Dissociation and Association
When it comes to prose I have found that different stories and different authors create varying levels of mental and emotional separation from the immersion into the story. Some stories focus heavily in drawing you into the mindset of the characters and the events to associate the narrative as your own experience more closely, while at other times distance is placed between the reader and the story so we can more coldly examine the details.
Solitary characters, scenes where the protagonists are more reflective and thoughtful, scenes where the character is self aware of themselves hiding facts from others, or any scene where the protagonist- and thus the narrator- observes the world in a more coldly clinical and methodical mentality so as to remove their emotions from their actions, these are all things that place layers of dissociation between us and the world of the story. This places more filters on how we perceive the story and at the same time removes much of our reactions to those same stories.
In horror, for example, the narrator might describe gruesome torture or injury in a very factual, sterile way, which can emphasize the actuality of the horror. Dissociative description actually grounds the story in the objective material and deeply consequential world more effectively than associative descriptions do- where emotions become more prominent.
In some action scenes as well, fights might be described more mechanically and changes in positions and states with more physical descriptions of the impacts of attacks and blocks. The dynamics of combat become more vivid and quantified if described this way, and the actors of the scene become like puppets that have no character or expression other than their physical movements. As the mechanical details become more vivid the human details become less, and the characters become more predatory, methodical, and unemotional in the description. Morality, passion, and philosophy becomes inconsequential as ruthless tactics and strategy take up the entirety of our conception of the story.
A strength of this dissociative way of conveying a story is that the underlying emotion set up before entering the emotionless state can be carried over through the entirety of the scene. Emotions vanish both when they are too dim to be noticed as well as when they are so intense as to be muted from our numbness to them. Blind rage or unyielding determination transform into emotionless clarity and using dissociative narration effectively conveys that the emotion has reached a point where it can no longer be further expressed except through actions and not through reflecting on them. The emotions become greater for being removed.
The benefit of this kind of dissociative prose is that the mind is focused on detailed facts and actualities. This is where a writer can gleefully shove in what is effectively exposition and get away with it. The clinical mindset can carry the reader through technical details presented in a way that would otherwise be boring from another mindset. If the character needs to map out the prison quickly in order to make their expedient escape then the reader also becomes interested in the details of the prison layout since it represents tactical information. You can narrate the virtual architecture of a computer network because it is the obstacle the hacker needs to break through. You can describe the inner tendons of the arm in detail and you explain exactly why your Sherlock Holmes is so very effective at breaking arms and why his rapid and intentional movements are so lethal.
At this point it’s no longer the narration of a story, it’s simply the dictation of events to a attentive mind thirsty for every detail. This is no longer a story of events in vague or generalized details, but scientific facts in chronological clockwork.
At the other end you get the more mainstream understanding of how a story is narrated. Emotional associations throughout the prose with metaphors, similes, the anthropomorphism of objects, locations, and even times of day with human traits and intentions, humour threaded into dialogue and description, specific word choices to control the tone of the story to be happier, darker, or more melancholy, and the constant narration of people’s expressions, voice inflection, and their body language in the breaks between quotes.
Narrating details is also possible with associative prose, but it requires a vehicle with which to carry it. Stories that avoid feeling like an infodump or can make exposition engaging despite being shamelessly obvious do it by integrating the technical details into the natural flow of the narrative. This is often by creating an environment and a context in which the exposition would be expected, or by communicating exposition in a voice, or the way a character naturally speaks, so that it’s natural for you to keep listening. A classroom setting, a scene with a mentor character, the protagonist asking a local for direction, news, or gossip. The narrator themselves are a character through which to deliver exposition, the author is a storyteller character that’s constantly in the background and depending on the story is rarely even noticed despite us KNOWING they were their since before we started reading. Good writing often sneaks in exposition just as tiny mentions of fact between the things the character naturally pays attention to, like staring indecisively at a girlfirend’s doorway and idly noticing the doorknob is made out of glass, which is actually important because later on you discover glass doorknobs are effective magical booby traps that can be enchanted to absorb the souls of people who touch them. You didn’t think thta was exposition at all when you first read that glass knob part, but it was.
The narrator is like a storyteller by a fire, which we ourselves decide to sit beside and thus mentally allow to tell their stories to us. The right Voice can create that storyteller vibe in the prose so that we will listen despite it being exposition for long stretches, for when you listen to a storyteller you are expected to listen, you are expected to do so patiently, and you are expected NOT to interrupt, because a storyteller gets to the point in their own time. You accepted the need for patience the moment you sat down.
Associative prose is based in emotions, and the flow and rhythm of language. A good way to understand effective prose of this kind is to understand rhetorical devices, such as placing the same word repeatedly at the end of a sentence for emphasis, repeating the same word in different phrases for emphasis, and restructuring a sentence around the intentional placement of a word for emphasis. Associative prose is more complex than dissociative prose because it attempts to convey emotion more directly, rather than working it between the lines so that the reader can make their own assumptions, and thus buy into those emotions more readily for having realized them on their own terms. That is not to say either is easier to do well, and likely familiarity with their use is the best source of skill in utilizing them.
Associative prose in grounded in the Voice of the narrator, such as the wording of a excitable little girl differing from the wording of a panicking doctor during a crisis. The character of the narrator shines through the prose itself, and we experience the text more with the impressions of our feelings than with our capacity for logic. Dissociative prose helps the reader return to their own mind in scenes where characters are left thoughtful and reflective on events, while associative prose helps distract the reader from their own mind and immerse into the flow of the narrator’s way of thinking while they tell you why they are the best, everyone else is wrong, and pineapple is definitely the preferable topping for any and all pizza and life is meaningless without pink running shoes and breakfast made from living octopus tentacles still wriggling as you swallow and trying to sucker cup your throat and choke you on the way down while you pet your dedazzled new turkey and give it hugs smiling thinking of thanksgiving the next week and the basement key is hidden so that it stays locked until you say otherwise.
Transitions are also quite useful, and can abruptly shift you from associative to dissociative prose. Dissociative prose is also useful when you shock or horrify a reader so that they can retreat from the story enough to process their own thoughts better. Horror while being dissociated from the terror is my favourite for how it can get to you even THROUGH layers of mental separation. Like being the invisible man in a gruesome mass murder scene chanting to yourself that they can’t find you they can’t find you they can’t find you they can’t find you.