What’s the biggest ‘vacuum’ in your story’s outline or plot?
By vacuum I mean gap, hole, missing thing, loss, threat, mystery, unknown. If you’re struggling to compute with that, think of it as the biggest departure from the perfect scenario.
For example, in Jane Austen’s fiction, even though it was written and set in times of great economic and social upheaval, the thing in the background of most of her fiction is the disenfranchisement of women — or rather, the ‘un-enfranchisement’. The fact that women are very much dependent upon a male-orientated set of rules and protocols is what underpins every story, especially Pride and Prejudice. And if it didn’t, we wouldn’t have a story.
Another example: the Star Wars universe’s biggest vacuum is the Empire — or more particularly, the Sith Emperor and his rise to power.
In The Lord of the Rings, it’s the similar rise of the Dark Lord Sauron, as it is in Harry Potter with the looming presence of Voldemort.
If women had social and economic equality with men in Austen, we wouldn’t have her novels; if the Emperor Palpatine had never destroyed the Republic, there would be no Star Wars; if neither Sauron nor Voldemort had ever come to power, there would be no tales to tell. It’s these grand scale vacuums which form the ‘nuclear reactor’ behind successful plots.
A vacuum is an absence, a gap, a departure from an ideal, which then prompts the story into existence: by working to fill that gap, whether it be the restoration of a kingdom, the finding of a killer or the wooing of a husband, the author creates a story. Concomitantly, the reader follows along — if the story isn’t based on vacuums, the reader wanders off, attention distracted by vacuums elsewhere.
Vacuums control attention: fiction based on vacuums controls readers all the way through to emotional commitment and the end of the tale.
How do you use this?
Start with the biggest vacuum you can find in your story, then work down a pyramid of vacuums to inside the head of your lead character.
Here’s how it works in Pride and Prejudice, for instance: it’s established by the setting of female disenfranchisement that the social position of the Bennett family with its unmarried daughters places their lives in a precarious position. That sets the scene for the drama of the arrival of unmarried eligible bachelors in the neighbourhood, based on a ‘truth universally acknowledged’. That then leads Jane, the eldest daughter, into the vicinity of Bingley, the friendliest and most likely eligible bachelor; that sub-plot starts the engine of drawing Elizabeth Bennett into the vicinity of Darcy. Barriers of pride and prejudice are thrown up and overcome through the mechanics of the tale; Lizzy ends up being attracted to Darcy (largely due to his wealth, even) and the social disenfranchisement is locally ‘healed’ when marriage occurs at the end.
In Star Wars — at least in the original trilogy — the domination of an evil Empire drives the story forward, leading the droids to Tatooine and into the vicinity of the young Skywalker, whose adventures in trying to assist in the restoration of the Republic form the plot. The central vacuum of the power of the Emperor gets right inside Luke’s head through his familial relationship with the Emperor’s chief operative, Vader and the seduction of the Dark Side of the Force. Something similar (uncannily similar, you might say, unless you’ve read my book) happens in both The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.
Successful stories take huge vacuums — sometimes society-wide conflict (as in To Kill a Mockingbird or Great Expectations) or war (as in War and Peace) or a threat to the whole cosmos (as in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) — and drive these right down into the hearts and minds of their chief characters, creating engines which power the plot along and drag readers with it.
Most writers start with characters and build outward. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that it tends to be a ‘hit and miss’ process: unless the characters connect up with the larger vacuums of the plot in some way, the story will misfire or not fire at all. One of the problems with the later Star Wars films is this lack of connection — or lack of connection early enough — which means that attention isn’t gripped as well as it might have been. Imagine if some clearer hint or clue had been given, say, of the nature of Rey’s origins in The Force Awakens? The viewer would have been tantalised and held far more effectively. As it is, the connection seems like an afterthought, and isn’t elucidated until the third of the new films, by which time many of the audience had lost interest.
You’ll be able to trace this for yourself in your favourite stories: powerful vacuums underpinning character motivations all the way down into the sub-plots. Done effectively, it creates lasting classics; done improperly, stories fail.