EMOTION, IMAGINATION, EXPERIENCE, TALENT, AND THE READER

In the art of writing, is one more important than the other?

Do we need all five to craft a well-written tale?

I was recently talking about this subject with a friend who had read one of my stories about a multiple rape and beating victim that is trying to come to terms with her past. She said it was refreshing to read a story written by a male that handled the female character properly and believably. After some perfunctory blushing and such I thanked her for her compliment and we discussed the subject further.

We got to talking about what elements about me, personally (and in the writing of the tale itself), could have made my female character more believable than someone else’s. Some people think that experiencing what you’re writing about is the key; that having lived through whatever story you’re telling goes a long way to the believability of the tale. Others feel that any good writer can weave a believable yarn out of thin air, having never done any of the things they’re writing about. Then there’s the question of caring about your characters and the events they go through: how much of the success of your story depends on the emotional attachment you have to it?

I have never hit a woman, have never even been present when one has been struck, yet my story opens with a somewhat brutal rape scene. The scene was written entirely from my imagination, and culled, unfortunately, from the stories of far too many of my female friends. It was tough to write ’cause all I kept picturing was an amalgam of all of them experiencing the rape/beating. So there was emotion behind it; I cared a lot about the character I called “Julie” because it was all those women I cared about rolled into one entity.

Was that what made the scene believable?

Would someone that knew no rape victims have been able to get the same effect from just doing research on the subject and then simply using their imagination in tandem with the facts? I don’t know. Possibly so. Would someone that has had those experiences write it better? I think so, yes, because if they’re a writer, they have the imagination, and if they’ve been through it, then they have both the emotion and the experience, too.

I think the best possible result for any story would be to have all three elements in your hip pocket, but in horror fiction, that’s not always possible. If it was, many of us would be rotting behind bars right now.

How is it that someone can actually make you believe in the story you’re reading? What in their craft enables them to transport you to their world?

Well, one aspect that hasn’t been breached yet is talent—the ability to shape your thoughts and words in such a way that the reader becomes a silent observer in your story—a willing or, in some cases unwilling, participant in the events. Without this, the other three aspects are pretty much useless.

But then, there’s the subjectivism of personal opinion—the final element: the reader—to throw into the whole mix, too. What some people think is a talented writer, others call shit. I suppose the same could really be said about imagination and emotion, too. One person could read a book and think it was incredibly imaginative, and the next person thinks it’s dull, lifeless drivel that has been explored many times already and by far better writers. One guy could get into a story to the point where he’s basically experiencing the same emotions as the characters, so he deems the story extremely emotional; another person reads it, leans back, yawns, and scratches his balls.

The only real steadfast aspect, it seems, is experience, ’cause either you’ve been through something or you haven’t.

The trick, though, in fiction in general—and even more so in speculative fiction—is to write your story so the reader thinks you’ve been through it, even if it’s not possible—like space stories or zombie fiction. The reader knows full well the author is not floating around in space or has recently awakened from the dead to come crack some craniums and dip into some tasty grey matter, but while the words are going through their heads, being processed through the filters of their own experiences, talents, emotions, and imagination, they float into the realm of suspended disbelief.

And that’s exactly where every fiction author should be striving to trap them. Until the very last page of the book.

The reader’s own experiences are often what inform their opinions of good writing, so it’s bound to differ from reader to reader, and this, my friends, is The Gathering Place, the Place Where All Elements Coalesce.

The reader is the most important part of any written equation. They act as reflective surfaces that assimilate then interpret what they’re being told. The reaction relates as much to the reader as it does to the story. The tale is pointless without it being read by someone, so it only makes sense that the final judgement must intrinsically include them.

If the reader does not believe in the story, it falls flat; if the reader does not believe in its characters, the story falls flat; and if the writer does not believe what he’s writing . . .

The story will fall flat.

There’s a whole multi-linked chain that ties everything together in fiction, and if one link gets snapped, you’re fucked. Dead in the water. Floating around, wondering what the hell just happened. That’s when you go over your manuscript again and again with not just a fine-tooth comb, but a big fucking axe, chopping superfluity, reshaping cardboard characters, and cutting the scenery so you can smell every fetid odour seeping up through the soil, taste every hunk of flesh the shuffling zombie rips off and crams into his slobbering yap, feel every slice of the serrated blade as its dragged across flesh, and feel, too, on an entirely different level, the emotional bludgeoning brought on by the death of that character, see the heartache in someone’s eyes, the splash of bright-red arterial blood as it arcs into the air, every reflective glint from the sun hitting the windows of the buildings in your fictional city—and hear every piteous moan, every dragging footstep on the pitted, hardwood floor.

Emotion, imagination, experience, talent, and the reader.

In the art of writing, is one more important than the other? Yes, but they’re all heavily dependent upon each other.

Do we need all five to craft a well-written tale?

Yes, I think we do.

But I once co-wrote a story about a boy strapped to a metal table, four-inch nails jutting from his ribs, his intestines pulled out from his torso and crammed into a garbage bag full of green Jell-O.

I think I’ll pass on the experience factor for that one, thanks.

4 comments to EMOTION, IMAGINATION, EXPERIENCE, TALENT, AND THE READER

  • Bob Jones

    Your comments about making a reader think that you have experienced what you are writing about reminded me of reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. I not only believed he had experienced an epileptic siezure after I had read his book, I felt that I had had one myself.

    Thank you for the thoughtful piece.

    Bob

  • Bob Jones

    Your comments about making a reader think that you have experienced what you are writing about reminded me of reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. I not only believed he had experienced an epileptic siezure after I had read his book, I felt that I had had one myself.

    Thank you for the thoughtful piece.

    Bob

  • Julie

    Your last long paragraph made my skin crawl, and you’re just talking about writing about it, so I guess you got the mix right there!

  • Ha! Cheers, Julie. Yeah, Dave Wilson and I wrote that story (That’s SOME Pig!”) back in 1999. I haven’t written such gruesome fare for a long time, but every once in a while Dave and I revisit that world, and it’s always fun to spread some fictional blood around with him again.

    :-)

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