Even the most primitive of stories use the question ‘What will happen next?’ to lead readers on and on through whatever adventure the narrative is about. If sufficient ‘unknowns’ are built up - including ‘cliffhangers’, dramatic and exciting endings to episodes or scenes, leaving the audience in suspense and anxious not to miss the next episode - then readers and audiences will feel compelled to turn the page or to return for the next showing. Just as this type of story-telling works for readers, so it also works for writers: the creator of a story is encouraged by this approach to move forward, from a beginning to an ending, constructing each new scene in a sequence, heading for a climax of some kind or at least for the next chapter.
This can - and does - lead to downfall for many writers. They begin eagerly, and write energetically, constructing scene after scene, crafting cliffhangers to hook the reader into the next part of the tale - and then the story peters out, losing focus and power as each unknown is devalued and deflated progressively. After a while, a writer loses the passion for the story and it dwindles and comes to a halt. There are distinct reasons - and remedies - for this.
Slightly more advanced stories use another question, ‘What is really going on?’, to glue readers to each page. Adding in mysteries is a sure-fire way to attract reader attention and is the mainstay of whole genres of fiction, especially detective or horror tales. Nothing ‘sticks’ a reader to a story as much as a mystery. But this method can also lose its power if the mysteries grow so large that the reader begins to grow either suspicious - perhaps the author himself or herself doesn’t really know the answer and is constructing an ending as the tale goes along? - or frustrated, developing a feeling that there is now so much unknown within the story that it is overburdened and on the point of collapse. This approach works best for authors if, instead of ‘writing forwards’, as in the linear question ‘What will happen next?’, they ‘write backwards’, starting by knowing themselves the answers to every mystery and then carefully concealing those answers from the reader, as has been discussed previously on this blog. In this way, readers, moving forward through a tale which has been written backwards, gain confidence that their footing is secure and that they won’t be disappointed in the end.
The most successful stories also ask ‘What is the right thing to do?’ on occasion, posing this query for the protagonist mainly, but through him or her contacting and engaging the reader’s sense of morality and meaning. In becoming involved with questions like this, the reader is not only being moved forwards through the tale but is becoming interwoven with the values and presumptions of a particular narrative. It is either clear to them that the protagonist should make a particular choice, and their attention is therefore arrested, or the choice between various options is not clear, in which case their attention is similarly arrested. This type of question is neither a ‘forward’ nor a ‘backward’ one, but an ‘outward’ one: it refers - or should refer - to the reader’s own values and level of involvement in the tale.
Now it’s a strange thing that, in asking an ‘outward’ question, one also opens the door to an ‘inward’ one: the question ‘What is the right thing to do?’ makes the reader explore what the story is really all about. And this can solve many problems for the writer.
In a tale in which classic heroes and heroines battle villains, it’s usually pretty clear what the right thing to do is in any given situation. The attraction then is to see how the protagonist is going to react to any complexities that might be thrown into the mix. For example, it’s obvious to anyone reading The Lord of the Rings that Frodo, having reached the Cracks of Doom through extreme physical and spiritual obstacles, needs to throw the Ring into the Fire. Whether or not he is physically or spiritually able to do so at that point is what enthrals us. Similarly, Luke Skywalker, confronting his father Darth Vader in the Star Wars series, convinced of an underlying moral goodness in him, is beset with difficulties in that final confrontation and finds that it is not as easy as he might have thought when it comes to it. There is no question really in our minds as readers or viewers as to what should be done: the question is how can it be done? In answering that question, we get right into the heart of the story’s meaning.
Comedies usually play with the question ‘What is the right thing to do?’ by having us watch as a series of wrong choices end in farce and mishap. But the question highlights the comic flaws in the characters involved in ways which the simple progression of a story through episodes alone does not. We are amused at the bumbling mis-choices of Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral; we chortle at the antics of an ensemble of characters in the television sit-com Dad’s Army. But the main reason we laugh is because we are free to observe, in ‘laboratory conditions’ as it were, the consequences of making the wrong decision while also knowing that no real harm will come of it.
Conversely, Tragedies and Ironies present us with stories in which the right thing to do in a given situation is much more uncertain and potentially destructive. Protagonists have often made moral choices which we as readers know to be wrong or misguided and which have opened up disastrous possibilities; the way out of the mess that they find themselves in is usually unclear. Finding a way to recover innocence or sanctity for Macbeth, for example, is tragically impossible; in most horror stories, likewise, the protagonists have become so entangled in their terrible circumstances that we feel that they are doomed. In our minds, rightness and wrongness have been played with by the author until each throws into relief the other. The heart of the story’s meaning is not so much the outcome of the question ‘What is the right thing to do?’ but an exploration of the extremes of what happens when the wrong decisions are made.
Thus we get to the core of the story, asking the ‘inward’ question ‘What is this really all about?’, through the outward question ‘What is the right thing to do?’
So to be roundly successful, writers must write forwards and backwards, outwards and inwards. They must pose questions and provide not only answers but possibilities. If they can do this, they will produce stories which not only engage readers but which will stand the test of time.
For much more about all of this, visit Writing and Publishing World, here.