One of the neatest aspects of a story is that it exists in the present. When you tell a friend about a story you very much enjoyed, one that pulled you in and kept you there, you say, “It is really good.” You use the present tense. The story is not over. It’s never over. As I write this, Sherlock Holmes and Watson are racing down the Thames, Margot Macomber is ending the short happy life of her husband, the good aldermen of Jefferson are staring at the single strand of iron gray hair on the bed in Miss Emily’s house, and Mme. Loisel is discovering she and her husband suffered years in poverty paying for a fake necklace.
The action is still happening—it occurred as you were reading it, it is happening as someone on the other side of the planet is reading it at this moment, it will take place for someone one hundred years from now. It’s like time travel, or the telepathy Stephen King writes about. He very purposefully described a rabbit in a cage with the numeral “8” on its back in Maine in 1997 and I visualize it today, August 21, 2010, in Indianapolis. And you saw it, too, just now, on whatever day it is for you, wherever you happen to be. How cool is that?
That brings us to the dual action of a story—there is what happens in the story to the characters and there is what happens inside us as we read it. I refer not to the internal emotions we feel—and that are often the author’s primary purpose in writing it—as the story moves along. I mean the action that takes place in our imaginations. Our neurons are firing like crazy as we create each scene in our minds. We are recreating what the author already built in his own head, yes, but we are creating every scene, too, with fresh energy and purpose every time we read a favorite story. And when we clue in a friend that “this is a good read,” she can pick up the story and enjoy the same experience we did—Holmes racing, Margot Macomber shooting, aldermen gaping, Mme. Loisel paying a huge price for her pride. It’s telepathy, it’s time travel. It is magic.