By: Bryan Russell
The ant clambered over a few grains of sand. “Come with me,” he said to his friend, and his friend followed.
The ant dodged a wayward leaf and clambered over a twig. “This way, this way,” he said, waving his friend forward. They trudged ahead. The ant scampered over fallen blades of grass. He was excited – home was close.
He sighted the entrance to the tunnel. “We’re here,” the ant said, pointing, but the rhinoceros had trouble making out the doorway and squinted in vain.
A little joke, yes, but such little jokes often occur accidentally in the writing of fiction. Specificity of details is necessary for creating vivid fiction, yet the devil is in those details, hiding away his little horned head and laughing.
Details are necessary, it’s true, but just as important is their proper sequencing. If we want a joke, we withhold the fact that the ant’s friend is a rhinoceros. But if we’re trying to create a vivid fictive picture, what John Gardner called the dream vision, we need to be able to see what’s happening. We need to know that the ant’s friend is a rhinoceros right from the start. The image is unclear (and untrue) until we know.
A joke is a trick; fiction is a matter of trust. A reader must trust the writer to create a world, a world they can see and feel, a world in which the rug is not always pulled out from beneath their feet.
And if we are to create a vivid new world (as all writers do, whether writing something fantastical or utterly familiar), we must do so by creating the sensual experience of this world using only our words. For what we know of our own world is through our senses, through the physical impressions that reach us, and if we want our fictive world to be convincing (and, for a time, overshadow the real one) we must not only find the right sensory details but also properly sequence them.
Without this, the dream vision lacks harmony and flow. The vision will jar the reader. Ripples will appear in the fabric of the story, the reflected vision becoming blurred and distorted.
To sequence these details we must not only know what we sense about the world, but how we sense it.
Let us say we want to fabricate a river in our new world. Yet to do so, to create a convincing river, sometimes we need something more than the word itself. How do we come upon a river? Rarely do we first see the glistening shell of the waterbug on its surface, but rather a sense of the river as a whole. Our gaze, our sensual experience, narrows as we take something in, moving from large to small. Indeed, our senses typically work this way.
We first hear, perhaps, the roar and rush of water. It is not a clear sound, at first, but a background noise, a natural white noise underlying the sounds around us. It grows louder, and as it does (as we draw nearer) the roar becomes more particular. The sound sharpens, becomes clearer. Individual sounds become distinguishable: a few rapids; water falling on stone; the eddy and rush of a whirlpool; the trickle of a stream feeding the hungry river.
We still can’t see the river itself, perhaps, as it is blocked from view by a wall of pine trees – though the brightness of their greenery speaks of water and life. Yet we can smell it. The clear scent of water beneath the scent of pine needles. And after a moment this, too, sharpens. A scent of moss, a hint of wet shale. A green and thick smell where the water has pooled in little grottoes.
The river manifests itself through the trees: sparks of reflected light, and then as we part the trees the bright surface of the water, a sense of movement and weight and width. Our gaze draws in, and we note the texture of the water, how it moves and shapes itself over stones, how lines of flow mark its bends and twists. Rounded stones resist the movement of the river, skins of moss like green shadow. A leaf floats, a castaway from some elm tree in a forgotten upstream world. Waterbugs glide and shimmy on the surface. A fish peels away, a flick of silver, disturbed by our shadow on the water.
We reach out a hand – cold. The water is cold. We pull out our hand and drops splash down. Again we touch. Cold, yes, but we also feel the weight of the water pressing on our fingers, the line of temperature change on the surface, lines of flow and movement beneath. Silt skims our fingertips, almost soft, as it courses along the floor of the river.
A taste on our lips. Water and wetness at first, and the taste of cold, but also, deeper on the tongue, the taste of that silt, the soft grit of it, and the mustiness of leaves and dry grass and other wayward travelers – the taste of an autumn flowing toward winter.
A river. We have seen it in the looking glass and fallen through, into the image. The world has narrowed itself into pertinent details.
There are always exceptions, of course; sometimes observations deviate from such patterns, but always for particular reasons, for particular literary effects. The key is to find not only what we should sense about this world we want to make, but how we should sense it. How do we find the touch and taste of it? It is in finding that particular pattern that we will find a convincing dream of a new world.