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Issue 23, July-September 2012
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
A Technique for Writing the Impossible and the Unreal
by Josh Woods

Borges once argued that storytelling follows the model not of psychology or of worldly events but instead of magic, and he literally meant magic, as in the causal and sympathetic relationships between seemingly unrelated things. While explaining this point, he revealed a technique—not a theory or mindset, but a clear, pragmatic maneuver that writers can learn, imitate, and use—for making the impossible and the unreal seem believable. This technique was not the point of his essay, nor did he directly note the technique, so whether he knew what exactly he was revealing is unclear(1). He highlighted an example from the beginning of William Morris’s The Life and Death of Jason, where the homeland of Jason is described in a list-style, and in the innocuous middle of the list comes this line:

“Where the bears and wolves the centaurs’ arrows find.”

This line does more than prepare the larger context for the centaur to appear later; it also, within the single line, uses the technique I propose, which is this: Prefigure the impossible or unreal subject with two or three images that are both acceptable to the reader and related to the subject. 

In the above example, the unreal subject is the centaur, a mythical, dangerous creature of the forest. So the centaur is prefigured by a bear, also a dangerous creature of the forest, but the bear is not at all mythical, or at least it would seem. Actually, even though we all believe in bears, very few of us have encountered one out in the wild, beyond the safety of zoos or pictures, so to call up the image of the bear is to call up the image of something we accept but that is essentially alien or other, exactly the mindset required for accepting the centaur. The next image is of a wolf, which doubles up on the same effect as that of the bear. Then comes the centaur, and the technique is complete.

Two questions (at least) emerge at this point: (1) Why are specifically two or three prefiguring images necessary, or why double up on the effect of the bear? And (2) what do we mean by belief? For even after reading this line, no one is expected to believe that centaurs are as real as bears and wolves.

The second question first: better than using the term belief, we should think of making the impossible and the unreal acceptable. Our readers should be willing to take the impossible or unreal image we present and hold on to it alongside other images that they happen to believe are possible or real. At best, readers hold on to these images for generations, as they have done with Frankenstein’s monster, Hamlet’s father’s ghost, Dracula and his brides, and many others. Belief can be a handy word, and I use it casually, but it actually implies the marriage of faith and fact, and there is simply no need for that marriage in fiction.

For the first question: Why are two or three prefiguring images required—specifically the numbers two or three? Because in order to prefigure something, we need a pattern. And how many items does it take to create a pattern? One item is only an example, a case. With two items we have either siblings or a metaphor. Three or more items create a pattern against which the last item can be compared, against which it can seem related but unique(2). In this way, the last item—the impossible or unreal subject—can stand out as such against the two prefiguring images (for three items total) or against three prefiguring images (for four items total). But piling on too many prefiguring images can burden the reader who tries to carry them all, so conciseness adds power, and a maximum of four total images (three prefiguring and the one subject) can do the job without turning into an inventory(3).   

Borges pointed out another example from Morris, this one prefiguring the deadly Sirens:

“As o’er the gentle waves they(4) took their way,

The orange-scented breeze seemed to bear

Some other sounds unto the listening ear”

The first image is that of the gentle waves, a thing of softness and of the sea like the Sirens are, and a thing that, while a bit odd, is acceptable to the reader. The second image is the orange-scented breeze, a thing of sweetness and of air like the Sirens’ songs are, and a thing that, while a bit odd, is acceptable to the reader. But then the other sounds come, the hints of the actual Siren song, which is the beginning of the unreal image of the Sirens themselves.

Now let’s leave Borges and look at other famous examples. Here, from Mary Shelley, is the very first glimpse of life from Frankenstein’s monster:

“It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle
was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of
the creature open;” 

The first image is the hour: one in the morning. This is not only an unnatural time for activity, but it is also an off-kilter hour, not balanced like midnight is. The second image is the rain on the panes, nature against the man-made window. The third image is that of the dying candle, which implies far too many things to enumerate here. I will simply note the use of the “related” part of the prefiguring technique: the yellow flame dies as the yellow eye opens, which is the fourth image, the impossible image of the dead come back to life, the unreal image of a monster born. 

Let’s now turn to Shakespeare, to the very first sight of Hamlet’s father’s ghost:

“Bernardo: Last night of all,
    When yond same star that's westward from the pole
    Had made his course t' illume that part of heaven
    Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
    The bell then beating one— 
Enter Ghost.”

The first image is of the star that has circled the pole like a backward clock, an image acceptable yet intangible, unearthly(5). The next image is the tolling bell, the sound of the dead, and—perhaps it’s part of the same image—the time is one in the morning, that off hour. Finally, image three, the ghost enters. The additional maneuver here is that this description is not strict narrative introduction of the ghost; it is a character describing a past sighting of the ghost, and because he prefigures it correctly, his description causes the ghost to materialize. This happens to follow the model of magic, by the way.
Again, the technique is this: Prefigure the impossible subject with two or three images that are both acceptable to the reader and related to the subject.

So since I say impossible subject, does this technique work for subjects that are not actually supernatural, only impossible in some other way? Let’s see by going Faulkner, a realist who is highly impossible and unreal. Here is the famous beginning to Barn Burning:

“The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish—this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood.” 

The end point, the impossible image, is that of a boy smelling the alchemy of bad emotions and the old fierce pull of the blood. This is, of course, impossible, and it is even an obnoxious affront to the cherished sense of smell in literature, so no sensible reader should accept such a careless image on its own, and if it were its own sentence, or if it weren’t prefigured, we would reject it as poor metaphor, poor imagery. Yet we do accept it, and we do so because Faulkner prefigures his impossible image with two images that are related and that are acceptable. I should note that Faulkner takes the technique a bit further and makes the prefiguring images progressive in their impossibility. Image one, the smell of cheese, is without question. Image two, the smell of meat in sealed cans, is actually impossible, but we believe that a hungry boy can believe he smells it, so we accept the second image and, because we have done so, are now in the mindset to accept the impossible. In the third and final image, the boy smells something no one could ever smell, or ever even think he smells, but the technique is complete, so we accept it.

Many more examples exist, of course. Go back to those impossible or unreal images that have stuck with you and look to see if this technique is born out. Then try it in your own writing and make the impossible real by making us believe the impossible and the unreal.

(1)But knowing Borges, he probably intended for you, right now, to be reading my questioning of his intention, and he probably intended for me to wonder even this, while you read my realizing it.
(2) Fairy tales use this technique of three for this same reason, for definition by comparison. Compared to her other two sisters, the young Cinderella is worthy. The youngest son of the three princes shall be king, as Michael Corleone becomes. Ender is not his cruel older brother nor his weak older sister, but instead the worthy hero by comparison. 
(3) To make our world fathomable, we condense it into patterns of threes (land, sea, air; body, mind, soul) or even fours (north, east, south, west) but not fives, which is generally too much.
(4) Jason and his crew, not the Sirens
(5)  In 1998, Don Olson, Russell Doescher, and Marilynn Olson, of Texas State University, searched back through time to discover which star this must have been. They found that it was likely Tycho Brahe’s 1572 supernova—the death of a star.

Josh Woods is editor of The Book of Villains and The Versus Anthology. His fiction has appeared in Surreal South ’11, Surreal South ’09, and XX Eccentric: Stories About the Eccentricities of Women, among other places. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee and winner of the Press 53 Open Awards in Genre Fiction. He graduated from the MFA program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and is currently an assistant professor of English at Kaskaskia College in Illinois.