Fiction writers learn their letters as children like anyone else; then their word vocabulary expands rapidly during their early years in school until most of them become proficient readers.
Parallel to this conventional ladder of learning, something else is also being taken on board: a ‘vocabulary’ which goes beyond words, and which is therefore somewhat difficult to describe using them.
This is the vocabulary of stories.
Earlier, we looked at what has happened culturally over the last three hundred years or so, as our perceptions of the world have become more and more binary, encouraged by the approach to analysis called 'scientific method'. Science, by excluding ‘human connectivity’ — which we can best sum up as instinct, emotion and subjectivity — from its observations of the ‘real’ or purely physical world, has enabled humanity to make huge leaps in its ability to understand and manipulate that world. But culturally and psychologically and spiritually, this has come at the cost of a ‘unified’ way of looking at things. A chasm has grown between things which were formerly one. What the modern world is left with is ‘metaphor’: the device for bridging the resulting abyss between the objective observed ‘thing’ with the subjective, felt significance.
Readers who are interested in this kind of thing will find Owen Barfield’s book Saving the Appearances fascinating. For our purposes, all we need to grasp is that fiction is a way of communicating which existed prior to this cultural division or binary method of thinking. When we read, or see, or hear a story, we are encountering a primal channel of communication in which the subjective and objective aren't quite so separated. Thus we can read a story and appreciate the beauty, drama, poetry and imagery of it emotionally and spiritually while also imbibing in the rational ideas and themes riding upon and amongst all those things.
We can strive to deconstruct a work of fiction, picking apart its form and content, if you like — which is what literary critics try to do — but that process is something akin to trying to grasp the ‘truth’ about a song by separating out the words from the music: yes, we can gain some understanding and insight from doing so, but we are no longer at that point dealing with the cohesive ‘song’, just disassociated components.
Or, to use another analogy — an analogy being after all a sort of extended metaphor — we can attempt to understand the purpose of a motor vehicle by disassembling its engine and spreading it out across the grass. Yes, we might come to some comprehension of how the vehicle works, but our vision of where it was going would be limited.
So there’s such a thing as a vocabulary of stories, a lexicon of fiction. Though stories are told in words on one level, they also use other elements which we pick up on in a much less structured or conscious way throughout our schooling. No school I ever heard of teaches its students about character archetypes, or types of vacuum, or linked motifs or extended conceits — these things are touched upon at university level, perhaps, and then only some of them. But we learn them progressively as children, even as infants and toddlers, on some level.
Very young children grasp the vacuum power of the ‘What will happen next?’ forward-driving question which powers linear narratives; as they grow older they come to detect the layers prompted by the question ‘What’s really going on here?’ Further exposure to literature teaches them — not consciously, but simply through exposure to it — the deepening complexity of ‘What’s the right thing to do here?’ and, as they become more and more familiar with stories, they begin to discern ‘What is this really all about?’
As writers of fiction — writers who are spending every minute of available time writing and writing, practising our skills in ‘rounding out’ stories so that they are three-dimensional — we are also practising this vocabulary. The more we write, the more we become familiar with many of the tools for which we have never had a name: character shapes begin to appear in our work, figures who step out of the shadows as archetypes, plot drivers which join together to form cohesive narratives, and themes which interweave with all of these other elements in conscious and unconscious ways to produce fiction which stands out from the crowd.
Our output changes from the simplest ‘Then this happened…’ sketches to deeper, richer, more coloured and nuanced tales which have far more appeal to readers, to editors and in the end to ourselves.
We progress from an early, naive and untrained state closer to that of the master author.
It's a centrally important progression, which is why this series has the title that it does.