If we track back to see how any kind of writing begins, it’s fairly obvious that before the pen touches the page, or the finger touches the keyboard, there must be an idea.
If we accept that as our starting point, then it must also be reasonably clear that, based on the strength of that idea, writing will either occur or not, and also will be of a certain character or not. If the idea is weak - and it is possible to define more or less precisely what we mean by ‘weakness’, as we will see in a moment - then it is unlikely that writing will occur - the pressures of Life will pull the would-be writer in many different directions, and pens will never reach pages, nor fingers keyboards. But if the idea gains in strength, so that words are produced, then the idea will begin to shape the attributes of what is written: a powerful but grim idea should yield dark writing; a powerful but bright idea should produce work that is uplifting.
As the work takes shape, it is possible to detect some subtle interim steps in the process: a writer who has managed to reach a page with a pen has taken on a role. He or she has decided, consciously or not, to be a writer, to put the idea into the form of words, rather than music or colour. And the very next step in the formation of a work is to give expression to an idea through a particular point of view. One might have, for example, the idea of telling a story about a volcanic explosion. As part of moving the idea onto the page, one makes the decision to adopt a perspective on that explosion: is the tale going to be a history of the explosion, taking on some of the characteristics of a documentary? Or is it going to be an emotive adventure, conveying the drama of the incident through a particular character? Is it going to be an uplifting story of conquest over a destructive act of nature? Or is it going to be the tragic tale of how human beings’ dreams were ruined by a cataclysm beyond their control? Or something in between?
In assuming a perspective, a writer automatically extends out from an initial viewpoint a set of expectations or goals. Usually, a central character is the means through which a writer adopts a viewpoint. This character, almost as soon as he or she is born on the page, has aims or expectations. These aims define the direction, the flavour and the kind of story which is to be told. In the example of the volcanic explosion, a native girl living on the volcanic tropical island has dreams; she wishes to marry, perhaps, or to leave her home to seek her fortune elsewhere. Any goal or aim immediately creates a vacuum, an absence, which pulls the story forward: in seeking to fulfil her goal, the girl as a character moves through a plotline of events, either approaching her aims or deviating from them. Aims can be conventional, and therefore to some degree predictable by the reader, or unusual and unpredictable.
Thus a story takes shape: a central character comes closer to, or moves further away from, her aims. Acts, scenes, chapters, paragraphs, sentences, words are all part of this movement towards or away from, culminating in a comic or an epic finale if the aims are accomplished, or a tragic or ironic one if they are not.
Other perspectives take form as other characters, each with aims and therefore vacuums, creating motion to one degree or another. Some align with the central character; others oppose the thrust of the story. Thus we have heroes and villains, protagonists and antagonists, and all the rest of the archetypical figures we see in fiction.
The magnitude of the motion in any story is equivalent to the size and arrangement of the vacuums involved: successful stories begin with vacuums that approximate those of the reader sitting reading the book or watching the film or play. These then sequentially increase in size to eventually include deeper and deeper consequences before some kind of resolution occurs. A misalignment of, or something missing in a sequence of vacuums in terms of size can stall a story: readers are drawn along on gradients, and normally react as though experiencing a comedy if gradients are misapplied. Indeed, comedy draws its own strengths from an intentional misalignment of gradients: we laugh when we feel something too steep or too shallow has occurred. Comic characters are often those with exaggerated aims and therefore exaggerated vacuums.
How can we measure the strengths and weaknesses of vacuums?
The real measure is motion: are they powerful enough to bring about action. This has to be judged in relation to context: a character’s loneliness, sitting in a bar, may be strong enough to have him or her write a note to someone across the room, or only strong enough to turn a head. In terms of the writer’s own life, an idea either possesses the pulling power to get the writer into the writing chair, or it does not.
How does one make vacuums more powerful? As above, align them in sequence: start with a widely-known and appreciated weak vacuum (like loneliness in a bar) then add a larger and still common vacuum (like suddenly activated sexual desire) then add a less familiar but bigger vacuum (desperation for contact with a particular individual sitting across the room) and finally add in a life-or-death scenario to draw readers towards a conclusion.
In Life, one has to connect one’s ideas for a story with deeper meaning, then more and more significance, until sitting in the writing chair outweighs all other commitments in Life, at least for a time.
Mastering these gradients gives birth to powerful stories and to writing careers.