Visual Readers and Memorable Scenes


One of the most interesting discoveries I’ve made about reading (and writing) is how our brains process text. Some of us are intensely visual. This is both great and not so great.

The perils and pitfalls of being a visual reader are similar to those of the visual writer. One of the most obvious pitfalls is that one remembers only the images, not the words. So, for example, someone asks for a recommendation, and you want to suggest this terrific book you read a few years ago—you can remember the color of the cover, and where it sits on the shelf, but you can’t remember the title or author.

If you’re trying to describe this book to others as you desperately cudgel your memory, their eyes glaze over into catatonia as you babble, “No, wait, I’ll get it, I can see where I sat when I read it, and the chocolate chip cookie I dropped when I hit this certain part—I can even see the page! Where, well, it’d be a spoiler, but . . .”

The plus side of being a visual reader of course is the intensely vivid movie you get in your head from descriptive passages in books.

This is not a new phenomenon.

For years I nodded and passed on as I read Victorian memoirs and letters, many of which would mention Bulwer-Lytton (very popular all through the 19th century), and how most of The Last Days of Pompeii was forgettable except for the very end when the volcano erupted. Reading it over a century later, I’d agreed 100%.

A few years ago, after I’d begun studying how we process text (both as readers and writers) I thought I ought to reread it if I can find a copy, because I suspect what I might find: for most of the book, lots of Victorian melodrama and speechifying, the life of the characters never really in focus as I don’t think Bulwer-Lytton was a Roman scholar and knew how they lived. But when he got to the volcano explosion, the story shifted into vivid, intense description, and the emotion felt real, as opposed to standard melodramatic tropes of the time.

There are other books that I remember similarly: most of it forgotten except for one or two really vivid scenes, their emotional impact high for whatever reason. Like, when I first read Les Miserables in translation as a teen, I came away with vivid memories of the chase through the Parisian sewers, but not much else.

Another that stayed with me intensely was the prison break scene in The Count of Monte Cristo. I read all thousand-plus pages as a twelve-year old, but that scene stuck with me for decades.

Tom Sawyer was vivid pretty much all the way through, but the funeral scene that the boys watched stayed with me, whereas many have said that for them it was the fence-painting scene. It was not just Twain’s descriptive power, it was the emotional rollercoaster of the scene, from pathos to hilarity and back again. The other two I mentioned were high stakes chases, so the emotional component was there.

“The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter in Wind in the Willows hit me with an intensity that made slogging through the rest of the book worth it, though I never reread it after that one experience about age ten. My visual sense was torqued too strongly, and I couldn’t make visual sense of the whimsy, for example, how did animal mouths produce words, did the toad have a tiny car or a human car, and how could a toad drive? You get the idea.

One of my favorite books that has many visually and emotionally satisfying scenes is Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, but my favorite is when a vision of Horry’s ancestor emerges out of the fire and grins at her.

I recently blogged my reread of Lord of the Rings, naming many vivid and emotionally effective scenes, but one of the scenes that has lingered in its intensity all the decades I’ve been rereading the trilogy is not the huge battle or magic scenes, though I love them all, but a very small scene with immense emotional impact: when Gollum creeps back to see Sam and Frodo asleep side by side, at the very gates of Mordor.

How about you? Is there a single scene in a book that you’ve always remembered—or how about the most memorable scene among many?



Visual Readers and Memorable Scenes — 17 Comments

  1. As a child I read hugely in the literature written with that audience in mind, and always my preference was for the books that featured horses, first, followed by dogs and then other animals. Sometimes the animals were the protagonists, as in the Albert Payson Terhune collie series of Lad and his descendants, or Black Beauty, or Beautiful Joe. More usually the animal was paired with its human, and thus the human’s perspective was at the forefront, as with The Black Stallion — though in some of the books in the series, as with The Black and Flame — humans hardly enter at all, the reader watches the horses and what they do.

    Most of these books are long series of highly visual scenes. Black Beauty in particular is includes horrific scenes, as the point of the novel was to provoke consciences of humans to treat horses better than were generally treated. The beginning is a hunt, in which the careless young rider who kills himself and the horse in the pasture, having put his horse to a fence / gate it wasn’t ready for, capable of humping. The young foal Beauty’s mother attempts to explain this inexplicable human behavior, providing moral and ethical commentary. My favorite was always Merry Legs, the pony’s description of his many tricks for unseating nasty child riders who didn’t do as a respectful rider should.

    • Oh my goodness yes. I read BLACK BEAUTY right before I turned seven, and the vividness was heart-wrenching.

      • I still feel badly for the mare Ginger, who wasn’t quite fully pedigreed, and was always put to work below her station and resented it. She dies, a worn out, famished, abused garbage horse, like so many women who couldn’t bear the traces of the world they were given, died as worn out prostitutes on the streets.

        What a strange book is Black Beauty. On level it’s about being an African American slave, which Sewell understood perfectly, running our narrator through all the variations that a slave could live through, from indulged favorite house pet, to brutal overworked underfed end. Those conditions were subject to change at any time and there was no recourse even to protest (other than Ginger’s snapping and kicking) for the narrator and the other horses.

        • Ginger’s death just slayed me as a kid. I cried and cried. Even the miserable endings of little girls in Andersen’s fairy tales didn’t hurt as badly.

          • Would that be because even as children we knew fairy tales weren’t real? Horses were real and are. So were the enslaved — though of course the child me never recognized those paradigms in Black Beauty, and my ore than the child me could have recognized that of women without family, money and protection on the streets of London.

            The Canadian-American Beautiful Joe was less subtle, but it included the natural beauties of the natural world too. Oddly as a kid my favorite part of the novel was Laura’s uncle just story telling on their family vacation of his adventures in the forests and with wild creatures.

            • What I really meant to say about Beautiful Joe and those stories within the story — is how the visual still remains with me, even though, structurally, the readers receives those second and even third hand. Joe is the narrator, there is the story in which there is the uncle, and then the uncles is telling stories that Joe is narrating to us.

              The more one recollects in adult-hood these beloved books of childhood, how — radical they are in their techniques of story telling and narrators and points of view. How they shift, among the animal protagonist, the author’s narration, the human companions, and even first person and then third omniscient, even all on the same page. We kids absorbed that effortlessly.

            • When I was six, fairytales were as real to me as anything. It was the unrelenting imagery of Ginger in that cart–her tongue–that hit me so hard. As for Andersen, I think by then I was already becoming inured to cautionary tales about what happens to bad children, particularly forward little girls.

            • “Would that be because even as children we knew fairy tales weren’t real? Horses were real and are”

              That was how it worked for me. I didn’t enjoy sad fairy tales and certainly didn’t reread them, but they didn’t have enough details in them to trigger my brain to process them emotionally as “real”.

              (Can’t speak to the memorable scenes as much since I don’t tend to separate out scenes in my memory. The whole book is a sort of mental whole.)

  2. I always knew they weren’t real. But King Arthur now — he was, wasn’t he? There was more than enough magic in Arthur that I could believe in, in the sense that way back then these things could happen, like I was told the miracles of the Old Testament and early Christianity happened. They just didn’t happen now, I was told.

  3. I still refuse to read Black Beauty. Too much suffering.
    I am not as visual as Sartorias, but I am very susceptible to beauty. But I hear dialog and ambient noise more than I visualize.

    • I think the good is balanced with the bad–Sewell showed how good people treat animals and how they flourish, but still, I don’t blame you if you want to skip it. Sixty years later certain scenes are still branded on my memory.

  4. Like other responders, I have vivid recollections of some scenes from books I read as a child. Old Yeller fighting to the death haunts my dreams to this day, and while I can see violent scenes involving humans in the movies with perfect sangfroid, I can’t tolerate animals even being in danger. Black Beauty! *Shudder.* Much of The Hobbit is also visually sharp for me.

    I must be a hybrid, though, because when I think about scenes from novels that are vivid in my imagination, the first to spring to mind are the ones involving internal transformation: Dorothea in Middlemarch; Elizabeth Bennet’s “Till this moment I never knew myself.” That sort of thing.

    Nice to see a shout-out for “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”! My sophomore year in college I selected that chapter as my term project for translating something from English into Latin: “Tibicen in ostiis aurorae.” Sadly, Latin was not well suited to the ineffability of the subject matter.

  5. A tangent here, but I just read a novel that you would love: THE MURDSTONE TRILOGY, by Mal Peet. Every writer of fantasy should read it, it’s a hoot.