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The Heart of a Story

We’ve talked in earlier articles about the spectrum which lies behind story-telling - how a core vacuum or great threat or imminent disaster lies at the heart of any successful tale, ready to swallow up those who get too close, and how, coming out from that core, there are bands as represented by various characters and events, until, right on the edge of things, lie (in the majority of stories) freedom and wisdom. The arc of any truly great story is towards its core: some stories end with a gaping hole, compelling their readers to face horror or death or a terrible absence of meaning, but most end in triumph - the gap or hole is miraculously filled, and the hero lives ‘happily ever after’ to some degree.

The same process can be seen in the progress of the reader.

Writers begin with something they want to say. The most successful writers have a clear idea of what this is, even if that idea exists in symbols and images rather than as a statement of philosophy. Around this idea or set of ideas, just as planets orbit the sun, lie the characters and events of the tale. The object of the writer - no matter what kind of story he or she is trying to tell - is to capture the reader in the ‘gravitational field’ of the story and to bring that reader closer and closer to the heart of it, the ‘sun’ or theme or message or overall effect of the whole thing.

To do this, the successful writer uses a range of tools which we have come to know by various names, including ‘theme’, ‘image’, ‘character’ and ‘plot’. Perhaps the best way to picture this is to continue the planetary analogy: imagine a reader floating in the depths of space, unaware of the existence of a story. Publishers use the generalities known as ‘genres’ and various other marketing tools to try to attract the attention of potential readers, in effect capturing enough of the reader’s interest to bring them within range of the writer’s other tools. Readers in bookshops or on the web, for example, may drift away at this point before paying any further attention to a story. One of the primary tools for bringing them in closer is what is known as a ‘character vacuum’: a gap or hole or vulnerability or loss focused into a recognisable shape which we have come to know by the name of ‘protagonist’.

Protagonists at first glance come in various shapes and sizes, from the rebellious Anna Karenina to the tortured Hamlet, from the naive Pip in Great Expectations to the doomed warrior Macbeth. But they usually have certain dimensions in common: almost all are orphans, almost all face some kind of existential challenge, almost all have some kind of wound or scar, if not at the start of the story then certainly at some point during it. Protagonists, then, are a certain kind of ‘species’: they have characteristics which define them as separate from other characters. In fact, a protagonist is largely defined by the simple truth that he or she is possessed of more ‘vacuums’ or holes or gaps or losses than any other entity in the story.

Once a tale has captivated the attention of a reader through this construction called a protagonist, various other elements align around it: the protagonist is given companions or has certain other figures appear in his or her life - the comic companion, the female companion, the wise old figure, and so on, as described elsewhere. These do not appear because of some Jungian collective mind of images from which they are drawn, nor particularly because of social or cultural convention (though they have become such over time) but because they are effective tools for gripping and guiding the attention of the floating planetary body known as the reader. Using these devices, the writer manipulates the reader until he or she comes within the grip of the story’s central idea or theme, at which point the writer’s job is almost done.

Continuing our analogy, when the reader plunges into the heart of the story’s sun the task is completed. The story may be about despair, or the triumph of love, or the comedy of marriage, or any number of things, each of which is symbolised in our analogy by the ‘sun’ in the centre of the tale. A reader’s descent into that sun represents the total acceptance of that idea or experience, whatever it may be.

Of course, any misalignment in the above factors can result in the reader flying off at a tangent, never to be seen again. These are the stories about which we complain as readers, if we even get close enough to assimilate them. We feel that they are unsatisfactory in some way, and perhaps mutter about the writer’s style or the clumsiness of the plot. Some writers manage to grab our attention and then manipulate it through a series of shocking or disturbing events, behind which we hope as readers there is some kind of governing idea - and then we are disappointed to find that there was nothing there to begin with and that we have just been bounced around because the writer thought that was what story-telling was all about. Such tales have an ephemeral existence - their emotional power is temporary and fleeting, precisely because they have no centrally supportive concept at their heart. We sometimes see this in ongoing series, where the writer struggles to maintain any sense of a governing idea.

In a story which uses these tools well, we see a kind of immortality: a sun which can sustain life and gravitation, persisting in drawing in new and old readers time and time again because it has used its resources skilfully and persistently to capture attention.

You can read more about all this in How Stories Really Work and on this website.

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