Saturday, July 18, 2009
Writing—An Act of Magic
Writing—An Act of Magic
By Rob Parnell
You have thoughts. You write them down as words. Later, others read them and your thoughts become theirs.
I’m sure it was once, when the Druids roamed prehistoric Europe, exchanging information in the form of archaic symbols.
I imagine the illiterate masses looked on with awe and not a little fear, convinced these markings the magicians called "words" had power in themselves.
It’s interesting that the echo of the magical context of writing is still with us, contained in the word "spell," with its double meaning.
If you think about it, the question, "How do you SPELL that?" literally means, "How do you conjure that image with symbols?"
The science of semiotics is a broad subject – one that is way outside the scope of these lessons, but I want to share with you its basic premise:
Ahem. The human brain needs to NAME something before it becomes REAL.
The idea is that, before something is named, it doesn’t really exist because either our awareness of it is too dim to understand it, or, if we haven’t noticed it yet, it might as well not be there.
BTW, I’m not making this up. Honest. This is MAJOR level philosophy!
Anyway, the important thing is that once named an object can then "exist" to someone who hasn’t actually seen it!
This is a pretty neat trick, unique to the human race, but also one we take completely for granted.
It’s only words that make this possible.
And it’s also why writing works.
Your job as a writer is to place objects, images and emotions into other people’s heads. Do this well and your career will prosper.
Good writing is a form of hypnosis. You use the rhythm of words to put your readers into a kind of trance, so that they are more receptive to your ideas.
When readers are happy to experience this, they are said to be in the "fictive dream.”
In order to keep your readers "entranced," there must be nothing in your writing that might startle them out of this dream.
Your readers must trust you and be able to give over their imagination to you. You, in turn, must honor that trust by playing by the "rules" of good storytelling.
Anything that jars readers out of their dream is bad.
There’s one technique in particular that can destroy a reader’s confidence in your storytelling skills.
In “authorial intrusion,” you express a personal opinion about a character, situation, or scene, or describe something your characters could not know.
Although you, the author, are considered to be an omniscient viewer and recorder of events, you must also be seen to be objective – and invisible. Though it would seem to contradict common sense, the reader should be unaware of you, the writer.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the phrase, "Willing suspension of disbelief." This is the state of consciousness you’re after.
Readers “know" that they’re being told a story but, because, they like and trust you, they are willing to make a slight shift in their minds and accept what you’re saying as the truth—for the time being.
Therefore, during storytelling, you must never break the spell—that word again—by offering witty asides, stating your views or commenting on the action.
Of course, rules are made to be broken. There are times when authorial intrusion does work.
Some authors use it as a way of introducing a story but quickly retire to the sidelines. A technique as old as storytelling itself!
Others use it at the end of a story, to wrap up events like some movie voice over. It works sometimes - as long as you don’t sound over smart or condescending!
But if you want your reader’s trust, keep them in the fictive dream. Let them live the characters and situations without distraction. Let them enjoy the feeling of being swept along by a story and taken out of themselves for a while.
They’ll love you for it.
Rob Parnell is a prolific writer who’s published novels, short stories, and articles in the U.S., U.K., and Australia, and a teacher who’s conducted writing workshops, critique groups, and seminars.
Please visit Mr. Parnell’s Web site at: