It’s our assertion in this series of articles that fiction is a primary mode of communication between human beings which predates any kind of deconstruction of language or perception and enables people to convey ideas, images and emotions to each other in a unified form. It’s self-evident to writers — and would be to readers, if they stopped to think about it — that when dealing with fiction one is engaged in a ‘blend’ of thought and feeling, idea and image, still pictures and motion, which is unique among art forms and allows the transmission of more than just a ‘Then this happened’ storyline — fiction admits the possibility of transmitting meaning from one person to another in a kind of holistic way.
Writers who want to learn from this to improve their work, though, might struggle to find examples of how a piece of fiction evolves — precisely because the only thing available to read under normal circumstances is the ‘finished product’, the completed story or book, the makings of which are hidden ‘behind the scenes’ as it were. We’ve briefly looked at how C. S. Lewis’s classic tale The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe came together from a series of disconnected images and eventually formed a cohesive narrative, but much of the detail of that process is still missing; we’ve mentioned J. R. R. Tolkien’s painstaking construction of the world of Middle-earth from primitive narrative beginnings, but other examples are hard to find.
This isn’t just a ‘fantasy/world-building’ thing: early edits of literary works from Dickens to Eliot, from Shakespeare to Shelley, from Grahame to Greene, are usually few and far between for the researcher. The hidden processes we are looking for are often only to be found in the way our own work evolves.
If you’re anything like the vast majority of writers, then what you do may have occasionally struck you as an arcane procedure. You sit at a desk or in some comfortable corner and something rather mysterious takes place: that part of you which the modern world tries to divide into neat compartments, the ‘binary’ self, composed of rational/irrational, subjective/objective, conscious/unconscious polarities, is somehow suspended, and a flow or channel opens up to a different way of composing things which belongs wholly to neither of these binary domains. Ideas spill out onto the page, but not stated as naked ideas; images appear on the screen, but not simply as two-dimensional pictures; sequences begin to take shape, but not sequences which lack significance. The thing we call ‘story’ starts to manifest itself.
It might begin at first in a fairly primitive and linear form — the ‘Then this happened’ series of events familiar to us from childhood tales. But, if we persist, thematic depth can start to make its presence felt, and we find that what we are writing has hitherto-unsuspected layers, connections, implications. As the thing fleshes itself out, a core meaning might begin to be discerned.
This is fiction writing in practice, as opposed to the writing of stories suggested by text books in which a writer ‘uses symbolism’ or ‘employs metaphor’ to convey meaning. Most writers look at you blankly if you suggest that they ‘use’ or ‘employ’ anything, flattered though they may be — they have just sat down and written stuff. The primary mode of communication we call ‘fiction’ has provided the rest.
As a simple example, let’s take a look at the apparently straightforward story of 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer', as revealed to us through the lyrics of the familiar Christmas song. A beloved American children's classic, it was published in 1939 by the Montgomery Ward department store. Rudolph is a young reindeer at the North Pole with an unusual feature: a glowing red nose. Mocked by his peers, he is ostracised and even his parents are ashamed. Rudolph runs away and while in exile discovers a new community of misfit toys and other flawed creatures. One Christmas Eve, as the story goes, a heavy fog threatens to ground Santa, who realises that Rudolph’s flaw is actually a solution: Rudolph goes on to save Christmas.
What we see is already the polished finished narrative, in which all the components resonate with symbolic meaning: Rudolph is a personification of the human condition; his ‘flaw’ is identified as his peculiar individuality, which, in the right circumstances, comes to the fore and is seen to be a huge asset rather than a problem.
As with most fiction, we can only guess at how the story evolved. Did it begin with an image or an idea? Did theme come first or was it later ‘revealed’? It seems to me that this could have ended up as just another two-dimensional story of a creature being bullied and then ‘saved’ by a kindly mentor, like thousands of other ‘flat’ stories, until its key qualities were spotted and magnified: the red nose, at first an embarrassment, becomes a superpower. What gives the Rudolph story that extra kick is its extrapolation — the linear tale of how one reindeer finds a role in Life is expanded upon so that the one deer saves something of significance to everyone else.
In a shallower, less developed story — of which there are a countless number — what happens in the story is of significance only to the ‘people’ in the story. Thus we have thousands of ‘fantasy epics’ in which young farmboys save entire worlds from Dark Lords through deeds of great magnitude, leaving the reader with a temporary rush before he or she realises that the events described really had no greater significance than fictive events have upon fictive characters; or we have hundreds of thousands of romances in which innocent, naive young women overcome frustrating obstacles to end up married to the dark, sinister strangers they at first resented before their heroic qualities were recognised — tales which again give a fleeting excitement to the reader before passing into oblivion.
In a deeper, more sophisticated narrative, what happens in the story is expanded upon through thematic connections until it seems to be of importance to the reader. Thus Frodo’s quest to save Middle-earth from Sauron through deeds of great magnitude leaves the reader with a lasting resonance that what he or she has read has something to do with him or her, or the state of society generally, or Life; or we have those few romances in which innocent but not-quite-so-naive young women like Elizabeth Bennett overcome frustrating obstacles to end up married to the dark, sinister strangers like Darcy which speak to deeper archetypal relationships between human beings.
The difference? Recognition and magnification of thematic elements.