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Taking Fiction Apart

The attention of the literary world has always been fixed, understandably, upon the works of fiction which have already been written. Stories as they were were considered to be all that there was. But when stories were looked at in the light of whether or not they were successful, it became possible to spot where they deviated from success.

Success was defined as ‘able to attract and hold the attention of large numbers of readers’. This usually, but not always, meant that the stories sold well, and so commercial measures might play a part in estimating success too. But sometimes a tale could be a success in a narrow context not open to such commercial forces - for example, a school play or a poem. The point was that success equated with the ability to grab and hold attention.

The more effortlessly a story did this, the more it had in place working and workable methods. If those could be isolated and replicated, it might be feasible for other authors to modify their works so that they could achieve success themselves.

If you were constructing a science of storytelling, where amongst the world’s cultures would be a good place to start? Every story ever read would have part of an answer in that it had been published and read, at least. Fragments of workable truths would be visible in every story. So at first it would have to be discovered what school of stories had been most successful. A useful beginning point was the world’s great authors, the ones whose stories had stood the test of time, the ‘big names’, including Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer, Hardy, Forster, Tolkien, Lewis, and so on.

Then the level of the author himself or herself was eliminated from the study, as these people had lived in different times and cultures and been subject to an infinite variation of influences. Psychology of the individual was out, then; there was something else which determined success in fiction.

What were some of the lowest common denominators of stories? There were generally things called ‘characters’ and things called ‘plots’, both of which had been studied in great depth over the centuries as though they were things in themselves.

What if they weren’t?

What if characters and plots arose from a set of hidden assumptions which could be discovered and broken down further?

To do this, it had to be understood what stories were trying to do, and that was quickly resolved to be ‘grabbing and holding attention’. Each author, it was perceived, wherever or whenever they had been born, must be using some type of method or series of methods which captivated attention in readers of hugely various kinds. Whatever else stories were doing, they were doing that.

They were somehow gravitating attention toward themselves and then directing it. A story might be directed toward sadness or happiness, laughter or despair, victory or defeat; it might be aimed at galvanising an audience or horrifying them. But to accomplish any of these ends, it had to grip an audience for long enough and at an emotional level deep enough to have an effect.

A one-line joke might use the same principles as a twenty-volume Epic; a short story might use the same devices as a two hour play.

The thing called a ‘character’ might be, it was supposed, an attention-grabber; the thing called a ‘plot’ might be an attention-mover. The grabber would have to be styled in such a way as to grab almost anyone’s sympathy; the mover would have to be driven by almost universal forces.

And that’s exactly what was found.

From this approach came the book How Stories Really Work and a great deal of other material available on this website.

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