The story is not in the words
Updated: Dec 12, 2022
The concept of the web browser helps me understand how fiction works. But first, a quick story:
Caroline crept toward the kitchen counter, hardly daring to breath, staring intently at her mother, who was on the phone in the family room. Caroline's next step caused the linoleum to squeak. She froze. But Mother didn't seem to notice; her back was to Caroline and her attention was on the divorce hearing her sister was recounting loudly enough that Caroline could hear it from the kitchen. Caroline let out a quiet breath, and crossed the rest of the kitchen, where her mother's open purse sat on the counter. She dipped her hand inside, felt for the wallet, pulled it out. Her heart thumped an urgent rhythm in her ears, and her face felt flush and warm as she pulled the zipper as slowly and silently as she could, hoping against hope that her mother wouldn't turn around and catch her in the act. Finally, the purse was open. She slipped her fingers inside and pulled out a note in her mother's handwriting: "Steal from me twice, shame on me."
The story is not in the words we read. The story is in the images that play across our mind's eye. The words are just a code that the mind renders as images and meaning. The way we make meaning from words is just like a web browser. A web browser reads HTML files it gets from the Internet and presents them to humans as webpages. The HTML file may refer to some accompanying files, like style instructions or photos. But all it is is text, formatted a certain way so that web browsers can read them correctly. Once the browser reads the text information in the file, it translates it into visual information. That's what we see when we see a webpage. Our mind does the same thing when we read a story. We read words on a page, and our mind translates that into images. We watch a movie with our mind's eye; our heart responds, feeling real emotion for imagined characters and their plights and dreams. Our heart doesn't respond this way to words but to images. When we watch a scary movie, our heart races because our mind can't tell the difference between an image on a screen and an image of something real in front of us. Likewise, it doesn't distinguish between the peril a character experiences and real peril we witness first-hand. It's perhaps less intense, but the same chemicals run through our veins. These two mechanics—that our brains translate words into images, and our minds respond to those images the same as we do to real images—are how fiction is possible. John Gardner teaches in The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist that the more sensory detail you put into the code, as it were, the more vivid and enveloping the experience. Thanks for reading.