I’ve written in earlier articles about the power that is at work in stories which both attracts readers and keeps them glued to the page or screen or stage. If a story lacks this power in any degree, a story fails to that exact amount; but add even a small part of one of the components of that power and attention is caught, engagement occurs, forward motion begins. The only works of fiction that survive for any length of time are those which contain a high enough amount of this mysterious power to get completed by the writer and to attract enough readers for them to be published, sold, admired, re-read and then to be in demand for future generations.
In brief - and it’s very brief, there’s much more to it, some of which we will examine in a moment - what you’re looking at in any piece of successful fiction is a set of questions which continually recur on a page or in a chapter or scene:
‘What will happen next?’
‘What’s really going on?’
‘What is the right choice here?’
‘What is this story really all about?’
In effect, a master author uses these questions in combination to ‘pull’ a reader forward, to virtually force him or her to turn the next page, and to engage enough attention to get the reader through to some kind of resolution. The question ‘What will happen next?’ creates a forward momentum; ‘What’s really going on?’ generates a sticky mystery; ‘What is the right choice here?’ prompts a moral engagement; and ‘What is this story really all about?’ culminates in an overall ‘feel’ and/or meaning.
Momentum, mystery, morality and meaning, the four pillars of a great story.
Some authors concentrate on one more than the others. Crime writers, for example, use all four but particularly develop mysteries to keep us stuck to the page; action thriller writers tend to wield the ‘What will happen next?’ question more than the others. A blend of each one will result in a story with magnetic force.
To see how these things are put together to create well-developed stories, let’s do something a little different and examine in close detail the opening pages of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
J. K. Rowling is at pains in her opening paragraph to establish a normality with which she knows her average reader will have some familiarity:
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.
Common suburban perspective is installed, but with a hint that something is not quite right. What we are meant to make of the Dursleys and their viewpoint is made clear by the comic exaggeration in the next paragraph:
He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.
So the reader is set up to reject normality and is already hooked a little by the mention of ‘anything strange or mysterious’ earlier. Rowling is a writer adept at using mystery to glue readers to pages, and we see the development of that in the very next sentence:
The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.
This is outlined as being to do with ‘the Potters’, who are held in low regard by the Dursleys. Rowling, aware that she has a child audience, is quick to pick up on the seeds she has already planted:
When Mr. and Mrs. Dursley woke up on the dull, grey Tuesday our story starts, there was nothing about the cloudy sky outside to suggest that strange and mysterious things would soon be happening all over the country.
Ordinary goings-on are interrupted (for the reader) with another sentence laden with mystery: ‘None of them noticed a large, tawny owl flutter past the window.’
Though we track with Mr. Dursley on his way to work, Rowling lets the reader in on something else that is going on, outside his awareness:
Mr. Dursley always sat with his back to the window in his office on the ninth floor. If he hadn't, he might have found it harder to concentrate on drills that morning. He didn't see the owls swooping past in broad daylight, though people down in the street did; they pointed and gazed open-mouthed as owl after owl sped overhead. Most of them had never seen an owl even at nighttime.
The town is for some undivulged reason full of people wearing cloaks, which Mr. Dursley finds irritating when he goes out for his lunch. At this point, Rowling includes a sentence which parallels what the sensitive reader may be feeling at this exact moment, still only on page three of the first chapter:
He'd forgotten all about the people in cloaks until he passed a group of them next to the baker's. He eyed them angrily as he passed. He didn't know why, but they made him uneasy.
We, as readers, don’t know why these people are in town either, but our ‘uneasiness’ is more like excitement, and it is that unease, that lack of an answer, which compels us to read on. This is the mystery question at work: ‘What is really going on?’ We can tell that everything else is ordinary and suburban, and Rowling consciously tries to make it so - Dursley’s job to do with ‘drills’ is designed to appear as mundane and unexciting as possible - so this juxtaposition of cloaked people, not to mention owls and so on, is creating a vacuum which the reader must turn the page to try to fill. When a conversation overheard by Dursley mentions the Potters and their son, Harry, the reader is totally hooked, remembering the reference on the first page to a terrible secret to do with the Potters.
After some further inexplicable minor encounters, Dursley hurries home, ‘hoping he was imagining things, which he had never hoped before, because he didn't approve of imagination’.
Meanwhile, as a counterpoise to this excess of mystery, ‘Mrs. Dursley had had a nice, normal day.’ The purpose of this is to exaggerate and intensify the mysteries Rowling has outlined already, and when Dursley hears on the television news about owls being seen everywhere, and shooting stars, he is reduced to immobility in about the same proportion as the reader is excited into page-turning action:
Mr. Dursley sat frozen in his armchair. Shooting stars all over Britain? Owls flying by daylight? Mysterious people in cloaks all over the place? And a whisper, a whisper about the Potters...
Shortly afterwards, but still in the first chapter, we start to get a glimpse of some answers to the mysteries suggested so far, when the wizard Dumbledore appears, along with Professor McGonagall who has been disguised as a cat all day. But the author doesn’t explain too much, and is keen to introduce us to much larger and more plot-central mysteries before she finishes her first chapter, namely the apparent vanquishing of someone called Voldemort, which has led to much celebration amongst magicians. And not only his defeat, but the secrets surrounding it:
Professor McGonagall shot a sharp look at Dumbledore and said, "The owls are nothing next to the rumours that are flying around. You know what everyone's saying? About why he's disappeared? About what finally stopped him?”
It seemed that Professor McGonagall had reached the point she was most anxious to discuss, the real reason she had been waiting on a cold, hard wall all day, for neither as a cat nor as a woman had she fixed Dumbledore with such a piercing stare as she did now. It was plain that whatever "everyone" was saying, she was not going to believe it until Dumbledore told her it was true. Dumbledore, however, was choosing another lemon drop and did not answer.
"What they're saying," she pressed on, "is that last night Voldemort turned up in Godric's Hollow. He went to find the Potters. The rumour is that Lily and James Potter are -- are -- that they're -- dead. "
Dumbledore bowed his head. Professor McGonagall gasped.
"Lily and James... I can't believe it... I didn't want to believe it... Oh, Albus…"
Dumbledore reached out and patted her on the shoulder. "I know... I know..." he said heavily.
Professor McGonagall's voice trembled as she went on. "That's not all. They're saying he tried to kill the Potter's son, Harry. But -- he couldn't. He couldn't kill that little boy. No one knows why, or how, but they're saying that when he couldn't kill Harry Potter, Voldemort's power somehow broke -- and that's why he's gone.”
Dumbledore nodded glumly.
"It's -- it's true?" faltered Professor McGonagall. "After all he's done... all the people he's killed... he couldn't kill a little boy? It's just astounding... of all the things to stop him... but how in the name of heaven did Harry survive?"
"We can only guess," said Dumbledore. "We may never know."
We don’t as yet know enough to make much sense of what Professor McGonagall is talking about, or to comprehend the gravity of the incidents she mentions in relation to the forthcoming plot, but what we can see as we look more closely is Rowling adding layer upon layer of intrigue to the bare bones of what is being described, before pointing out that even this figure Dumbledore, who appears to know a great deal, ‘may never know’ what really happened.
Rowling leaves that hanging for the moment, bringing the reader up sharply by referring to the moment in which these characters are speaking, and to physical actions and objects that draw the reader out of the mystery momentarily:
Professor McGonagall pulled out a lace handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes beneath her spectacles. Dumbledore gave a great sniff as he took a golden watch from his pocket and examined it. It was a very odd watch.
It had twelve hands but no numbers; instead, little planets were moving around the edge. It must have made sense to Dumbledore, though, because he put it back in his pocket and said, "Hagrid's late. I suppose it was he who told you I'd be here, by the way?"
"Yes," said Professor McGonagall. "And I don't suppose you're going to tell me why you're here, of all places?"
"I've come to bring Harry to his aunt and uncle. They're the only family he has left now.”
McGonagall protests and thus anchors us as readers: the Dursleys are confirmed as people whom we should be loathing:
"Dumbledore -- you can't. I've been watching them all day. You couldn't find two people who are less like us. And they've got this son -- I saw him kicking his mother all the way up the street, screaming for sweets. Harry Potter come and live here!"
But Dumbledore is serious and so our plot is set up: Harry Potter, who is in some mysterious way responsible for the defeat of an evil wizard, is to be brought up by the horrible and completely ordinary Dursleys.
What has Rowling done in these opening pages? She has built up a sequence of mysteries which virtually compel the reader to read on. Not only has she set up the question ‘What is really going on?’ on several levels, she has constructed the question ‘What will happen next?’ around characters whom we barely know in such a way that we have some interest in discovering what will happen to them. The questionable morality of the contrast between a baby around whom colourful legends are being woven, and the dull prosaicness of the Dursley household is partly touching on the question ‘What is the right choice here?’ As for the overall meaning of the story, what it is really all about, we haven’t moved far enough into its fabric to find out - but we soon will, thanks to this use of vacuum power in these various ways.
As to what vacuum power is and how it works, more answers await within my book How Stories Really Work.