The Clarendon House Master Author Programme Part Six: The Heavy Imagination
Let us now consider the various types of imagination in greater detail:
Think of reader attention as water, running through a piece of imagination which has been constrained into the form that we call a ‘story’.
A heavy imagination, if it can be ‘drained’ and if it is crafted with great care and knowledge, can be very fertile soil, at least for many kinds of Irony or horror. Gothic tales, dark fantasies, dystopias, existential short stories, and many other kinds of fiction, do superbly on a heavy imagination — that is, an imagination composed of relatively few but sizeable vacuums. Modern authors might see it as strong imaginative soil, given that the whole culture is passing through an Ironic period. But great experience is needed to use it effectively. This is because of the propensity of such an imagination to ‘flocculate’ — that is, the smaller vacuums which make it up tend to gather together quickly into larger vacuums. When this happens this type of imagination is more easily worked, drains better, allows clarity of understanding to get down into it (an essential condition for reader satisfaction), and permits the roots of ideas to penetrate it more easily. In other words it becomes effective 'soil'. The opposite of flocculate is ‘puddle’ — that is, it forms a sticky mass, such as the potter uses to make pots, and becomes almost impossible to shape effectively. When it is in this condition the story forms big cracks, develops plot holes and is useless as it alienates the reader.
For example, take the work of Edgar Allan Poe, one of the inventors of the short story: his work tends to gather around one or a small number of powerful images or concepts, the process we’ve named ‘flocculation’. The vacuums start off as small or irksome mysteries and grow rapidly into mortality-threatening, doom-laden climaxes, like any good Ironies, growing strong in heavy soil. But a lesser author might not be able to bring about this flocculation and instead end up with a patchwork of unconnected tropes which leave the reader feeling manipulated and unsatisfied. A horror story which is not crafted towards flocculation can dissipate into unintended comedy: some of the horror films of the 1960s, for example, without being properly focused around a single image or set of images, disperse into laughter for their audiences as tropes develop and quickly become too transparent.
Factors which cause stories to flocculate are focusing on a few major vacuums rather than many, clarity of expression and connection, accurate cultural references, the incorporation of appropriate material from earlier authors, and good sequencing of linear vacuums which encourage a flowing through of reader attention. Too many vacuums in a heavy imagination cause such tales to puddle, as does working them without detachment. Such imaginative soils must be worked in exactly the right condition of detachment, and left strictly alone when the writer himself or herself is too emotional.
Heavy imagination can always be improved by the addition of raw morpheme/phoneme language, by linear vacuums, by editing at the right time and letting the surrounding culture get to it (cultural references separate out elements in a story and clarify them for contemporaries, tending to force apart elements which have ‘puddled’). In extreme cases, incorporating comedy can help.
Heavy imagination is difficult soil. It is not ‘hungry’ soil.
As imaginations get lighter, as we shall see, such things grow more superfluous.
Master authors need to learn to command all types of imagination.