Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Writing to the Imagination

We process words as language in the frontal lobe of the brain. We do it the way a computer processes computer language. As we mature, we become increasingly able to process words another way too, as raw stimuli. This happens as we accumulate a vast store of experiences in memory farther back. They are networked words, images, sounds, and so forth — a relational database.

We use this farther-back part of the brain to visualize. It's the image-ination. It develops through use, so it doesn't fully develop until a person is in her or his mid-twenties. That is, it doesn't fill in with gray matter (an intricate network of connections among brain cells) till then.

Let's see how words work on each of these parts of the brain.

If you ask a teenager whether eating a cockroach is a good or a bad idea, she has no knee-jerk reaction to the question. That's because she processes your sentence as language, in the front of her brain. Considering that brain cells transmit information at hundreds of feet per second, she takes much longer to come up with an answer than an adult does. And she doesn't have the same reaction to the question that an adult does. She just matter-of-factly replies that eating a cockroach is a bad idea. In contrast, an adult does have a knee-jerk reaction to the question. He not only responds much more quickly, he screws up his face and says, "Yuck!"

Why? Because he doesn't process your words as language in the front of the brain. Your question lights up brain cells farther back, in the area that houses the imagination. So, while you're asking the question, he doesn't analyze it, he experiences it: He sees a cockroach, feels its mushiness inside, and feels its skittering legs clawing his tongue.

Children have imaginations, too. But their imaginations haven't yet accumulated a vast store of experiences to reference and aren't yet networked with words. So, you can't stimulate a child's imagination the way you can an adult's. (That's why children's books need pictures.) If that teenager does imagine eating a cockroach, she doesn't do so automatically, as a knee-jerk reaction: she must make a conscious effort to imagine eating one. Even then, she won't have as vivid an experience as an adult does.

Experts think this is why teenagers and children show "poor judgement." For example, put a kid on a bike at the stop of a staircase and see what he decides to do. But no adult you put on a bike at the top of that staircase would ride down it. Adults may make no greater effort to think before acting, but they automatically imagine an act before doing it. Adults therefore see what could go wrong and get this warning in a way that has much greater impact that the kid's pure logical analysis.

And so, if words don't stimulate the imagination, they are processed as language in the front of the brain.

As a fiction writer, that vivid experience in the imagination is what you're after. You must write in a way that stimulates it. You must write in a way that makes the reader unaware of the words on the page, a way that makes him visualize the story as if it were taking place on a stage or a screen in his mind. Doing so sucks him into your story so that he becomes absorbed in what we call the Fictive Dream. Which is like a daydream, except that you, the author of the story, make it up.

In other words, your writing must never call attention to itself. You DON'T what the reader pausing to think, "Wow! That's a cool way of turning that phrase!" That's a distraction that dissolves the Fictive Dream.

No matter how well you write, distractions will occur, but if the reader experiences too many of them she soon yawns and puts down your book.

This is why the reading level of great fiction is usually very low and speaks directly to the imagination with sights, sounds, smells, and feelings instead of narrative. Great fiction is so readable that it practically reads itself, making reading so effortless that the reader becomes unaware of the words on the page (because she hardly needs to use the frontal lobe to interpret your words as language) and is absorbed in the Fictive Dream going on in her imagination. Gotcha. That's right where you want your reader.

Now take her for an emotional ride.

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