11 Exercises to Enhance Your Visual Thinking

Which comes first for you—images or words? For storytellers, both are important. We craft words on paper to communicate our visions to readers. We want them to see what we see, hear what we hear, experience what we experience. Concentrating on visual thinking is an exercise many of us can use to access our creativity and write better stories.

I think in pictures. I think in words too, but even then I usually see the words floating through my head (in a serif font…). Like C.S. Lewis and his photographic flash of a faun with an umbrella carrying parcels in the snow, almost all my story ideas come to me as images. When I was young, I overlay everything in my daily world with pictures from my innerscape—wild horses ran alongside the highway on car trips, moonlit nights turned my backyard into a secret labyrinth, automatic doors at the grocery store proved my Jedi mind powers (okay, so everyone does that one…).

It was glorious.

However, I find that my adult brain is less visual than it used to be. I haven’t lost the ability to see druids in the woods or outlaws in a storm, but what used to be the constant daydreaming of childhood has been largely relegated to the dusty attic along with the other nostalgic playthings.

But as a writer of fiction, my life remains fervently in need of these dreams, these visions, these specters out the corner of my eye. And so, even as I dedicate myself to waging war against Internet brain and the inherent distractions that pull me away from my visual thinking, I also become more intent than ever on once again consciously accessing this amazing realm of creativity.

When I mentioned this a few weeks ago in my post on combating Internet brain, one of you asked that I further develop the idea of reclaiming visual thinking. This post largely chronicles my own practices for working with my visual thinking.

I recognize these thoughts may not be useful to some of you, since studies approximate that only around 60-65% of people think in pictures (although I wouldn’t be surprised to learn this percentage rises among storytellers). If you are not someone who can, or normally does, think in pictures, I’d love to hear your take on all this. Does the idea of visual thinking resonate at all? Have you ever attempted any of the following exercises, and if so did you have to modify them? Particularly, I’d love to know how you interact with stories if you don’t see them.

For now, here are my thoughts on how those of us who use visual thinking can hone our mind pictures, so we may reap their creative benefits, both personally and creatively.

11 Exercises to Practice Visual Thinking in Your Writing Life

Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.–Henry David Thoreau

No doubt, Thoreau’s idea was that we manifest our dreams for how we’d like our lives to look in our outer worlds. But as writers, I think most of us can see the other side of this blessing as well—when the beautiful and exciting visions of our unconscious minds join us in our mundane lives. Sometimes these visions grow so rich and vibrant we are able to stitch them together into the full and meaningful tapestry of a complete story. And what are stories if not dreams we share with one another?

To help us all become better dream-sharers, here are eleven exercises I use to consciously access my visual thinking and creativity.

1. Dreamzoning

I harp on this one all the time, mostly because it has been my creative sweet spot for the last ten years. For those who don’t know, “dreamzoning” is Robert Olen Butler’s term for a practice not too far afield from Carl Jung’s “active imagination.” It is an intentional period (anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours) of focused daydreaming, in which you zone out and zone in on your story.

Although you may actively create and guide a narrative during this time, you can also use it to more directly tap your unconscious by simply allowing images of your stories (or whatever) to surface and following “whatever moves.” Much like any meditation practice, you may find it helpful to create a distraction-free environment with background music and a focal point like a candle.

2. Taking Story Walks

Turn your daydreaming into a “walking meditation.” I used to do this naturally as a kid—take my stories with me. Nowadays, it requires more concerted effort for me to remember to let my own inner visuals rise up and join me in the world.

You can do this anywhere and anytime (on the treadmill or washing dishes), but I find it comes most naturally and is most enjoyable when I’m outside. For instance, right now I’m blessed to have a patch of woods right out my back door, in which I walk every morning. I’m trying to get better at “seeing” things. Just as with dreamzoning, I let the images arise on their own, then follow them mentally to see where they go. Sometimes they are familiar characters, sometimes they are more symbolic. Right now, I’ve been seeing a lot of mysterious Athurian-esque men and woman lurking way back in the trees. (And I can say that, right? Because we’re all mad here. 😉 )

3. Seeking Your Own Symbolism

The pictures that rise in our minds when we’re awake aren’t so different from those that come to us in our dreams. Story-driven images are often just as personally symbolic as are your dreams. For me, the greatest difference is usually that my waking images make more contextual sense (e.g., if I were night-dreaming about walking in the woods, I’d probably see politicians and pelicans rather than King Arthur and Morgan le Fay). Still, I believe the images my mind gives me at any particular time offer a telling glimpse into my own unconscious, whether I can translate it or not. Our unconscious brains do not speak in words, but in symbols. For those of us who think visually, the pictures we see probably reflect those symbols more than we realize.

4. Filling the Well

In discussing daydreams, Dr. Jonathan Smallwood commented that:

[Daydreams are] generated from representations that are based on information from memory.

In short, our unconscious minds cobble together available visual details to create meaningful images—in the same way we consciously cobble together known words to create meaningful communication. To me, this suggests the more remembered images our brain can draw upon, the more expansive our visual thinking becomes.

However, I’ve also come to believe that quality matters over quantity. In this overwhelmingly visual society, our brains are processing new images at an unprecedented rate. In order to output the most potent creative images, I want to try to feed my brain on the leafy greens and avoid the high carbs. This, I think, circles back to symbolic imagery. Simple, powerful images are endlessly meaningful and endlessly recyclable. I remember Jack Kerouac’s famous quote:

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.

To me, this applies just as much to finding the right and simple images—whether the image is a vibrant rose from my flower garden, a phenomenal painting in an art collection, or an astounding red gown on Pinterest.

5. Using Music as a Starting Point

Music is not, of course, visual. But then again, for many of us, it is. Music is such a powerful source of emotion, and for many of us, that emotion translates into images—those personal symbols—and then, often, into stories. This is why I use music when dreamzoning, as well as when writing. Taking four minutes to sit quietly, eyes closed, listening to a single song can be all I need to kick-start my visual thinking for the day.

6. Using Images as Starting Points

My very first stories, as a pre-teen, were based on pictures. I remember the first picture was of a giant-shaped cloud seeming to walk down a beach full of children. I wrote a story about the giant kidnapping a little girl’s brother. After that, I started a newsletter called Horse Tails, for which I wrote stories that were based on and titled after the many collectible decorative plates I would see in catalogs.

Nowadays, we have Pinterest. I’ve also started seeking out art books and card decks, which I can keep handy as instant inspiration. Even if all I do is glance at them, I’ve locked the images into my mind where they can be regurgitated later. Maybe I’ll see them in the woods!

7. Focusing on Color and Light

There’s visual thinking and there’s visual thinking. Those of us who think in images are so accustomed to seeing and reacting to the world in this way that we often fail to notice much less acknowledge and process the images constantly flashing behind our eyes. Most of the time that’s fine, since we’re just using them as information to help us do the stuff that’s in front of us. But in those moments when we’re trying to enhance our ability to think visually and to notice we’re thinking visually, one of the best tricks I know is to concentrate on color and light.

The next time you’re dreamzoning or story-walking or just arrested by an amazing new mental picture, take the time to notice the colors. The misty image of a new character can take on dimension simply by your noticing that her eyes are blue. Same goes for lighting. Where does the light hit this image? Where do the shadows fall? Is it day or night? Sunny or stormy?

8. Bringing in Other Senses

In the comment that inspired this post, Andy Clark said:

I’d love to find a way to reconnect with my sensory mind (and I think it actually goes beyond visual) to bring richness to my stories.

That got me to thinking about how I might also exercise my other senses in these bouts of active imagination. I’m such a visual person that sometimes the only aspect I focus on is the seen. But as soon as I move past visualizing my woman in the woods to perhaps feeling the texture of her velvet gown or smelling the ozone as an imaginary storm rolls in or tasting ash in the wind—all sorts of new possibilities emerge.

9. Creating Music Videos in Your Head

My favorite way to combine dreamzoning and music-listening is by letting the music-inspired images unfurl in my imagination in an abbreviated narrative. Instead of focusing on a single scene and its arc, I let the images of the entire story roll through my head as if it were a music video or movie trailer. Not only do I get some of my best images this way, but it’s a fantastic tool for giving me an overall sense of what a story is about, both in terms of plot and theme.

10. Taking Snapshots

Sometimes I will capture “snapshots” of visual inspiration. They come to me in a blink—unconsciously mostly, but also when I remember to do it purposefully. These are some of my favorite images. A quick visual “blink” is one of the easiest ways to access visual imagination, and you never know what fun new image you might get. Try it. Whatever comes up for you is also probably something symbolically meaningful in some way.

11. Paying Attention to Your Dreams

Finally, don’t forget the deep well at the center of it all—your unconscious—and the bucket on its rope that lets you access it every night—your sleeping dreams. My sleeping dreams are usually too wild and chaotic to offer much in the way of cohesive story ideas. But they always offer vivid imagery.

Keeping a dream journal and revisiting it periodically can not only be personally revealing in identifying the repeating images that are most important to you, but it can also help you cultivate a more direct method of communicating with your unconscious creativity.


Several times while writing this, I realized that to anybody who doesn’t think this way, the idea of seeing people out in the woods may sound totally nuts. :p But for those who do dream their dreams out loud, so to speak, I think you know how awesome it is—and how important it is that we cultivate this gift rather than letting it slip away like the rest of childhood. To that end, here’s to implementing some or all of these exercises into our lives and keeping our imaginative muscles pumped up!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Is visual thinking your go-to storytelling method? If not, what does story inspiration look like to you? Either way, what’s your best tip for honing your imagination? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Hi Katie! What a GREAT article on exercises to stimulate visual thinking! Thank.you SO much for sharing your thoughts! As an author of sword and sorcery, I am constantly challenged to show the world my characters inhabit. Reading your posts reminds me that I’m NOT ALONE in this struggle. I’ll be putting your exercises to work for sure, especially the suggestion on dreamzoning! Thanks again, and keep it coming!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, visual world-building is often very important for fantasy writers, since we have to convince readers to see things they’ve never quite seen before.

  2. K.M.- you are so fortunate to have these images. I can visualize scenes on those rare occasions when I can get into writing a story, but that’s it. For me, I don’t have dreams, I have nightmares usually involving a problem that is unsolvable. Tough to make a story out of that.

  3. K.B. Tidwell says

    K.M., this is an interesting post to me because it’s pretty much verbatim how I’ve lived my entire life in my head. I’m older than you (half a century now, thank you God for letting me see it), so Robert Butler’s book wasn’t dreamed of (dream zoned?) when I “started”, but I remember at around the age of 10 or 11 consciously “shifting mental gears” in how I wrote stories. I began constantly walking the pastures of my grandfather’s property, and imagining Great Things.
    I was very fortunate to live a rural life on that land, and I still occupy it today, but the realities of life (like working all day and being too tired mentally and physically when I get home to my family) have dampened that childhood pleasure to taking walks in my mind from the back patio as I look out into the forest of Mirkwood, er, Pawpaw’s old pastures.
    However, with the assistance of music and a stronger mental focus than I had at 10 years old, I’m very able to still virtually walk those rolling fields and write stories. How ‘bout that? An imagining within an imagining.
    And I think that many, many more people do this and have always done it than really realize it consciously. Mr. Butler is probably one of the (tragically) few who have put the process down on paper in order to illuminate the uninitiated into this sweet experience that I wouldn’t trade the world for.
    So, as to your list, I’ve used:
    1. As I’ve already mentioned.
    2. Likewise.
    3. Though I’ve always loved the idea of using dream symbology to write great stories, I’ve not had much luck there. I guess I’m too literal. Kind of like Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation, only kinder and gentler and not as wealthy. 😀
    4. I love writing tight (from the excellent, method-shaping book of the same title by William Brohaugh), and I absolutely LOVE pulling off the perfect word maneuver which is perfect because it’s impactful. I don’t always get there, but when I do it feels like when Ralphie was let down after opening all of his gifts in A Christmas Story. No Red Ryder BB gun! And then there’s…one more…over in the corner where it was overlooked until Dad pointed it out. Quality imaginings produce quality writing every time.
    5. I’ve used music for many years. Around here I maintain my writing mood in the months when it’s just too cold to write outside by playing a combo of tracks that sound just like my backyard in Spring. I have a trio go-to setup, which is a track of crows cawing in the distance, a great pasture track of the sounds of cattle far off doing what cattle do, and a woodland soundtrack that gives me back all the birds and squirrels that I miss in the winter. Nowadays, while I AM outside, I have a headphone pod in one ear with one of the many “concentration” binaural beats tracks playing. Never gave that much credence til lately, but it actually seems to help my focus.
    6. Images. Funny, that. It works for me wonderfully, of course, but all day yesterday I was trying to sort out problems I’m having with Scrivener on iOS causing my Windows desktop view of the same story-provoking images I’ve placed in my WIP to disappear. ‘Nother story there altogether. But yes, images work well if I don’t fall down the Pinterest rabbit hole. Which I do.
    7. Light and color. Nothing inspires me in a million directions like sunset and sunrise. And the sun just gave me an encouraging pat on the shoulder for that endorsement as I write this. 🙂
    8. I’ve written a few nostalgia pieces based on smell memories. Nothing instantly transports me through time like a familiar scent. I don’t know how Nebraska-ized kudzu (the plant) is, but in the South where I live it’s everywhere, and if you ever smell it in bloom in August/September, you’ll have the key to taking me back to age 13 in the seventh grade. The old schoolhouse had no air conditioning, so the tall windows were opened in hot weather… And if I smell any sort of clean lemony smell, like certain cookies baking, or maybe even certain kinds of cleaners, I’m standing outside my grandmother’s (rest in peace, Mawmaw) house with the windows open as a child. I appreciate and look for that.
    9. Have experienced this to certain music soundtracks, like “heroic music”, or “adventure music”. I have to turn off my inner editor and just go with the flow.
    10. The Viewmaster of the mind (I have dated myself there, fer sure ha!). I don’t employ this one now, though I have before. In fact, if you happen to see an old Viewmaster at your local thrift store, it’s a cheap, fun way to do pretty much what you’re talking about. Get all the old discs for it you can. I do sci-fi, and I’m still inspired today about some of the images I saw in my old Viewmaster as a kid. Fun stuff!
    11. See number 3 above.
    As you can tell, I really enjoyed the article because it pretty much reflects my entire writing life (over 40 years now). I appreciate the time of reflection you’ve given me here, but I want to add one more item to your list that I think you’ll appreciate.
    12. Prayer.
    James 1:7: Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.
    Psalm 20:4: May He grant you your heart’s desire and fulfill all your counsel!
    Matthew 7:7: Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.
    Romans 8:32: He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?
    Sometimes you just need to ask for inspiration.
    You may edit this comment as needed for publication. Have a great day!
    K. B. Tidwell

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is great. I love how you capitalized “Great Things.” That’s it *exactly.*

  4. Chris Bailey says

    Thanks for outlining the ways! I think of myself as visual, and I always read visually–characters in a mind movie, rather than words on a page–but my writing always begins aurally. The characters talk to me. I’m afraid sometimes when I’m out walking, my lips move. Do not call for help. I’m fine.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s interesting. I will sometimes find myself speaking some random line of dialogue out of nowhere, but I rarely “hear” things in my imagination.

  5. I’m going to have to listen to this again to see if any of this will help. I believe at least one of these will help me.

    In the past I have visualize, but for some reason I believe I have gotten out the habit which may explain why I have been plodding along and not going very far.

    One of the annoyances I have with myself is I can’t remember my dream or that they’re so vague I can’t examine them. I know that other creative people can use them, but with mine I see no value in them. Can I be wrong about this?

  6. Hi Katie! Thanks again for a great post. I often find myself planning a story around connecting specific visual snapshots like in #10–but I never called it that! This also reminded me that some of my first stories were retellings of my favorite music videos, so I’ve always had music tied with my storytelling. I love the suggestion to take a walk and see what comes out. Hope you’re safe and well!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, music has always been huge for me. When I was young, certain bits of music would just stop me cold I felt them so powerfully.

      • I definitely relate to that! I also love making book playlists. Only seems natural my most recent WIP was about musicians 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Nice! And, yes, I have waaay too many playlists that are related to stories I’ve written or want to write.

      • This was the tool that resonated with me as well. I mostly “hear” my way into my story. The words come to me before the pictures. That said, once I’m into a story, music helps it come alive. I took a course with Nina LaCour and, as an exercise to break down the overwhelming length of a novel, she challenged us to think about the mini-emotional arcs that lead one into the next until we get to the end of our stories. For example, your story might start out with anticipation then lead into fear followed by distraction/fun until it plummets into hopelessness then ends in relief or joy. When I was doing this exercise, I found myself using song titles, rather than naming the emotion. I knew what song would be playing in my head to give me the feeling I’d want the reader to have when reading a certain part. But once I hear the song and connect it to the story, I’m able to see the characters interacting with the song playing like the soundtrack.

        Loved all these tips, Katie. I’m going to pick up Dreamzoning.

        One other question, what card decks do you use? I’m curious to try that method.

        • Kelsey Tidwell says

          Not to interrupt your conversation with Katie, but I’ll offer a card deck in the form of an app that I use. It’s called Brainsparker, and if you are an iOS user, check here:


          If you are an Android user, these people are working on an app, but apparently you can sign up to have a “spark” sent to you every day here:


          There are many optional “card packs” of different kinds of sparks, such as a vision pack, blogger’s pack, character pack, dialogue, innovator, mood, quotes…the list goes on and on, much like I do.

          It’s been a nice tool for me. It helps me poke a stick at the bundles of sticks and leaves that sometimes clog up the streams of thought in my wee brain.

          Happy day to you!
          K. B.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Ah, nice. I like the idea of using song arcs as an exercise for finding scene arcs.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          As for cards, mostly I’ve just found random things on the Internet. I do have Caroline Myss’s Archetype cards, which are more helpful for story mechanics than dreamzoning.

  7. Eric Troyer says

    Interesting post. I too think in images often. So much so that I hadn’t ever thought that one might need exercises to help them do so. Sometimes the visions I get are too distracting! You mentioned meditation as being related to a couple of your suggested exercises. I second the idea of a meditation practice. Being mindful really helps you be in the moment and notice things as they are, or at least as you see them in that moment. I think that helps me. (But I can’t help but think of that classic stoner cliche: Have you ever looked at your hands? I mean, really looked at your hands?!)

  8. This is very interesting, especially as I am not a very visual person. (I make up for my lack by doing a lot of drawing…) My stories tend to center on an emotion my character is feeling and build out from there (or else they start with a snatch of dialogue. I love snatches of dialogue.)

    When I first started writing, as a teen, I thought a story should only be written in the season it took place in, so I could go outside and experience the weather, the scents, and the textures that my characters would be experiencing. I had an Autumn/Winter story, and rotated it with a Spring/Summer story. I eventually realized that books take longer than one season to write and gave up the practice, but I still think there’s something special about working on a book in its proper season.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s interesting. Despite being so visual, I can’t draw to save my life.

      • My dad liked to paint. As a little girl, I would sit on a tall stool beside him and watch, just for the pleasure of being nearby, and I used to draw stories before I was in kindergarden (mostly Cindrella, because cool clothes) in blue pen, on lined notebook paper. I can’t remember a time I didn’t doodle as a way of `thinking out loud,’ and I took several art courses in Collage, so from all that you’d think I’d be a very visual person, but I’m the sort of person who walks into someone’s house and goes `is that floor new?’ only to get an odd look in response, and my friend saying `Grace, that floor was new six months ago. You really only just noticed?’ I often think I’m lost while out driving, because I completely forget what the surrounding area looks like on the road between one place and another. And when I write, I have to go over the scene again and do a `detail pass’ to make sure I give my characters surroundings -any surroundings.

        Sometimes I suspect that I don’t think quite like other people do.

  9. Great post! I think Taking Story Walks is the most productive process for stimulating story ideas. Walking by itself is like Red Bull for the imagination — taking in new sights and sounds prods your creativity. You can use those stimuli to jump-start the story you’re working on. Works for me.

  10. james rehg says

    The post caused me to rethink how I see stories. I’m dyslexic so visual is far more important to me than verbal. I’m working on my grade school years memoir and most of the stories come from images. I have not been afflicted with childhood amnesia, so I can see scenes from my early years like they were film loops. I can replay them over at will. I use your exercises in 6, 7, and 8 regularly. I need to see if some of the other exercises will help fill in more details on the stories I’m retelling.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Is childhood amnesia really a thing? *goes to look it up*

    • That’s really fascinating that that part of your memory is still intact. That’s a quality I wish I had when I write about older people who were involved in my childhood yet not as much now. As much as I long to, I’ll never be able to express in words how much they’ve done for me thus my story feels incomplete at times, but that’s just the natural phenomenon of our brain I guess. Your talent is a gift. Use it for what’s most meaningful to you.

  11. Lila Diller says

    This is fascinating! I’m reading a theology book about how people experience faith through their imagination (Seeing is Believing by Greg Boyd). My over-active imagination has always been both a blessing and a curse. I lived in fear for years and years because of the few scary images I saw as a child. I have very vivid dreams and often write down at least some scenes that I remember, though I don’t always remember enough for them to make any sense. For me to write, I have to be able to visualize a scene and then I describe it with the best words I can think of. The most common cause of my writer’s block is when I can’t visualize a scene.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally relate regarding the link between writer’s block and no imagery. That’s big for me too.

  12. I’m not quite as intensely visual, but these exercises sound interesting. It’s always important when I’m developing a character to know their eye color: it shapes their entire personality. I hear my characters a lot; it helps me find their voice.

  13. Thanks for another meaningful, helpful post. I am very visual. Before I write, and while writing, a movie is playing out in my mind. I’m also very attuned to smells and tastes. Much of the trilogy of historical fiction that I’m writing takes place in the Old West. Imagine the visuals! (It has helped immensely to travel to these places and consciously take in all sensory stimuli–abd quickly record them, usually with a video clip.) I also study people’s facial expressions, body language, build, and details of their looks. There’s a lot out there to fuel our imaginations.

  14. Adam James says

    Fantastic article!!

    I’ve been a visual thinker all my life. I have dyslexia but turned it into a visualization skill. Oddly, I was attracted to books at a young age, even though I couldn’t read actual words. So it was comic books with their visual panels, i.e., story boards, that got me going. I made my own picture books and my mother sewed the pages together with yarn. I always saw stories everywhere, and would freely describe them to anyone who would listen. Now, at 78, it’s still going on. Story ideas and characters appear constantly. Just yesterday a new character, Donnie Mumbles a New York hit man, appeared. I can’t wait to find out what he’s all about.

    Drafting class was a real eye-opener for a visual thinker. Also spherical trigonometry. My writing first came together when we were introduced to diagramming sentences in maybe the eighth grade. I was the first one in the class to pick up on it. However, my spelling still skcus.

    I was a technical writer for 25 years on database projects. During the entire time I wanted to be a graphic artist or a fiction writer. So, “retirement” has been a real joy.

    Cheers and Happy Reading to visual thinkers everywhere!
    JIM in MT

  15. Misako Wu says

    Whenever I imagine, it is really hard to see things, instead I kind of feel the words of what’s happening and know the colors in the story. So light and color really helps me to incorporate symbolism.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s fascinating. So you don’t see pictures, but you do see light and color?

  16. Inaya Mofiz says

    Hi Katie! This post resonated so much with me. I remember last year I took a class called Writing My Identity and our last assignment was to describe our writing process and that was the first time I put into words my creative process. I thought at first it was odd as it stood out from my peers reflections but it almost mirrored every word you mentioned. My thesis was as quoted
    “The power of our brain, the vivid and sensory imagery it entails, and the retrieval of words that jump right of our tongue and seamlessly come together is what makes writing so beautiful.” I’d also like to hold on to this trait as it truly excites me.

    Sometimes I re read my writing from my 9th grade English class and marvel at how naturally I was writing like this all along but somewhere along my school career, I lost that touch. Academic papers occluded my true interests to a point where I dreaded writing so much. Also, soon after I received a phone, without even realizing, I spent less time brainstorming, pondering, and writing on topics that were meaningful to me. My own college entrance essay was such a struggle. I felt like I was incompetent and just too unpolished to write yet when I visualize/feel what I write it comes so effortlessly. I’m so glad your putting into words the need to keep writing from this perspective. Thank you for the lovely article!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In writing this post, I was remind of one of my favorite quotes: “The creative adult is the child who has survived.”–Julian F. Fleron

  17. Thanks for another great post. I’m a visual writer big-time. Ideas have come from dreams, but not that often. Most of my ideas come from what I consider my deepest dreamzone – right before I go to sleep. When my mind and body finally relax, it’s like a gate opened to creative land, and I start writing in my head. Is that weird? The one dream that turned into a novel was memorable because it was alive, the colors were incredibly vivid (even for the sights and sounds of Greece) and it felt REAL. Kinda spooky, but it got me started! It made me wonder if it’s true that only the dreams that are in color come true? I can’t imagine living in a black-and-white world.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Not weird at all. I believe they call that state hypnagogia. It’s where we think we’re still awake, and *are* consciously controlling our thoughts to some degree, but for all intents and purposes we’re really asleep. Totally dreamzoning. :p

  18. John Warfield says

    I can’t do anything without a visual image…it’s the other stuff that proves challenging. For characters and scenes i render them in 3D and put them on the screen. Time consuming but it works amd satisfies two needs at once.

  19. Muriel Willliamson says

    It’s really interesting reading all the replies and I found your article really motivating but I don’t know how I can apply it. I don’t think in images at all. In fact, I can rarely remember things I’ve seen. I have to look at them and describe them to myself in words before I can remember them, and then it’s only the words I remember.
    As well as that I cannot remember a dream I have had in the last fifty years, and what I remember of those is the words that were spoken!
    It’s only recently that I’ve realised how odd all that is but I don’t know quite what I can do about it. Any suggestions gratefully received.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I don’t know that this is “odd” or that it can be changed (although I’m no expert). From my understanding, certain brains are just wired differently. I have a feeling your brain brings other advantages to the table.

    • Elizabeth L Richards says

      Muriel, I’m with you on the whole visual thing. The term is Aphantasia so you can go read about it. It’s not well researched but it’s certainly a popular topic recently.

      We, the Aphantasiacs, just think differently.

      For example, when I wrote Aphantiasiacs I immediately had a vague concept of pointy-headed, super intellectual, slightly alien Star Trek beings. Does anyone else riff on the idea of something?

  20. Patrick Macy says

    Great advice KM. The suggestion of using music to help during writing or dreamzoning is a problem for me. I have tried it (since you and several other authors have suggested it,) but find after just a few seconds, I am seeing the band or orchestra playing, then the story the music is telling forces itself into my mind’s eye and I am watching that story instead of seeing my own. This is strange to me, since it has only started in the past few years, I used to always have music going when possible while I worked (as a scientist, not a writer.) Currently, I need near isolation from everything, no TV, radio, phone, or people. Not even sure when this started, sometime in the last three years; I used to write all my reports in an open office!
    Thank you.


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s interesting. (Now I’ll probably be seeing the orchestra when I dreamzone this evening… :p) I wonder what would happen if you just surrendered to that. What you conjure in the dreamzone doesn’t always have to be directly related to you story. Just watch the orchestra and any other images that surface. They’re all saying *something*, so it might be interesting to just follow wherever they want to go, since they currently seem resistant to listening to your suggestions.

  21. Jeriann Fisher says

    A great article.

    When I’m stuck or unhappy with a scene, I turn back to some photojournalism classes and my love of movies to try and envision how to tell the scene as a movie.

    As an exercise, watch The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler’s masterpiece from 1946. Pay attention to the way that story is told. Wyler returned from the war almost completely deaf. He became more of a visual storyteller. This was his first film upon returning. Notice how many emotional scenes are told with no dialogue (or with little).

    Now, this can’t be completely duplicated in a book. But I’ve used it to think outside the box on a scene. Can I tell this scene through action and reaction? Is there too much unnecessary dialogue? If this were a set, how would it be lit? Does lighting and setting reflect mood? That sort of thing. Film editors can create tension through editing. That’s paragraph and sentence structure. Etc.

    Thanks for the post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Love that movie.

      I do this too. When I’m really stuck, I’ll try to view the scene cinematically. Often, what I see is a film technique that I can’t directly convey on the page. But it will often get me jumpstarted.

  22. What a generous article! full of useful suggestions and ideas. And quoting such authoritative sources.

    Please be careful when you walk and use your imagination this deeply – sometimes those trees can move on you. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it!

    One thing we can’t do now, but I’ve really enjoyed in the past is museums. No one thinks it odd when you stand and stare at a picture, a suite of armor or old clothing for a long time. Art in general can be wonderful for stirring the imagination and there’s just something about being there with it.

    Thank you again.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Haha. Are you implying the reason I’m a klutz is because I get lost in my imagination? 😉

  23. M.L. Bull says

    I have to really know a character, otherwise I don’t “see” any clear visual images. For example, I’ve known my “Saint Vincent” book series cast for a long time since 2012, so I know each one of them fairly well from the lead “Savage family” to the minor neighbor characters, such as Mr. Raymond or “Gramps” the old, grocery clerk. Depending on attributes and traits, sometimes some characters are clearer than others.

    For my story “The Pact”, dialogue or words has actually been my main driving force of inspiration. I think about what happens next, and “wa-lah”, Millie, the narrator speaks. Her narrating voice is pretty clear to me. I hadn’t even outlined anything when I wrote the first chapter until after the fact. But I don’t “see” visual images of these character too much at all. Maybe it’s because my visual aids are in black-and-white and were made from a pre-made, digital, pencil sketch drawing app. Plus, I didn’t intend for it to be but a short story, though it’s a bit longer than that now. Out of all of them, Pearl is the one I can picture the most because she has the most distinctive traits. Sometimes acting helps me too, especially if I’m having a hard time writing a chapter or a scene has two or more characters. Of course, I make sure no one is around, or somebody will ask, “Who are you talking to?” It’s happened.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yeah, you gotta watch yourself in the grocery store when you’re thinking about your story. Though giving people a reason to keep their distance might be a good thing right now. 😉

  24. Elizabeth L Richards says

    It came as quite a shock earlier this year when a string of comments over in the Art of Memory forum pointed out in astonishment that Some People Don’t Think in Images. Whoa! (I thought.) You mean people literally think in images, as in fully developed detailed pictures? That’s not a metaphor?

    So weird.

    I can’t close my eyes and “see” a picture. In fact I can’t close my eyes and remember what my husband looks like well enough to describe him to you.

    I have a sense that there is a picture but it’s always just in and out of my peripheral vision. If I try to focus on it, it flits away. Or imagine looking at something through a foggy shower glass door. You know the actual thing is just over there but you can’t quite get it.

    Which doesn’t mean my world isn’t populated by fantasy. I totally get the idea of King Arthur figures flitting through the trees.

    I think though that I start with character and story.

    Try this exercise. Think of a character and without using words or pictures, what did you come up with? I have a “feeling” about the character that isn’t tied to aNothing concrete.
    I think the term is concept or essence?

    So a character is a collection of concepts and a story is a string of concepts. And King Arthur is the essence of stone castles, and charging horses, and sorrow, and mystery, and everlasting. And writing is finding just the right words to give reader the same feeling.

    Or something like that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Concept or essence. I like that.

      And, yes, it similarly stunned me when I first learned some people didn’t think in images–or even words, come to that. Definitely bumped my understanding of reality.

  25. Karen Edwards Pierotti says

    I needed this today. Covid-19, disturbing news and too much FB time has given me battle fatigue lately. I took the time to wander around my garden (yard) where the roses are in full bloom. Not only are they beautiful to look at but their scent is heavenly as they are antique and English roses. Even the aggressive robin protecting his nest as he swoops down to warn me and my dogs was a welcome distraction. Thanks for sharing this.

  26. Tamanna Ahmad says

    Hi K.M.! Thank you so much for sharing this article! I am still a teen, so I still do some of these things. Like the visualising a part of your story? I do it every morning when my body doesn’t feel like leaving the bed. But I’m really grateful for this because now, I will remember these even when life starts getting more hectic (it’ll happen at some point, right?).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s great! I wish someone had told me when I was your age that I should nurture that gift more.

  27. Emily Ballain says

    I still gallop horses along the highway… They jump signs. Weave between traffic cones. Guess I never grew out of it. Sometimes I have to make myself stop imagining things (I often walk around in the mindset of a character or two. Or three.) and focus on real life. Problem is, sometimes there are too many images from too many stories! Oh well. I’ll keep writing a bit at a time 🙂

  28. lee taylor says

    I totally love this. It is exactly what my creativity has its basis in. Especially love the idea of playing your movies in your mind to accompany you to sleep; a practise of mine also.

  29. Charisse says

    I am a visual writer and when I read this post I did not feel alone. Finally someone approaches writing stories the same way I do. I have even went so far as downloading pics of actors who remind me of my characters and I downloaded an app Fake call and I have my characters call me using the Fake app. I also love Brainstorming walks. Thank you for this post. Very powerful and insightful information. You’re the best K. M. Weiland.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I don’t think you’re alone at all. I think *many* writers, especially those with dominant intuitive cognitive functions, are visual.

  30. Excellent post! I never realized how much dreamzoning I’ve subconsciously done over the years as a writer. Now I have a word for it. Lol! This was so insightful, and definitely helps get those creative juices flowing. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As I re-integrate many of the “techniques” I used instinctively as a child, my adult brain is astounded by how magical they all are. 🙂

  31. I IMAGINED HORSES ALONGSIDE THE HIGHWAY TOO!! But I didn’t use the Force for automatic doors; I did Open Sesame from Aladdin and the King of Thieves. xD

    I think images usually come first for me, then actions and words. I’m a visual learner, so that’s probably why. I just need to figure out how to preserve it all so that the scene on paper looks just like or 99% like the way I first imagined it, because sometimes, I’m not able to write it down immediately, and sometimes, I’m just lazy. 😛

  32. Obed Meyers says

    When you mentioned as a way of prompting visual thinking, I had a total “WOW” moment. Music has always been inspiring to me, but I didn’t realize until listening to this podcast just how clearly my visual thinking gets triggered by music. I think I’ll start my next writing session with music.Thanks K.M.!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes! For me, the instrumental group Two Steps From Hell is perfect for inspiring the fantasy scenes I need to visualize while writing.

  33. Felicia R Johnson says

    I recently recalled how much I used to daydream and realized how little I do it now. That could be why it is harder for me to write. My imagination is just not what it used to be. I visualized a lot while walking. Now I am too concerned with what is going on around me. I daydreamed in the shower until I got my shower radio. Now I listen to music. Even doing housework, the TV is a distraction. Time to make some changes!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, as a child, it never occurred to me that daydreaming or imagining was a skill that needed regularly exercise to maintain. Now I know better.

  34. Casandra Merritt says

    That’s too funny, that one about a wild horse running alongside the highway on long trips. That used to happen to me. It wasn’t a black Arabian stallion, was it?!!!
    I have a question on POV. Is that “account” style of first person, like what was used in Huckleberry Finn, still acceptable today? I mean where the narrator will sometimes even speak to the reader? Maybe there are different kinds of first person.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Mine was usually a whole herd.

      The “account” style (which is often, though not always, epistolary) is definitely considered a gimmick these days. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be used to good effect, as long as the author is in control of its purpose.

  35. Hilary A says

    I have aphantasia, so my mind does not form pictures at all (although I do dream vividly). However, I have a loud internal monologue that carries on conversations all the time, and when I’m walking the dog I will find a phrase will jump into my mind and that becomes the basis for a story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      How interesting that you see images when you sleep but not when you daydream. That fascinates me.

  36. I loved the post, and love the book you mentioned in topic 1. What I do beside some of the tips you gave is freewriting, like Julia Cameron’s the Artist way suggests. It helps me to have insights I usually don’t have if I don’t write. Thanks for the post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I need to re-read Butler’s book one of these days. It was very formative for me.

  37. I don’t see my stories visually. I’m not a visual person which to me is a real impediment to my writing. I “hear” stories. I will occasionally get an image, but very occasionally. And usually when they do appear, I realized I was seeing the end of my stories.

    My biggest distraction right now is all the news coming out of the US. It all feels so huge, I have trouble looking away. I was just writing yesterday about how I needed to create more “space” for the daydreaming mind. I love Robert Olen Butler’s book. I live in Canada, in a beautiful space, so while it’s good to be aware, I don’t need to be as hyper-aware as I am.

    My other challenge is my “to-do list”. As a working mom with a house to look after, there’s no end of things that need to be done. Just yesterday, I was musing to myself, I have to add,daydreaming to my “to-do list”.

    I find walking has always been my best way to daydream. I have to start my walk thinking about my story so my thoughts don’t just go to politics, or all the stuff I have to do.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Particularly ever since the start of the quarantine here in the U.S., I’ve gotten even more serious than usual with myself about limiting my time on the Internet. I’m not even turning on the Wi-Fi until noon these days, and it helps *so* much.

  38. Casandra Merritt says

    Thanks, I just came across this style and didn’t know if I had ever seen it before. I’m fond of it myself, but I can see where it would be hard to get something written like that published these days.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As with anything, you can do just about anything you want if you can do it brilliantly. 😉

  39. Peter Linton says

    Good Read, reenforced what I do…
    I work next to a Boot Barn. Pictured in one of their outside display windows stands a model dressed in Western wear from boot to ha . . . Oh wait. She’s not wearing a hat – which is good. She has deep, engaging black hair that matches a pair of (not overdone) eyebrows. One side is pulled back, revealing a turquoise earring. Her expression is inviting, but not seductive. Approaching quietly, she is holding a lasso and guiding a horse. The viewer is ready to talk with her, but look up; she’s 9 feet tall. She’s just as likely to pound you in the ground as smile at you.
    How do I know this? I took a picture through the window.
    Why did I take this picture? As a visual guide for an encounter in my WIP.
    Don’t know how much of the Western wear I’ll describe, but she’s a sister to the King of Elves.
    Rascally yours,
    ~ P

  40. The beginning of my WIP (one of them) was inspired by imagining a cloaked horserider coming the other way when I was driving in a wooded mostly rural area in the evening. I like the WIP, but I was slightly frustrated that my story doesn’t quite match the mysterious feeling of the original image. oh well.

    Anyway, I remember doing a bit too much dreamzoning as a kid growing up, and I know from experience that, while it can be a good idea for creativity, it can also be dangerous, especially I think for a young person with an overactive imagination. As an adult, I try to be sure to pray before doing anything like dreamzoning. I want God to be my muse and not anything else.
    (Is it ironic that I say these things while writing a gory horror/ghost story? -that’s my other WIP)

  41. I took animation in college, which helped my creative writing in ways I can’t describe fully.

    Because I watched movements and saw my ideas come into the real world so much, I can close my eyes and see bullets flying out of guns, Katanas swiping down, characters twisting around pillars to avoid bullets and so much more now.

    I know most people won’t have the 20k to pay for an animation course at college or university, but they can buy things like the animators survival guid for $50, or the Disney animation app for $30.

    Hundreds of examples and videos to train your brain to see how things are animated to be as life like as possible.

  42. One of the best guides for processing in written form that I’ve found is Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit. Its wonderful too. These 11 Ideas are also wonderful and I too suffer from digital overstimulation. Ugh. I also find doodling and drawing release visuals that I otherwise cannot access. Thank you so much. Please keep the suggestions coming!

  43. I can’t sleep unless I make up a story in my head. Been that way since I was a kid.

  44. My god, “From Where You Dream” is terrible. Seems like a pretentious whole-lot-of-nothing so far (around 60 pages in). TBH I feel ripped off having purchased it.

    You’ve given some great recommendations in the past, for example the fantastic “Secrets of Story” by Matt Bird. One of the best sources I’ve encountered.

    But by all that is holy, how on Earth could someone find “From Where You Dream” in any way helpful?

    Is everything beyond P. 60 pure gold? Because everything so far is an utter waste of time. I literally don’t see how anyone could find it in any way insightful, informative, or actionable.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah. It’s been a loooong time since I’ve read that book–over ten years probably. I remember it being pretty rambly, so I can see why it might be tedious. But I got a lot out of it. The ideas in it have stuck with me through the years.

  45. Melissa Chambers says

    Hi Katie, I am twenty-eight and have developmental disabilities. I write middle grade fiction. My interests in writing include dragons, aliens, and post-apocalypse. I have written since I was about thirteen, I think, and have over a hundred manuscripts written. I was reading this article and it occurred to me I had dreamed of a strange looking goat and hadn’t drawn him yet. So the first thing I did when I finished was sit down and draw it on my pen display (it’s a drawing tablet). It has no fur, shiny froglike skin, green-and-black striped legs, black-spotted pastel blue body, laser lemon horns. I would love to hear what you think of my creature! And if you’ve ever heard from a writer with disabilities before. Hope to hear from you!


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good for you! Your creature is vividly visual!

    • I’m also a writer with a handicap* (aspergers with a bit of ADHD). There are a lot of us. Your goat creature sounds interesting. Do it’s horns actually shoot lasers or is that just a way of describing them?
      I’ve also always been interested in strange creatures from mythology & folk tales to cryptozoology and recent fantasy stories.

      (*I don’t like the term disability.)

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