The ‘Nuclear Reactor’ that Drives All Successful Stories Through to Their Conclusion
Do you think that authors push readers through their stories? Or pull them?
You probably have not thought about your progress through a story in these terms at all. For readers, the sensation is that they themselves are in control of whether they read or not. A reader picks up a book, reads a page or more, then puts it down - everything is reader-controlled, surely?
Except that it isn’t.
Truly powerful fiction uses mechanisms which are hidden just out of sight in stories to
a. compel readers to select their books from the shelves in the first place
b. suck in reader attention on the first page, using a variety of tools
c. hold tight to that attention page after page so that readers are moved progressively through stories
d. emotionally and even morally engage readers in the events described so as to ensure that maximum impact is created
e. create a sense of fulfilment at the end of the tale.
The so-called ‘un-put-down-able’ book is like that for a reason, or a set of reasons, just behind the reader’s perceptions, and in some cases behind the writer’s too - much of this is accomplished unconsciously in many works of fiction. I’ve looked at what these hidden tools are in earlier posts, and I cover them in much greater depth (with lots of examples) in my book How Stories Really Work. In this post, I want to zoom in on one of the most powerful and most important, the thing I call the ‘nuclear reactor’ of a successful work of fiction, or the ‘core vacuum’.
Something pulls us through a film in the cinema, a novel in our hands, or even a television show, when clearly we have the power to walk away from each at any time. Part of it is our willingness to experience whatever the work is doing to us. But what is that exactly? How precisely does a set of images flashing across a screen, or a group of symbols on a paper page, or another bunch of images on a box in our living room, have an effect on us?
Basically, and very briefly, our attention is directed towards those places, things, people, objects or patterns where we discern something is missing. An empty house where we should expect life and action, a weakened person where we might want strength and balance, an object with a part absent, a pattern which has got a glitch in it - these things grab our attention. Using those gaps or ‘vacuums’, successful artists and authors direct us around, in sequences or in schemes, leading us either to a point where we are satisfied, where order is restored, where the missing thing is returned or the pattern rehabilitated, or to a further state where whatever it is that is missing is intentionally not restored, leaving us profoundly disturbed. By far the bulk of fiction fits into the first category: stories mainly end with loose ends tied up, with ‘good’ triumphant, with balance reinstated - but tragedies and that brand of story I call an ‘irony’ (into which fit various sub-genres like horror or dark thrillers) plan not to tie up loose ends, and leave things teetering in the edge of insanity at times. The same mechanisms are in use, but to different ends.
The chief of these mechanisms is the nuclear reactor question, ‘What is this story really all about?’
Readers sense what a good story is really all about on every page. Master authors use language to convey their overarching theme in almost every sentence. You can clearly see this in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or Dickens stories: every word matters, every word is building towards a mood or tone, a sentence by sentence mounting. But the final climax of the story is where readers most feel the impact of the core vacuum, the driving force of the thing as a whole. Here, right at the centre of the meaning of the story, though occurring physically towards the end, the odds have been raised, the sub-themes and plots put aside, the characters stripped bare and brought to the fore: here, Frodo stands atop Mount Doom, Luke Skywalker confronts the Emperor, Scout and Jem are attacked in a pitch-black darkness, Darcy confronts Wickham, Heathcliff faces the ghost of Cathy, George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life confronts life as it would be if he were never born, Macbeth fights his arch-nemesis.
Everything else in the tale has been building up to this point. You think that, as a reader, you have been self-determinedly making your way chapter by chapter through a story, but in fact you have been pulled, sentence by sentence in the great classics, towards this point. The fact that you have had to eat and sleep and do other things in the meantime has been a necessary logistical evil: the author has nevertheless been dragging you here all along.
Almost everything that a master author has done as you have made your way through his or her tale has been a kind of ‘trick’: the tale was always really all about what happens in this climactic scene. But if he or she had laid that in front of you on the first page, what would have happened? You would not get its full impact; you would not appreciate its meaning or power. No, a master author knows that to have the most effect on readers, there has to be a kind of game played first, a game in which you, the reader, have your attention hooked, first by one aspect of the tale, then by another, deepening emotionally and in other ways as you go along, until that climax is both inevitable and most impactful.
The core vacuum of a story is that immense ‘missingness’ to which all the other gaps and losses and threats and absences and glitched patterns have been leading: the final, massive piece of the puzzle which, when sorted, produces the story’s lasting effect. You don’t need me to give you examples, I can point to any great work of fiction, book, film or play, in order to illustrate what I mean. Everything else in fiction is a kind of foreplay to a story’s resolution scene.
Take that final scene away - actually just edit it out altogether - and the whole story will go limp. If readers bother to get to the end, their disappointment will be extreme. Many authors begin, therefore, by sketching out that final scene, the ultimate confrontation between the figure called a protagonist and the one called an antagonist, the moment of resolution, when their message or meaning is to be made totally clear. Once that has been outlined, almost everything else in a story falls into place almost without effort.
How does an author create a climax? By taking his or her message and turning it into a metaphor. But that’s another story.
For much more about all of this, get my book How Stories Really Work.