Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King has a moment that opens the Universe to me. It’s the waltz in Grand Central Station. If you haven’t seen it, take a look. Or, better yet, watch the full movie.
What works for me and makes this scene magical is the sense of wonder it creates.
When I first saw it, it took me by surprise and, on an unconscious level, caused me to imagine a world bigger than myself. I sensed an uncontrollable cascade of possibilities. In Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia, a Parkinson’s patient speaks of “dancing out of frame.” That’s wonder.
Wonder is often accompanied by surprise, thrills, joy and a sense of hope, but I don’t think any of these contain it. I thought about this in terms of a quote from Stephen King about three kinds of horror.
“The Gross-out: …it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: … it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute.”
By analogy to gross-out/horror/terror, maybe it’s recognition/insight/wonder. Recognition is making a connection that matters to us, and it is visceral. An insight crystallizes ideas to present a new conclusion (and is often intellectual). Wonder takes us out of ourselves. Its impact can’t be boxed in, exhausted, or completely intellectualized. I would say it is mostly spiritual.
Why does this matter to a writer? For me, because I want to do something as wonderful as Terry Gilliam has. I want to create this experience for readers. Wonder is part of my life, and I want to share it through my work.
More practically, I think many of the most interesting cult films and those works that attract intense fans do so because people prize the experience of wonder. Science fiction explicitly claims the sense of wonder as one of its values, and I think that explains the dedication of its fans in large part. The themes — a future that reframes the present through new powers, reimagined social rules, and the possibilities of technologies that transform our destiny — are big and have a natural claim on wonder. First contact with aliens is a persistent SF theme, as are other firsts.
And firsts may be the most common causes of wonder in real life. (Like, for instance, the first time you hold your newborn child.)
The romance genre can claim wonder, too. In fact, when done correctly, the first of love (meet cute, first kiss, etc.) open up worlds for characters and readers. (It’s less true when these first become too common tropes, but that can be true in any form of literature. There are plenty of horror stories that lean heavily on the gross-out.
I believe stories should entertain. They can do that without wonder, but the work stands out and becomes more memorable if it has a moment of wonder. Entertainment and wonder together can become art, as is the case with James Joyce’s short stories, where he consciously worked to include “epiphanies.” To my mind, those were moments of wonder that raised those stories to a higher level.
Creating wonder is more an art than a science, but there are ways potential moments of wonder get ruined. Often, these are driven by practices intended to make stories more entertaining, but I suspect, looking more closely, a writer can cut out the parts written to engage the reader without losing them. And gaining wonder will be the result. I’ll get into wonder killers in my next post.