We sure have, Stephen, that was very cool. Thanks for that. Has anyone ever told you you’re pretty good at telepathy before? It’s probably not a mistake that you’re one of the world’s all-time bestselling authors. It may just have something to do with the fact that you know exactly what you’re aiming at, and now the rest of us do too!
Stephen wasn’t kidding about writing being telepathic. He’s dead serious, and he’s not wrong. But don’t just take his word for it, or mine for that matter. You can ask Eleanor Maguire. Who’s she, and why would anyone ask her, you may ask…
Good question. Eleanor Maguire is a world-renowned neurologist and medical researcher who studies an area of the hippocampus that governs a brain’s ability to map space and form mental imagery. And given the little exercise that Stephen was so kind as to take us through, you might be guessing that it’s pretty important and has something to do with your brain processing fiction. And you’d be right! It has everything to do with processing fictional narratives. In fact, Eleanor’s patients who had severe enough damage to that area of the hippocampus reported that subsequent to their injuries they were no longer able to read novels. They could understand the words on the page and process a sentence’s meaning in a literal sense. But her patients lost the ability to simulate the sequence of events portrayed in the story. As a result, the novels became meaningless. Her patients said they really missed reading stories too. A terrible loss.
Eleanor’s discovery is evidence that novels must be cognitively simulated for them to be understood. Don’t ever make the mistake of forgetting that a cognitive simulation in our reader’s brain is the target we’re aiming at as writers—just like the cognitive simulation Stephen so skillfully generated in our brains. That’s what we’re aiming at, or at least in part. We can’t forget about the third proposition.
Stephen’s simulation was missing something. It’s not really a story is it? It’s just a rabbit sitting in a cage. Remember the third proposition: the cognitive simulation is of a dynamic storyworld. In order for a story to be a story, something has to happen, right? That requires two things: some form of movement, and a space for that movement to take place in. Dynamic simply means that something is moving—actions are happening. If no actions are happening, no matter how beautiful and interesting the language, it’s still not really a story (hello poetry!). We’ll get into this in greater detail in the next lesson, but for now it’s sufficient to think “dynamic = movement, and a story must move.” And a storyworld? You may not have seen that word very often, but it means exactly what it seems like it means. It’s the fictional universe where the story takes place. That galaxy far far away…? That’s the Star Wars storyworld. Ahab’s whaling ship and the world around it? The Moby Dick storyworld. You get the idea. Good thing, too. We’re going to use that word a lot.
So to the final proposition: that entertains, instructs, or explores the nature of the human condition. This gets to the purpose of fiction—why we read. And if we’re seam pulling, this part of the target is admittedly a little more abstract. You might have seen it written somewhere before that a story’s purpose is to entertain and instruct. It’s far too old a proposition for it to be my idea. It goes all the way back to the earliest writing we have about writing—from a tunic-wearing dude you might have heard of by the name Aristotle.
Aristotle came from a culture where stories were not just very important but incredibly refined for their time. The plays Aristotle attended and wrote about were a product of hundreds of years of dramatic competitions at religious festivals. And those competitions drove developments in storytelling techniques, innovations in presentation and acting, theater technology and casting, and a host of other meaningful concepts that advanced the process of story-telling in Western culture. We could take “entertain” and “instruct” at face value and probably call those a decent rough estimate of why people consume fiction. And they probably fit well enough with the “good” in our first proposition. Remember, we’re trying to develop a useful tool now, not tear fruitlessly at the seams.
One place where we could go deep down a rabbit hole is with the word “instruct.” I’m sure more than a handful of PhD dissertations on the ways fiction can be instructive have been written. Hell, you could write one for an English degree and turn around and write another in Psychology and still another in Philosophy. And I’ve probably gone on far too long already to try your patience with too much more on this front. But my interpretation of what Aristotle and the ancient storytellers understood about fiction being instructive is that it should be edifying. If it entertains, that’s awesome and good enough to be “good” for the purposes of hitting our target. The way I interpret “instruct” here is that some “good” stories offer us something beyond a few laughs and a short break from our real-world troubles. They offer us something deep and human. One might even say they “explore the nature of the human condition.” If you’re looking for “instruction” on how to get ahead, find true love, or find the job of your dreams, that’s over in the Self-Help section beside the books on Religion and DIY Carpentry. You don’t want to take life advice from a writer anyway. Look up any writer in the Biography section between History and Tragic-Comedy. There’s probably a liquor store in between.
And here, I’m tempted to stop, because the more I try to draw boundaries and elucidate precisely what I mean, the more things seem to get fuzzy and slip away, like an Escher print, infinitely winding its way around a staircase. Remember the porousness of borders and that words are necessarily categories, and precise definitions are tough. Let’s call it good enough for our purposes here—that’s what our brain does anyway! Here is your target; fire away:
Good fiction is an interesting cognitive simulation of a dynamic storyworld that entertains, instructs, or explores the nature of the human condition.
That’s one useful tool for your toolbox—a fuzzy idea of what the hell we’re doing. And if your eyes haven’t totally glazed over yet, I’m going to include my best at attempt at a brief explication on the Frankenstein-monster story definition for anyone whose eyes haven’t already turned to stone. Feel free to skip ahead if you’ve had enough. I promise I won’t judge.