If you're going to succeed in a service business, you've got to know why people come to you for services and what you can do to satisfy them.
If you run a janitorial business, say, you've got to know that people like shiny floors and sparkling porcelain. If you're a divorce lawyer, you've got to know your client not only wants a big settlement and alimony, but also wants his or her ex to suffer. Fiction writing is a service business. Before you sit down to write a damn good novel, you ought to know what your readers want.
If you were writing nonfiction, what your readers want would depend on the kind of book you're writing. A self-help book on how to get rich will have chapters on keeping faith in yourself, sticking to it, stroking the IRS, and so on. A sex manual should have lots of pictures and make exaggerated claims about the spiritual growth of the practitioners of the prescribed contortions. A biography of Sir Wilbur Mugaby should deliver all the scandalous facts of the old reprobate's life. If you were going to write a nonfiction book, you would concern yourself mainly with informing the reader. A nonfiction writer makes arguments and relates facts.
A fiction writer isn't arguing anything, and what the fiction writer is relating is hardly fact. There's little knowledge, in the ordinary sense, to be gained. It's all made-up stuff, totally fraudulent, a rendering of events that never happened concerning people who never were. Why would anyone with half a brain in his or her melon buy this pap?
Some of the reasons are obvious. A mystery reader expects to be baffled in the beginning and dazzled with the detective's brilliance in the end. In a historical novel, say, the reader expects to get a taste for the way things were in the good old days. In a romance, the reader expects a plucky heroine, a handsome hero, and a lot of steamy passion.
Bernard DeVoto in The World of Fiction (1956) says people read for "pleasure ... professional and semi-professional people aside, no one ever reads fiction for aught else." And it's true, people do read for pleasure, but there's far more to it than that. As a fiction writer, you're expected to transport a reader. Readers are said to be transported when, while they are reading, they feel that they are actually living in the story world and the real world around them evaporates.
A transported reader is dreaming the fictive dream. "This," says John Gardner in The Art of Fiction (1984), "no matter the genre, [the fictive dream] is the way fiction does its work."
The fictive dream is created by the power of suggestion. The power of suggestion is the operant tool of the ad man, the con man, the propagandist, the priest, the hypnotist, and, yes, the fiction writer. The ad man, the con man, the propagandist, and the priest use the power of suggestion to persuade. Both the hypnotist and the fiction writer use it to invoke a state of altered consciousness.
Wow, you say, sounds mystical almost. And in a way it is.
When the power of suggestion is used by the hypnotist, the result is a trance. A hypnotist sits you in a chair and you look at a shiny object, say a pendant. The hypnotist gently swings the pendant and intones: "Your eyelids are getting heavy, you feel yourself getting more and more relaxed, more and more relaxed, as you listen to the sound of my voice. ... As your eyes begin to close you find yourself on a stairway in your mind, going down, down, down to where it's dark and quiet, dark and quiet ..." And, amazingly, you find yourself feeling more and more relaxed.
The hypnotist continues: "You find yourself on a path in a beautiful garden. It is quiet and peaceful here. It's a lazy summer's day, the sun is out, there's a warm breeze blowing, the magnolias are in bloom ..."
As the hypnotist says these words, the objects that the hypnotist mentions—the garden, the path, the magnolias—appear on the viewing screen of your mind. You will experience the breeze, the sun, the smell of the flowers. You are now in a trance.
The fiction writer uses identical devices to bring the reader into the fictive dream. The fiction writer offers specific images that create a scene on the viewing screen of the reader's mind. In hypnosis, the protagonist of the little story the hypnotist tells is "you," meaning the subject. The fiction writer may use "you," but the more usual practice is to use "I" or "he" or "she." The effect is the same.
Most books on fiction writing advise the writer to "show, not tell." An example of "telling" is this: "He walked into the garden and found it very beautiful." The writer is telling how it was, not showing how it was. An example of "showing" is this: "He walked into the silent garden at sundown and felt the soft breeze blowing through the holly bushes and found the scent of jasmine strong in the air."
As John Gardner, again in The Art ofFiction, says, "vivid detail is the life blood of fiction ... the reader is regularly presented with proofs—in the form of closely observed details ... it's physical detail that pulls us into a story, makes us believe." When a writer is "showing," he or she is suggesting the sensuous detail that draws the reader into the fictive dream. "Telling" pushes the reader out of the fictive dream, because it requires the reader to make a conscious analysis of what's being told, which brings the reader into a waking state. It forces the reader to think, not feel.
The reading of fiction, then, is the experience of a dream working at the subconscious level. This is the reason most sensible people hate the academic study of literature. Academics attempt to make rational and logical something that is intended to make you dream. Reading Moby Dick and analyzing the imagery is to read it in a waking state. The author wants you to be absorbed into the story world, to go on a voyage on the Pequod halfway around the globe in search of a whale, not to be bogged down figuring how he did it, or to be looking for the hidden meaning of the symbolism as if it were a game of hide-and-seek played by the author and the reader.
Once the writer has created a word picture for the reader, the next step is to get the reader involved emotionally. This is done by gaining the reader's sympathy.
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