn), but it was closer than a lot of movies based on SF books.

  4. Love your work and those of the Raconteur Press. You and your fellow writers create that world I can step into for a time, as you described in your post. Unlike a lot of current authors that have their main character (mc) navel gazing every few chapters. Recapping why mc got there, what his/her life was like before, and how they are going to better themselves this time.

  5. As a reader and not a writer, I can say that there’s a fine line between too much and not enough.

    Not enough detail and it loses realism. If I can’t imagine the scene in my mind, it’s hard to get the nuances and I can’t “see” the world in my mind’s eye.

    Too much detail and it gets monotonous; I lose interest. Some books like that, where I’m enjoying the plot despite the excessive detail, I just skim through the naval gazing and excruciatingly detailed descriptions to get back to the storytelling.

    I’m no art critic and can’t even begin to effectively define “too little” or “too much”, but I know it when I read it.

    I’d say that’s one of the writer’s tasks: to find that “sweet spot”.

    As an accomplished technical writer who doesn’t have the imagination or creativity to write fiction, I can say my style leans toward the “too much” end of the spectrum.

    I’ve been described as a person who never says in ten words what can be said in one hundred.

    • Sometimes, with some writers, the description gets a little too geeky.
      “He shot the intruder” might work better than “He pulled out his Photonics Incorporated Lasermax II with the mark IV upgrade and cut the guy approaching him into pieces.”
      Maybe you could keep “and cut the guy approaching him into pieces.”

  6. Long time reader, first time commenting… love the blog. Your post triggered many fond memories of listening to baseball on the radio. Skilled storytellers who could put you there in your mind’s eye… sadly a dying breed… now instead all you get is the TV guys sound feed (cost-cutting)… and they will often forget that the radio audience can’t see what’s happening. My phrase these days – “It’s not our world anymore “…

  7. For you, personally, you got the balance just about perfect in The Grey Man series, not only with the scenes and situations, but with sketching the personalities. It is a fine and difficult line — and I think that it varies from author to author and also with how familiar (or not) any particular reader is with the setting or situation or personalities being described.

    On sportscasting (or newscasting, back in the day) — oh my. Some of those folks were magicians with words. And it may be worth remembering that one of our better recent Presidents had been a sportscaster!

  8. Louis L’Amour was the only writer of the Western genre I ever followed. He could paint beautiful pictures with just a few words. My Dad turned me on to him, and we read everything we could of his. Dad passed his love of reading on to me, and I devour books. My main interests were always sci-fi and fantasy, especially military sci-fi.

    All of that to say that your style is very much like that of Mr. L’Amour, and I, for one, truly appreciate it.

  9. I do not write or blog. That said, I have always enjoyed writing and any English/writing classes I took. The key idea I learned loooong ago was to “put yourself in the mind of the reader”. See it through their eyes.

    As noted, there can be a fine line between too much and too little. The devil is in the details, literally. You have to pick the right ones. Technical details have to be precise and correct.

    Here is on that has always stuck with me. In his book “Serenade to the Big Bird: The True Account of Life and Death from Inside a B-17 Cockpit in WWII” the author describes the scratch baseball games and teams on base. In reference to the losses from the mission to Schweinfurt, he writes “We had to replace our entire infield”.

    50 word rant about proof reading your own stuff deleted.

  10. High School days in NW Colorado we had one daytime station, KRAI Craig, CO. Slick and sophisticated it wasn’t. Nightfall, and we received KOMA Oklahoma City. That was the station all the teenagers listen to.

  11. All- Thank you for the nice words, and yes, that ‘balance’ is hard. Ag- Oh yeah! RHT- Wow…that…sucked. WSF- There were plenty of ‘less than good’ stations back in the day…sigh But at least they had ‘some’ programming.

  12. One of the things that I enjoyed in both Zane Grey and Lamour was their ability to make you feel “in” the landscape. Perhaps it’s because I’m a country boy, but that seemed important to me.

    I also read everything written by Peter Hathaway Capstick. PHC had his weaknesses, but he had an ability to describe details in a novel way that grabbed your attention. The outcome of a lion attack was described as collecting bone-splinters in a coffee-can. A sunset is described as leaving the observers “wondering what on earth God was smoking”…

    Short and not overly detailed, but unusual enough to prompt the imagination.

    It was Terry Pratchett who wrote about a woman’s dress which “left everything to the imagination… which is far more inflammatory than leaving nothing…” I still have no idea what style the dress was, but you can bet I have some ideas about how she looked in it.

    Cheers…. Peter

  13. Peter- Excellent point! I hadn’t read Capstick until a few years ago. And yes, Sir Pterry…LOL

  14. Missed this today or I would have commented earlier.
    For me, the test is: Am I getting bored? If I am, then I need to go back a little bit, and move on from that point.
    I try to throw in a little atmosphere, then only put in things that the reader Needs To See. And maybe a red herring or two.

    I also try to use descriptions to set story pace, someone running sees less, some one stopping and being impressed seems more.
    Or at least these are the things I strive for. As someone said up above. It’s tricky sometimes to get the balance right.

  15. Back when Memorial day was on May 30th, and the Indy 500 was run then, Dad would have us help clean the front porch for summer usage. We’d have the race on the radio, and it was quite enjoyable. I’ve seen Indy time trials (50+ years ago) and a few road races in person, but the 500 on radio was somehow the best experience of all.

  16. Although The Admiral did the most to shape my personal beliefs (I was reading the juveniles at 5-6 [had to prove to Mrs. Hendershot the librarian that I didn’t need pictures and could read aloud cold off the page] and read “Starship Troopers” around 9 or so) it’s always been Bradbury for me for painting the most vivid picture with the fewest strokes.

    And, while I’ve never been a sports fan, there’s always been something about the rhythm and melody of baseball color commentary that I’ve always loved. As a wee bairn, there was nothing better to fall asleep to than a Royals game on in the next room – except, maybe, for the times there would be a night game at the well appointed little league park just a few blocks from my house. Whoever they had on the mic could easily have hung with Denny Trease or Fred White – heck, it coulda been one of them moonlighting. That pitch and cadence, combined with enough distance and reverberance to completely strip all intelligibility was pure audio melatonin. And, when those sparing but dramatic moments of excitement hit, the announcers’ excitement and the roar of the crowd, muted by distance, rather than pulling you back to wakefulness, instead hucked you straight into dreamland.