The double-reality of great fiction

by Ksenia Anske in


The more I read every day, the more I start seeing this paradox. What sounds great on the page is not what is actually written on it. In other words, it's not what the author SAYS, it's what the author LEAVES OUT.

We as readers love love love being smarter than the author, we love playing guessing games, being right, getting the story. When we're told, "He held her face gingerly in his trembling fingers, tracing her cheek with his loving gaze," we go, BOOOOO! Cheesy. Don't believe you. Too sweet. Not real. Bad writing. Why, oh why? This is the correct description of what's happening, innit? Nope. Wrong. The way we humans talk about stuff and do things, is layered (and most of it is body language and not words). Typically, it's only two layers, but sometimes three or four. Rarely do we actually speak our mind. It's all in the subtle.

So, how would the same passage sound if it was, say, considered to be NOT cheesy but still romantic or fantastic or moving? How about this (bear with me here, please, I came up with this on the fly, so it's not the best of examples): "He found himself acting as a vessel for her face. Dammit. Too precious to let go lest the moment shatters, too late to turn back. Instead, he studied her freckle-patterns." All right, I'm not very happy with this, but it will do. Notice how I don't mention his hands, nor her cheek, nor his loving gaze. We can deduce this much ourselves, can't we?

Here are better examples from BIG authors:

We don't mean what we say. This is a simple everyday truth that's so hard to capture in writing, yet the best stories do exactly that. They try to transcend the paper medium and make us not merely read but also feel. How? By doing this. From The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling: "The timbre of her voice was still flat, but antagonism was struggling to the surface. "Are you a dyke?" she asked. "No,' said Kay, still writing. "You look like a dyke," said Terri. Kay continued to write." If you were to describe EXACTLY what happens here, you would have said, Terri attempted to insult Kay, Kay shurgged her off. But notice how none of it is present. Simple, yet powerful.

We don't worship what we see. This one sounds a bit starnge, doesn't it? I know, let me explain. We don't like to be told what exactly we are supposed to see, we like to associate it with something in some poetic way that we haven't seen before, make a connection, and experience that ultimate exhaltation moment of awe. Since I'm currently reading The Casual Vacancy, here is another example (but, trust me, every great book is full of them): "She glared at him, struggling to articulate it for his pedantic legal mind, which was like a fiddling pair of tweezers in the way that it seized on poor choices of word, yet so often failed to grasp the bigger picture." Ok. Ever seen a mind compared to a pair tweezers? I bet not. But it's a fantastic comparison and it works, innit? I thought so. It almost makes you touch it and taste it. Brrr, how deliciously disgusting.

We don't remember what we understand. That means, if it's too easy for us to grasp, if we don't do any work at all, no thinking whatsoever, we forget it. We find ourselves a few pages down the novel that's literal, going "what?", leafing back, rereading. We don't feel being struck by lightning. But we do if we do the actual work. And why would we do it? To get the double-reality, of course. To guess at what the author means and get it right. Here is the catch though - BECAUSE everything is a layer deep, every reader discoveres slightly different things shapes by her or his childhood, memories, etc. And that's how those things become memorable. Of course they are! We all remember our own drama better than anyone else's, don't we? 

We don't appreciate what we know. This double-reality concept is all about taking a new spin on an old idea. Everything has been told already, there is nothing new. Yet every human being is unique (yes, we ALL ARE unique snowflakes, right?) and perceives things differently. That's what we're looking for in a great book - to shed a new light on some old topic. And when the author does it, when there is this invisible layer of disguise over what's known and familiar, we go AWWWWW. Or WOOOOOW. Or AWESOME. We get it. We love it. We read the book. We recommend it to friends. We re-read it. We marvel.

There. What do you think? Feel free to ponder in comments. I know I haven't touched in the 3rd, or, oh my, on the 4th dimension. The possibilites are infinite.

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