Prime Number Magazine, the Press 53-sponsored online literary journal, is your source for great new short fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction essays, but it also boasts book reviews and craft essays. Below, Josh Woods begins his discussion of writing the fantastic; you can find the rest of his piece, and lots more, here.
A Technique for Writing the Impossible and the Unreal
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.