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Three Modes of Story Imagination


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When we read stories, we fall into a semi-dream state in which people and events which are entirely made up become, to us, quite vivid.  Stories can have an impact on us greater than that of the events of our own lives.  We laugh.  We cry.  We boo.  We cheer.  We are roused, clobbered, affirmed, uplifted or inspired.  We are changed.  When we read, the real world fades away and the story world becomes real.

That effect of stories upon us is possible because of our cognitive capacity called imagination.  Commonly understood, imagination is the ability to visualize what doesn’t exist—at least not yet—and formulate new ideas.  We “see” what isn’t there.  We feel when there is no material reason to do so.  We think in ways that organize experience and lend understanding to our lives.

While the ability to visualize is not universal—see a condition called aphantasia—it is nevertheless how we mostly think that story happens in our heads.  Visualization seems to accurately describe our mental process in reading, so it must also be the foundation of our process in writing as well, right?  Well, not always.  Not exactly.

Actually, there are three primary modes in which a story is imagined.  Writers may engage at different times in all three but are primarily inclined more to one than another.  Each mode has strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages, and that in turn means that manuscripts will shine in some ways but be shortchanged in others.

What, then, are the three ways in which stories are imagined by their authors?  And which is your dominant mode?

The Three Modes

The first is what we can call the Movie in the Mind.  That is when a story unspools continuously in imagination, one action flowing to the next and the next as if the story is a documentary camera that is never shut off.  Many authors describe “seeing” their stories like films, their characters progressing through their days, each day following the next in calendar order.

When writers report that “my characters tell me what they’re going to do”, they can be describing a form of visual imagining.  What is seen in the mind is as vivid as what is actually seen through the eyes.  The upside of this mode can be a heightened sense of reality to a story’s action.  The downside is that this mode can lead to sequential narration, a strict chronicling of characters’ time and activities, as when in beginning manuscripts chapters start with a character waking up in the morning and end with that character going to bed again at the conclusion of the day.

The second mode can be called Marker Moments, imagining fragments or episodes of high significance and emotional force.  In this mode what counts is what matters, meaning that there are certain high moments that define characters’ human experience or change it.  Everything in between in some way leads up to, explains, enhances, or follows the consequences and implications of those highly important moments. It’s like life.  We are shaped by, and define ourselves, not by our resumes but through our most emotional experiences.

When writers think, “I need to show that…” or “Readers need to see…” they are building the body of their manuscripts toward, or sometimes away from, the big turnings that are the true reasons for a story to be written in the first place.  The advantage of this way of imagining story is that it puts emphasis on what is dramatic.  The disadvantage is that such manuscripts can wander, trying always to hammer significance into intervening action in which it doesn’t exist.

It might sound to you like I am describing the difference between outline writers and organic writers (“pantsers” in our lingo).  Perhaps.  There’s no right or wrong to any pattern of working. There are only, as I said, advantages and disadvantages which can be recognized and addressed.  Fiction never goes exactly according to outline and discoveries don’t always arrive when there is unassigned space, nor for that matter are you forever a prisoner of the way your imagination most often tends to operate.

The third mode of story imagination is one that we can call Word Driven.  For such writers, the words themselves are the gasoline of the story.  Words draw the road map as the writer drives ahead, suggesting what should happen, what will be said, when to turn east or west, and what it means when a story does. One word suggests, conjures or demands the next and the next in turn.  Plot is fine but it is the pattern of the story’s language that builds the story’s whole effect.  I have heard some writers say that they envision the look of their pages even before they’ve been typed.

Voice-driven narration is a form of the Word Driven way of imagining.  In imagining a story like that, what happens doesn’t matter as much as the way in which a narrative voice is relating things.  Our experience of the story is as much impressions as it is events: a feeling of life being filtered for us through a unique and engaging sensibility.  Word Driven imagining can bring us striking imagery, delightful language and exciting perspectives but can also hold us at a distance from a story’s events.

One pitfall in each way of imagining story is that the everyday business of characters’ lives can occupy space on the page without doing much to keep us in the dream state.  The Movie in the Mind can see pouring a bowl of breakfast cereal as a vivid instant of human reality when actually it’s simply boring.  The Marker Moment writer may try to invest that morning activity with surprising meaning—a sense of starting anew, say—when truthfully it’s just a bowl of cereal.  The Word Driven imagination will likely serve something more sensory for breakfast—eggs benedict?—but let’s be honest: breakfast is still just breakfast.

To both illustrate how your story imagination works most often, and to counter-act one of its inherent shortcomings, let’s have a look at a couple of examples of the everyday in published fiction to see how what’s ordinary becomes important.  I touched upon this in my post last December, The Static Hiss, but let’s look at it again through the lens of our different imagination modes.

The Hidden Purpose of Everyday Activity

The-Marsh-Kings-Daughter-002.jpg?resize=In Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter (2017), Helena Pelletier is a struggling young mother living on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  She has a husband, two daughters and a small jam making business.  The action of the novel opens on an ordinary day:

I deliver the last case of assorted jams to the Gitche Gumee Agate and History Museum gift shop, then drive to the lake and park.  As soon as Mari sees the water, she starts flapping her arms.  “Wa-wa, wa-wa.”  I know that at her age she should be speaking in complete sentences.  We’ve been taking her to a developmental specialist in Marquette once a month for the past year, but so far this is the best she’s got.

We spend the next hour on the beach.  Mari sits beside me on the warm beach gravel, working off the discomfort of an erupted molar by chewing on a piece of driftwood I rinsed off for her in the water.  The air is hot and still, the lake calm, the waves sloshing gently like water in a bathtub.  After a while, we take off our sandals and wade into the water and splash each other to cool off.  Lake Superior is the largest and deepest of the Great Lakes, so the water never gets warm.  But on a day like today, who’d want it to?

Talk about humdrum!  “The air is hot and still, the lake calm…”  Does any novel really need a sentence like that?  And yet, there is something important here, something charged in a way that we can’t yet see.

Helena is not our heroine’s original name.  She grew up in isolation in the marshes of the U.P., the only people she knew being her father and her mother, who was abducted at age twelve and held prisoner by Helena’s father, the Marsh King.  Her father went to jail for this crime but now, as the novel opens, he has escaped, killing a guard in the process.  Helena knows that he will be coming not for her, but for one of her daughters.

Thus, this overtly humdrum afternoon at the lake achieves its under-the-surface significance because it is setting Helena’s stakes.  We are learning what she has to lose.  That low-key tension (at this point) is signaled in subtle ways.  The lake is cold.  Her daughter is extra vulnerable.  And did this strike you as odd…who gives a toddler a piece of driftwood to chew on?  A woman who grew up in the natural world of the swamps, that’s who. There’s nothing ordinary about Helena and this isn’t just any old day.

Deep-Water-002.jpg?resize=200%2C300&ssl=Patricia Highsmith’s Deep Water (1957), is a dark suburban psychological thriller published long before such stories became fashionable.  It is about the sour marriage between Vic and Melinda Van Allen.  To forestall the messiness of divorce, Vic has allowed Melinda to take as many lovers as she choses to.  This grinds on Vic who, to drive away a suitor of his wife’s, makes up a story that he has committed a murder, a lie which goes wrong when…well, you can guess.  However, the novel begins on the evening of a party:

Vic didn’t dance, but not for the reasons that most men who don’t dance give to themselves.  He didn’t dance simply because his wife liked to dance.  His rationalization of this attitude was a flimsy one and didn’t fool him for a minute, though it crossed his mind every time he saw Melinda dancing: she was insufferably silly when she danced.  She made dancing embarrassing.

He was aware that Melinda twirled into his line of vision and out again, but barely aware, he thought, and it was only his familiarity with every physical detail of her that made him realize that it was she at all.  Calmly he raised his glass of Scotch and water and sipped it.

He sat slouched, a neutral expression on his face, on the upholstered bench that curved around the Mellers’ newel post, staring at the changing pattern of dancers and thinking that when he went home tonight he would take a look at his herb boxes in the garage and see if the foxgloves were up.  He was growing several kinds of herbs now, repressing their growth by depriving them of half their normal sunlight and water with a view to intensifying their flavor.  Every afternoon he set the boxes in the sun at one o’clock, when he came home for lunch, and put them back into the garage at three, when he returned to his printing plant.

Herb boxes?  Dancing at a party?  “A neutral expression.”  Again, how ordinary.  Why on earth would Patricia Highsmith open with such flat details?  Or, wait a minute, are they actually flat?  Vic hates the way that his wife Melinda dances.  He’s barely aware of her, and yet familiar with “every physical detail of her”.  Vic is growing herbs in his garage but “depriving them of half their normal sunlight and water”.  Does any of that strike you are perfectly normal?  No, I didn’t think so.  Me either.  Vic’s angle on things makes me uncomfortable, as I should be.  Highsmith uses the ordinary not to reassure us but to unsettle us.  Nothing ordinary about that!

The-Dead-House-002.jpg?resize=200%2C300&Billy O’Callaghan’s Irish Book Award-winning novel The Dead House (2017), is a ghost story.  The ghost resides in a cliff-top house restored by a bruised but recovering artist named Maggie.  The novel is narrated by the husband of a friend of Maggie’s, who went with his wife to a weekend at Maggie’s house…a weekend that involved a Ouija board which led to…well, you’ll see when you read it.  As the novel opens, the narrator introduces himself:

My name is Mighael Simmons.  I am married to Alison, and the father of one child, a daughter, Hannah, who is almost seven now, and our reason for bliss.  Home for us is Southwell, a small village on the Cornish coast.  Our house, a mile and a half out, is a modest but ample stone-build that sits on its down wood-backed acre overlooking the sea.  It is a place that holds the illusion of loneliness, yet lies within easy calling distance of the church bell.  An ideal compromise.  And we could not have chosen a more beautiful place to live than Southwell, positioned as it is among the fold of land and distinguished by steep streets and alleyways and lots of outlying greenery, the sort of place perfect for children.  Even on the sodden days of winter, it retains a peculiar beauty.  The air is clean, we can walk the cliffs, swim during the summer months or search for amber on the beaches.  Cars drive slowly along its narrow roads and everyone knows everyone else by name.

Okay, is O’Callaghan serious?  “The air is clean”?  “The sort of place perfect for children”?  Michael Simmons recites his circumstances in the dullest possible way.  No writer, he.  Not a terribly imaginative or creative man.

But wait, perhaps that’s the point?  This is a ghost story, after all.  A fabulous tale, one hardly to be believed.  Who better to tell us a story so incredible than a man who himself has little imagination?  O’Callaghan, in other words, it subtly putting us off balance, unsettling our expectations because the man who is telling us the story is so insistent that he is nothing other than an ordinary, unimaginative man.

My point here is that day-to-day business works on the page when its purpose isn’t ordinary.  When there is an underlying reason to show us the humdrum of life, the daily grind can become charged with meaning.  That happens only when the writer knows his or her intention.  This domestic moment is not simply a minute of the movie in the mind.  Its significance is not explicit, nor forced through poetic use of language.

The meaning of the everyday is infused.  It’s presented for a reason.  When a writer steps outside his or her imaginative mode, the story is no longer a fait accompli , it’s a mutable effect, a tale that can be told in any way the writer wishes—and that serves the tale itself.

So, what is the main way in which you imagine the stories that you write?  Movie?  Markers?  Words First?  What effect does that have on what we read?

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About Donald Maass

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.

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