Every book is a small window which occludes more than it can ever show.

Writing a story is a partial thing. Every book is only a small window onto a world, a window which occludes more than it can ever show.

Writing about a family means to consider what work the parents do, where the kids go to school. Even if you never show the characters at work or school, their flow in the home needs to account for these rhythms. They must be absent at certain times, tired at others, they must worry about bills, or delight on wages day, sweat over homework or delight in the holidays.

If this is not done the reader will become aware of a certain failure of reality, even if they cannot name it.

So the writer holds a world in their head, because it takes an entire world to sustain and enable the small slice of life they wish to portray.

For science fiction this can become even more complicated. Each invention has to be thought through – how wide would the impact be of brain implants that connected to the internet? How would it change daily life if there were robots? Space travel?

I am fascinated by this idea – by the rest of the world which never gets to the page.

It is as if a writer had hundreds of strands escaping their heads, worlds orbiting them, a dozen sprouting branches for every leaf of their writing. Ideas floating about them in some other dimension, only the smallest glimpse of which we get from their books.

Each book also ‘throws out’ millions of invisible tentacles, reaching and grasping for the rest of their world, their context, which holds them together, makes them possible.

This is what, for me, makes writing special in the world of art. A writer must convey, often without ever explicitly mentioning it, that there is a whole, realistic, coherent world outside of their book influencing inwards.

This need to create worlds does not seem to exist in other art forms. A painter need only paint their dragon, they don’t need to create a world for the dragon to be in. If they paint a landscape in some fantasy land, this doesn’t need to account for how that land might work, how the people might live, governments fall, societies collide. Sculptors, photographers, painters and musicians make discrete pieces – things which stand alone.

Only the writer generates quite such a vast swathe of ‘waste imagination’ in order to create their piece.

Is this true? It seems so to me, but perhaps other artists, other writers think differently? I’d love to know what you think.

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15 thoughts on “Every book is a small window which occludes more than it can ever show.

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  1. Very true! Sometimes it’s what’s left out that makes a book interesting, giving the reader the chance to imagine more. Then the difficulty comes in trying to figure out which parts to leave out. 🙂

  2. It is true. I think of the “character development” aids that I’ve used (to good effect, I might add) in the past…. Basically, I had a sort of checklist for major characters (acquired from somewhere and adapted): What’s the character’s favorite food? Favorite color? What sort of driver is she? Did she have any pets as a child? What is she afraid of? and so on and so on. Most of the information was never used, its purpose was only to create a well-rounded person in the writer’s head. Once you know a lot about a character, it’s easier to predict how he’ll react in different situations.

    I love your description of the worlds orbiting and the branches leafing. On good days, writing actually feels like that!

    1. That image is what started the post! I wrote a short story, and as I was writing I kept thinking “but would that happen in this world?” I suddenly got this image of narrative choices around my head like a starfield or tree branches.
      I’ve certainly used exercises on character as you describe. As a foetus I thought writing was a talent you had or didn’t. Eventually one has to learn it’s a skill like cabinet making – you must learn the rules and tools. Afterwards you can find out if you’re any good with them!
      Thanks for you comment – it’s much appreciated. ROS

  3. I think that in order to bring a world to life a writer has to give the reader hints that the world exists outside of the frame.

    Robert Heinlein was a master at that, I think–he dropped words and phrases into his books that he never bothered to explain because the characters, it is assumed, knew all about it.

    For example, “the Martian Treaty” was a catchphrase that came up in several of his books. What the treaty was all about never came up, it was just something for the characters to discuss in the background, as it were, while something else was going on.

    1. Yes, and how many paths and intricacies sat in his brain and never made the page?! He was very counter-cultural, especially in his portrayals of family life in many books, an extra-ordinary writer.
      Thank you for your thoughts Misha

  4. Couldn’t agree more. Choice of inclusion is a fine science/art in writing fiction. This is why I like Dreiser so well: he really packed the details in and, to nearly a perfect degree, all were relevant.

  5. Fuzzy Bear,
    “So the writer holds a world in their head, because it takes an entire world to sustain and enable the small slice of life they wish to portray.”
    That feels like a fractal.
    Every slice everywhere supports and makes real every other slice. The story we are living is off when details like prisoners and are left out and what is said, doesn’t really exist.
    Human story is not well written. Lazy “writers”.
    Reading here makes it better though-somehow.
    Waywardspirit

    1. Yes – indulgent western (and others but I’ve a tiny knowledge!) cultures tend to ‘write-out’ what they find too hard to deal with. Prisoners, unemployed, immigrants and others are turned into the enemy. Our governing structures are vengeful and selfish – where they need to be compassionate.
      That which we find most dreadful of ourselves, that is what it is MOST important to love.
      Will we ever learn this?
      Meanwhile I rant about it!
      I’m delighted my Blog makes it better – I truly am.
      Nighty Night 🙂

      1. Yes, Panda Monster It does.
        Night.
        And
        I need this. Can I have it?
        Sleep on it.
        “This need to create worlds does not seem to exist in other art forms. A painter need only paint their dragon, they don’t need to create a world for the dragon to be in. If they paint a landscape in some fantasy land, this doesn’t need to account for how that land might work, how the people might live, governments fall, societies collide. Sculptors, photographers, painters and musicians make discrete pieces – things which stand alone.”
        Way

      2. You may use it, though it would be nice if you attribute it or give me a tiny mention somewhere.
        As for ‘having it’, since it is thought and now resides in your head you ‘have it’ already 🙂

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