CHAPTER 6: The Fictional World
THE GRAND ILLUSION
When a reader picks up a novel, he “signs” a contract with the author. The author has already fulfilled his part of the contract: to present the story as truth. The reader’s part then is to suspend disbelief. So the author and the reader are accomplices in deceit. This is what I call “The Grand Illusion.” The novelsmith creates an entirely fictional world through suggestion, and the reader agrees not only to believe it, but to recreate it, or the illusion of it, in his own mind. This begs the question: How do we, as novelsmiths, create our fictional world? We can find the answer by investigating how we as human beings “create” the real physical world. Once we understand how human beings relate to the real world, we can then adapt that relationship to fiction.
It may come as a shock to some that we actually do not have direct contact with the physical world. The real world comes to us through the five senses: touch, taste, sight, sound, and smell. The information from the five senses is sent to the brain where it “creates” a perception of the “real” world. Note that I say a perception of the world rather than the actual world. Human beings are always divorced from reality and subject to the limitations of the senses. This then is our clue to creating the fictional world. We must somehow “stimulate” the reader’s five senses to get him to experience the fictional physical world.
READER SENSORY DEPRIVATION
This is where we leave behind not only the real world but also cinema. As human beings, we experience the real world through the five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Light enters our eyes, stimulates the optic nerve, and is interpreted by our brain to produce an image. The other four senses act similarly. So actually, we do not experience the real world but create it in our minds from the stimulation of our senses. Movies exploit two of these: sight and sound. Movies are easy. They come at you. But the reader has no active senses in the fictional world, and the author must stimulate the reader’s senses by evoking them to create that world. The reader has an equally difficult job. He has to “find” the world of the novel within his imagination by allowing the words to evoke his senses.
Consequently, the technique for writing a novel is radically different from that of writing a screenplay. A screenplay is a roadmap for stimulating the viewer’s sight and sound senses. To stimulate the other three senses (feel, touch and taste), the screenwriter must use visual images and sound. In the Alien movie series, starring Sigourney Weaver, the viewer gets a vivid “feel” for the monster because it secretes sticky fluids and when wounded leaks acid, but we never get a sense of smell because the characters never react to an aroma.
Reading is like no other human activity. As just stated, we create the real world through input to our senses. But in the fictional world, the reader experiences total sensory deprivation. Though the reader uses sight to read the novel, he cannot literally see the fictional world as he does in a movie. To assist the reader in creating the illusion of reality, the narrator must evoke the senses. The more senses you bring to bear on the story, the more the fictional world seems real and the greater the impact. You can tell a reader that your character is a little girl and show her pigtails and the sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of her nose, but until you smell the peanut butter on her breath and feel the heat of her little hands, she won’t be fully alive.
For the purposes of this discussion, let’s split the senses into two categories: those we experience as “out there” in the external world, and those we experience as internal, within our own bodies. The “external” senses are sight and sound. These two are perceived, seem to “happen,” outside ourselves. Though an image appears to be outside the eye, it actually is constructed from light entering the eye. Additionally, we never see an object; we see light reflected from it. Similarly with sound, we don’t hear a drum beat; we construct the sound from vibratory data received from the fluctuation of air pressure on the eardrum. (Of course, this view of sight and sound as “external” has its limits because looking at the sun will cause physical pain in the eye if not done through a light-limiting device, and a really loud sound can hurt the ears.) To deepen the emotional impact, we turn to the other three senses, which I’ll refer to as being “internal.”
The “internal” senses are taste, smell and touch. These senses are personal in that they are experienced more directly. You have to actually ingest a little of a substance to either taste or smell it. This can require a little risk-taking and trust because some substances, by virtue of even a small dose, can cause illness or even death. Smell occurs inside the nose. To feel something, to touch it, it must come into contact with your skin or physically move part of your body. You can feel the heat when a person touches your arm or the take-off acceleration of an airplane by the pressure on your entire body. Taste only occurs in the mouth and thus is the most personal of all the senses. These three senses, taken together, can have a greater emotional impact on the reader than can sight and sound.
The mind is so susceptible to images and sounds, so practiced at focusing on them, that the writer hardly has to evoke them at all. We humans have a propensity to visualize, which evokes the “internal” senses and seems to cause the mind to hallucinate. Smell, taste and touch, however, are the most neglected by writers. These “forgotten” senses work more on the subconscious. The taste of a woman’s lipstick may call up sexual images: lips, breasts, thighs; the smell of a rotting carcass conjures images of maggots, leathery skin and bones, bringing home the finality of death.
Perhaps the most important effect of evoking these more subtle senses is the narrative closeness it creates with character. Touch is particularly effective in bringing the reader right inside a character. This feeling property is also connected with the emotions, the feelings of a character, so much so that the word “feeling” is used for both the physical sensation and the emotional state. A character can feel cold or fear, and both are called feelings, but each has radically different internal manifestations. Since these three are so personal and relate so strongly to the internal state of the character, they can have a more powerful emotional effect on the reader, at times causing him to hallucinate.
Sound should also not be forgotten as a hallucinatory agent. In the right context, the tinkle of breaking glass means trouble: domestic violence, robbery, or bloody gashes. But remember that it may not dig as deeply into your character and won’t into your reader either.
EVOKING THE SENSES
The chief attributes of all the senses are quality, intensity, and duration. Identifying more than just the quality of the sense (a sweet taste, a soft sound) gives it the dimension of being active, that it has affected the character. A woman who has just burned her finger on the stove knows the intensity and duration of that feeling. She’ll suck her finger to remove heat, and it’ll burn for hours, hurt for days, and may even leave a scar.
As another example, consider the blacksmith who has just smashed his thumb with a hammer so hard that he has knocked the nail loose. The throbbing pain (quality) of the thumb and shooting pain up the arm (quality) is almost unbearable (intensity), but also the pain seems to go on indefinitely (duration). He reaches immediately for the painkiller, while visualizing a sleepless night and the days and weeks to come (duration) working with an injured thumb. Notice nothing has been stated about the dull thump of the hammer on the thumb (sound) or the dangling nail and dripping blood (sight), but you as the reader probably saw it all and heard the hammer hit the thumb.
The tactile sense is easy to describe (smooth, rough, soft, slimy), but how do you describe a smell or taste? Generally, you’ll have to rely on reader memory. You only have to mention strawberries to get the taste. To get the smell of coffee you can rely on the way steam wafts up from the cup, or you can tell your reader “the woman has coffee breath.” In that way, the “action” of a smell can be essential for the reader to experience it. Also, look for cross-coupling of the senses. You can smell a fish better if you’re reminded of that slimy slickness.
The senses don’t just exist, and just describing a smell, taste or touch isn’t enough. The senses are active. A smell can emanate from a room, or a man’s body odor seep through his clothes and waft about him as he walks from person to person. In fiction, the senses must have an impact on the character and produce a reaction. It’s hard to smell a rose without smiling, unless allergies cause you to sneeze. A whiff of decaying carcass can produce a reaction described as “turning up the nose.” Keep your characters reacting to their sensory experience, but also realize that the senses can be used to develop character. Being nearsighted or farsighted is rather common, but important. A blind man’s heightened sense of smell when it’s crucial to survival can have dramatic implications.
As an example of the power of the senses, consider the movie, Silence of the Lambs. The first time Clarice goes to see Hannibal Lecter in prison, he tells her that he can tell her menstrual cycle by her smell. This is a real invasion of privacy, and lets us know how vulnerable she is to the man behind bars. Also, at the end of the movie, Clarice enters the home of the serial killer, where it is totally dark. She puts on infrared goggles that enable her to partially see in the dark. This limitation on her vision causes a palpable anxiety in the viewer. She also breathes through a mask that makes her breathing labored and noisy, and the combination of vision impairment and a sense of partial suffocation increases the anxiety in the viewer to a point where it’s practically unbearable.
Evoking the senses is an extensive subject, and noticing the techniques of master storytellers is crucial to developing your own skill. Here’s a passage from Hemingway:
They were walking through the heather of the mountain meadow and Robert Jordan felt the brushing of the heather against his legs, felt the weight of his pistol in its holster against his thigh, felt the sun on his head, felt the breeze from the snow of the mountain peaks cool on his back and, in his hand, he felt the girl’s hand firm and strong, the fingers locked in his. From it, from the palm of her hand against the palm of his, from their fingers locked together, and from her wrist across his wrist something came from her hand, her fingers and her wrist to his that was as fresh as the first light air that moving toward you over the sea barely wrinkles the glass surface of a calm, as light as a feather moved across one’s lip, or a leaf falling when there is no breeze; so light that it could be felt with the touch of their fingers alone, but that was so strengthened, so intensified, and made so urgent, so aching and so strong by the hard pressure of their fingers and the close pressed palm and wrist, that it was as though a current moved up his arm and filled his whole body with an aching hollowness of wanting.38
This is an astounding piece of writing, all of it evoking a single sense, touch, and it produces an emotional reaction in the last sentence: “an aching hollowness of wanting.” Hemingway connects the reader not only with the outside world, but also with the internal, emotional landscape of his character. He marries touch with emotion, which makes the work instantly accessible because we all have contact with the outside world through touch.
While editing your work during the rewrite stage, find ways to integrate the senses into the narrative. Concentrate on those critical to the point-of-view character. One last passage from Hemingway:
Pablo had gone in out of sight in the cave. Robert Jordan hoped he had gone for food. He sat on the ground by the gypsy and the afternoon sunlight came down through the tree tops and was warm on his outstretched legs. He could smell food now in the cave, the smell of oil and of onions and of meat frying and his stomach moved with hunger inside of him.39
Notice how Hemingway’s character responds to other characters and his environment. We not only get the character’s connection to the outside world, but also with his own stomach.
The key to creating this type of fiction is to realize that your reader suffers from total sensory deprivation. The author responding to this reader disadvantage will put him on the right path to creating powerful fiction. Take for example this excerpt from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles:
It was a long road going into darkness and hills and he held to the wheel, now and again reaching into his lunch bucket and taking out a piece of candy. He had been driving steadily for an hour, with no other car on the road, no light, just the road going under, the hum, the roar, and Mars out there, so quiet. Mars was always quiet, but quieter tonight than any other. The deserts and empty seas swung by him, and the mountains against the stars.
There was a smell of Time in the air tonight. He smiled and turned the fancy in his mind. There was a thought. What did Time smell like? Like dust and clocks and people. And if you wondered what Time sounded like it sounded like water running in a dark cave and voices crying and dirt dropping down upon hollow box lids, and rain. And, going further, what did Time look like? Time looked like snow dropping silently into a black room or it looked like a silent film in an ancient theater, one hundred billion faces falling like those New Year balloons, down and down into nothing. That was how Time smelled and looked and sounded. And tonight—Tomas shoved a hand into the wind outside the truck—tonight you could almost touch Time.40
Bradbury mingles ideas with sensory detail until the reader can feel time. He sees the world, not as a physicist would lay out the facts about time, but as a poet sees it. This is the organic unity of craft and art that the novelsmith brings to his work through narration, always stretching fictional reality until it almost matches the strangeness of the human experience. This is the essence of good narration, and the author must make use of both his narrative sense and his ability to create reality through the use of the senses.
Another powerful sense that can really bring fiction to life is the sixth sense, which manifests as a sense of anticipation, as in a sense of foreboding before a catastrophe. This is different than foreshadowing and is directly coupled with a character’s ability to assess a situation and intuit a result, to anticipate the future.
So this is the fictional world wherein the novel resides. But there is another world, one more deeply embedded within the novel, that provides meaning. That is the intellectual world, and now is the time to visit it.
(a) Lists the settings in your storyline where you believe it will be most important for reader to be sensually connected to your fictional world. (b) Within each of these settings, identify the primary sense you will need to evoke. (c) Identify the times when a character’s sixth sense might be important.