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Never Break the Spell The Story Is Weaving—Part 1
What is Language?
Our brains are astonishing. They are capable not only of experiencing the world, but of simulating that world. And actually, they don’t just simulate the world we live in. Our brains can simulate just about any world. That’s what imagination is.
While this is already an amazingly powerful capability, language multiplies how powerful it can be. The brain, by itself, can only simulate the worlds it knows or created itself. Our brains, with the help of language, can simulate any world imagined by anybody.
Language is a technology that allows one person to imagine something, to store that experience physically (ie, via ink on paper), and then to get a second person to hallucinate it.
This is a fairly imprecise process with a lot of room for errors of translation, but it’s generally reasonably effective. Plus, even if it isn’t a fully accurate mode of mind-melding, there are a ton of ways to have some fun with how gaps get filled in.
In other words, language was the first virtual reality technology. The words we use to communicate cast a sort of spell over the person who receives the words.
We’ll focus today on things that might accidentally break the spell.
I won’t name names, but all the problems I discuss below are inspired by lines from published books.
Furthermore, just to get the disclaimer out of the way, I am guilty of all of these, and probably committed these mistakes multiple times in this article.
Note: “render,” in this context, means to take information and turn it into a picture or experience.
Unclear or Inconsistent Descriptions
When somebody reads your writing, you are asking them to render your words into a virtual reality inside their heads. This isn’t easy. The words provide instructions, but the reader’s brain still has to do a ton of work. To use a movie analogy, the reader plays the role of director, actor, cameraperson, vfx team, sfx team, lighting, post-processing, and more.
When you give them something to imagine, and they can't imagine it—because it's too vague, or too contradictory—they get blocked. After getting blocked, they will tumble back to the real world, getting bruised on the way.
He became filled with bottomless feelings.
(story moves on without elaboration)
That seems poetic, but… which feeling are we talking about? A sense of meaning is sure different from having-to-go-to-the-bathroom.
This wouldn’t be such a problem, except that, while we consider this, we are no longer in a far away land where events terrify and touch us; instead, we are on the couch puzzling over some sentences.
He had to interrogate 6 men off the street to get the information he wanted, and was angry because only one talked to him willingly.
(story moves on without elaboration)
Why did the five “unwilling” men give him information? Did he beat them up? Trick them? Sweet talk them? Or did only one man speak to him, and the sentence was just ambiguous?
Or maybe those five were willing, and helpful, but just a little grumpy?
(Note: there is an intentional way to be vague that is compelling, I will describe it in a future article)
Pardon me, this paragraph is a painful one:
There was a cat. It was sitting in the shadows. The shadows were cast upon a coffee table. The coffee table was tucked under a staircase in the basement of a warehouse. The cat was bright blue and was a tiger.
Every sentence in that paragraph requires the reader to go backwards and re-imagine or re-interpret the sentences that preceded it. It is terribly difficult for our brains to process.
It is better to describe the big blocks first, the context, and then to add detail in a way that does not mess up what the reader has already tried to “render.” Try not to say something that will be modified by future sentences unless you are going for a deliberate effect.
In the basement of a warehouse there were some stairs. Under those stairs, in the shadows, somebody had tucked a coffee table, and a bright blue tiger sat upon that coffee table.
Indirect References / Reckless Use of the Word “It”
Some words indirectly reference other words (typically nouns). For example, They, it, those, one, that, he, etc. When you use these sorts of words, the reader has to work extra hard to figure out what they are referencing. If these connections are clear, they can do so automatically and intuitively; otherwise, they will have to exit the illusion and think about your wording.
Occasionally, a sentence will have up to three different indirect references, and it can be really distracting to have to stop and puzzle out which “it” refers to which noun, and who “he” is in a sentence involving three unnamed people.
Not Believing in a Character
Characters do not have to be realistic, but they do have to be consistent with themselves and their surroundings.
For example, if a story conveys a realistic setting, and then inserts an unrealistic character into it, the reader will be sucked out of the story and back into their chair while they try to understand this paradox.
In other words, the story should avoid asking the reader to fit together contradictory things (unless it is done intentionally for effect).
The traveller slipped his glock from his belt and stepped slowly into the abandoned warehouse…
That sounds cool. However, in the published story this example is based off, the character just does dramatic things all day, despite the world being a realistic one. The story does not explain why.
If we're honest with ourselves, most people are pretty boring. What would possess a person to investigate every building they found, gun in hand? It's odd. There's nothing wrong with odd, but you have to explain it, or at least acknowledge that it’s odd.
This isn’t that hard to fix: one perfectly good explanation might be, “in this fictional world, people like him DO go around investigating warehouses with pistols on impulse”—easy! You just have to convey this fact as early as you can. You can even “hang a lampshade” on it, ie, deliberately draw attention to the strangeness for effect.
Articles That Are Too Long?
Some people struggle to find time to read and appreciate shorter articles.
Are you one of these? Or do you prefer longer articles? Let me know in the comments.
(Also, it’s my birthday today and I didn’t want to write something longer)
This will be continued in Part Two.
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