Our brains don’t much like the distinction between fact and faction. The more vivid the descriptions in a novel and life-like the characters, the more our brains treat these interactions as real. But some go beyond good writing and use a variety of literary devices to take our immersion to another level. Old style adventure gamebooks in the 1980s allowed us as the hero to decide how to proceed. New style hypertext fiction novels contain hyperlinks to deeper pools of stories. But many paper-and-ink novels employ their own tricks too.
Canon of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)
The Royal Society of Chemistry bestowed an honorary fellowship on Sherlock Holmes for his advancement of forensic science in 2002. People have studied not only him but his methods and even his family history. Holmes has been used as a test subject in the scientific literature, both in terms of IQ measurement and matters to do with criminology. Some, allegedly, have requested his help in solving crimes and mysteries.
Arthur Conan Doyle certainly did succeed in providing an authentic character in an authentic setting. The ‘Sherlockian game’ treats Holmes and Watson as if they were real. But Doyle based his character on various real-life inspirations. In doing so, he provided us the reader with the delicious possibility that the main protagonist might be based on a real-life people, who are therefore worthy of investigation and imitation beyond the confines of the novel-world.
Dracula, Bram Stoker (1887)
Count Dracula was based on the Romanian nobleman Vlad III Dracula of Wallachia. Historically, the name ‘Dracula’ is derived from the Order of the Dragon, to which Vlad was admitted. A secondary inspiration for Stoker was the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who kept her youth by bathing in blood. Places such as Transylvanian and the Carpathians mountains are of course real.
But as far as the novel itself is concerned, Bram Stoker gave it an air of authenticity by formatting in it a certain way. The narrative takes the form of historical documents. We read the story in a so-called ‘epistolary format’, that is, as a series of letters, diary entries, ships’ log entries, and newspaper clippings. As readers, we are given an opportunity to play the part of an investigator, as our brains sift through several kinds of historical documents in an attempt to ascertain ‘the truth’.
The Cthulhu Mythos, H P Lovecraft (1928)
How could a set of stories about horrific, alien gods trying to take over Earth ever make readers ask, Is this real? Lovecraft succeeds in sucking us in by employing several clever strategies. For instance, rather than contain all his information in one major novel, he dispenses it over many short stories. As we read, we feel like an archaeologist or CSI agents, trying to piece together the bones. Our brains demand answers that cannot be found merely through a careful reading of the text.
More centrally, Lovecraft provides pseudo historical titbits that make us question what is real and what is invented. Is there a New England town called Arkham and a Miskatonic University? He invents arcane literature which some fans believe real; for example, the Necronomicon of Abdul Alhazred. He mixes fictional with non-fiction deities/cults, such as Dagon. He includes authentic locations, like 47°9 S 126°43 W. And he underpins it all with a real philosophy, called cosmicism.
The Garden of Forking Paths, Jorge Luis Borges (1941)
On the surface, this is an interesting spy story. The plot centres around the writing of a vast and intricate novel, and an equally vast and intricate labyrinth. Both are linked with each other and with the novel’s meaning, which is as a puzzle to be solved as much as book to be read. The novel contains several layers which can be read in multiple ways.
The Garden of Forking Paths is often cited as an early example of ‘hypertext fiction’ without and before the internet. Yes, it is first and foremost a novel with all the usual elements: characters, plot, theme, style, setting and viewpoint. But reading it often feels more like playing a game with the author than reading a text. Other pre-computer examples hyper-text fiction with a similar feel include Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962) and Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (1963).
The Lord of the Rings, J R R Tolkien (1955)
Tolkien’s solution to the problem of believability was to provide our brains with massive background materials. Tolkien invented sophisticated sorts of ‘paratext’ for his novel. This means other material published along with the main narrative in order to expand the context of our appreciation and participation. In The Lord of the Rings, this takes the form of maps, art, genealogies, alphabets, languages, etymologies, and timelines. Elsewhere, he included thoughts on how magic in his universe works, and an essay on what he was trying to achieve (On Fairy-stories).
In these ways he provides us with much sought-after background information to study, which in turn encourages and enriches multiple re-readings of the texts. Tolkien’s genius is particularly evident in providing different narratives within the one mythos that cover overlapping tales and characters, all with varying degrees of complexity/focus to suit different audiences. There are layers of narrative complexity, both down and up, from the childish (The Hobbit) to the cosmological (The Silmarillion).
Catch-22, Joseph Heller (1961)
One of the cleverest tricks an author can play is to provide the storyline in a nonlinear sequence. Our brains crave order in any information received. When that is absent, we work harder to find or impose it. And the more we work, the more we become engaged and absorbed in the process. Joseph Keller uses a literary technique called disjointed or disrupted narrative to achieve this kind of intense reader interaction. It also mimics the structure and recall of human memory.
Events in his novel are portrayed out of chronological sequence and switch from different characters’ viewpoints. Readers are forces to read in as mindful a way as possible, out of necessity, in order to keep track of multiple plotlines, back stories, character references, motivations, and sources of action. Heller makes this task even more demanding for the reader by his use not only of non-sequential narrative but non-sequential reasoning, dialogue and absurdist humour that corresponds to it.
The French Lieutenant’s Women, John Fowles (1969)
Fowels employs many literary techniques to draw in unsuspecting readers. For instance, he appears as a minor character and director of events in the novel, and addressed the reader directly, breaking the fourth wall. But his main method is to provide multiple endings; one in the middle, and two at the end. The final endings provide a choice for us as readers, a choice that will serve as a test of our maturity and what we have learned by reading the story.
The novel tricks our brain by providing us with a selection of optional narrative trajectories from which one must be selected for the story to move on or conclude to our own satisfaction. As with The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the best of these allows readers to learn as much about themselves as the story’s characters. Will we choose an ending in which all ends happily ever after in an unlikely way, or a more realistic conclusion in which not every desire is satisfied?
Watchmen, Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins (1987)
We only process so much of what we read in one form. When pictures are added to text, the level of engagement is multiplied. Reading and viewing activate different information processing systems within the brain. This combination also fosters connections between new information and existing knowledge. Readers of comics receive a total-brain experience – verbal and visual – under the direction of the author and artists.
Watchmen is a superhero story set in an alternative history of our Earth. All but one of its heroes, however, lack superhuman powers, and all exhibit very human flaws. Structurally, the story skips through space and time, plot and viewpoint. It features supplemental, fictional documents that add to the series’ back-story. And the narrative is intertwined with another fictional comic yarn called Tales of the Black Freighter, tricking our brain is distinguishing the ‘fiction’ of Tales from the ‘fact’ of the rest.
Fight Club, ‘Chuck’ Palahniuk (1996)
The extent with which Fight Club succeeds in sucking in its readers is proved by the fact that the author admits he is still approached by fans asking: “Where is the local fight club?” They think it is real, or at least based on something that it is real. And so it was. Palahniuk has claimed that his novel was inspire by real fight club style mischief. And is fictional Project Mayhem based on The Cacophony Society?
But Palahnick’s main manoeuvre was in providing read life sounding takeaways in the form of phrases and other lore. The classic phrase from the novel is: “The first rule of fight club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.” Not only are we given a cool phrase that we can use in the real world. But we have a phrase that encapsulates an ethos or code too. What takes this Fight Club rule beyond other well-known movie quotes is that it resonates with the real-world Men’s Movement and makes some readers want to join in.
The First Jedi, Allen Baird (2013)
The First Jedi is a hybrid book, a mixture of indie novel, training manual and autobiography. It is also the first example of ‘Star Wars’ fiction based in our present universe. There is a real world timeline, with every chapter dated like a diary. Characters are both factual and fictional. Real blog entries, emails, newspaper articles, presentations and adverts are included, as are teaching materials. Substantial endnotes provide proof of truth. Chapter headings serve as puzzles to be solved. The ending is open.
Technically, this book is a non-fiction novel, a work of ‘faction’, in which real events are mingled with fictitious elements by the use of storytelling techniques common to both. The goal is to provide a thin line between bald reality and tantalising fantasy. Readers are provided with a synthesis of many different types of reading experience, such as autobiography and first-person fiction, science-fiction and alternative history, training manual and hyper-reality experiment.