How Not to Pursue Sense of Wonder

Tracie Welser is a Clarion West grad, a teacher and a writer. Her first professional sale, “A Body Without Fur,” appears in May/June issue of Interzone.

Excellent fiction is an art we’re all working to capture on the page. Blogs and how-to books are full of advice on how to achieve excellence through structure, prose, plot, setting, character and dialogue. But when it works, why does it, really? Is excellence a convergence of these factors, these skills, like a formula of some kind? If we’re honest, the possibility is a little thrilling to contemplate. A magic formula! I’ve seen how-to-write texts which promise this very idea.

We could speculate on tastes of various readers and writers and the styles that appeal to them (the sentimental, the romantic, the horrific, the scientific and so on). As Michael Chabon points out in his artful collection Maps and Legends, we read and write “for entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure.” And entertainment comes in different flavors. But I want to know how and why story works, why the rhythm and syntax of a sentence gives it power, how the structure of a narrative draws in or discomfits the reader, and to what ultimate effect. I’m going to assert that the real deal, the aspect of fiction that keeps people reading is Sense of Wonder. This is true whether the genre is horror, epic fantasy, mystery, “hard” sci-fi, or cowboy stories. Or even that other genre that doesn’t recognize itself as such, literary fiction. Or the weird. Especially the weird.

How is wonder accomplished, if that’s what we’re chasing? I mean, really, deep down, cognitively? What kinds of narrative make this experience possible for the reader?

Surprising or shocking the reader with the unexpected creates cognitive dissonance that the reader feels as wonder. Just enough of the expected, subverted, does this in a sublime manner. A visual metaphor helps here: I once saw prints by an artist whose photos blend nature into urban landscapes such as train stations. The size, scope and juxtaposition of flowing water and growing things against the urban and mechanical are beautiful and startling, initially. Once you’ve seen it, the spectacle isn’t as compelling, but that first glance creates a “wow” moment.

The much-touted startling story hook, or violence embedded in narrative as spectacle, or sensual pleasures presented as extraordinary and enticing, all play on the cognitive dissonance and wonder of the reader. Something unexpected is happening! For simplicity’s sake, I’m talking about sex and violence, but there are plenty of other ways to accomplish the translation of the visual into text.

But there’s a how-not-to. We have to tread carefully in order to bring readers moments of wonder without relying on tropes or harmful stereotypes or easy fixes that insult their intelligence or worse.

How not to: othering characters based on gender or race or exoticizing the foreign or relying on stereotypes for horrific/bizarre effect. Pulpy fiction like Lovecraft’s is infamous for this. Witness the perils of darkest Africa! Behold the evil Eskimo, the uncivilized swamp cultist! Included in this category are the inbred hillbilly, the small-town sheriff, the psychotic man with dwarfism, the mentally unbalanced and/or tragic queer, the one-dimensional woman. I’m guilty of this in my own way. My fascination with Le Guin’s anthropological style led to me create a recently published story that teeters on the edge of the noble savage trope. I have to ask myself hard questions about that choice. Did I find that compelling? Why? Did I do enough to transcend the stereotype while pursuing a sense of wonder?

Violence is compelling, and it can be used to awe the reader. I’m not saying that violence is “wonderful” in a delightful sense, but it is a spectacle for the senses, psychologically interesting. It’s the effect to which violence is used that makes the difference.

I know I am not immune to this impulse, either. I have a graduate degree in the study of gender theory, but both of my recently published works begin with a story hook in which violence is directed at a female character. What does that say about me, about my own demons or narrative aesthetic? Am I perpetuating a harmful trope when I compel the reader to see the startling beauty of blood splattered on snow, a sense of wonder inspired by the visual I saw in my mind’s eye?

What hooks you into narrative as a reader? How do you create “wow” moments in your writing, and what, if anything, can be problematic?