It’s completely understandable that, when building anything, the assumption is that we must begin with a 'something' — an object, an item, an existing thing which has space and time and is ‘there’. Whether this is a brick, if we are building a house, or a word, if we are building a book, it’s a perfectly natural supposition that the foundation unit of whatever it is has mass and reality.
Thus, in terms of building a plot or a character, a writer normally starts with some kind of picture. Indeed, many writing guides will go over the top in instructing new writers to build like crazy on such things as character features, facial descriptions, outlines of likes and dislikes, invented life histories and so forth. When it comes to plot, we are all told, repeatedly and emphatically, that the beginning point of the real story is the ‘inciting incident’ which happens to the protagonist and gets the ball rolling plot-wise. We must picture it, develop it, describe it, and a whole host of events that follow from it, if we are to get anywhere.
A study of existing literature from ancient times right through to the present day tells us something a little different, though, if we are prepared to look beneath the surface.
Just as most of the world’s creation myths begin with Nothing, so do most great stories. We start with a gap, a hole, a void, a missing thing, a sense of loss, a mystery or unknown, a darkness or threat. It might be explicit, or it might simply be implied. But that wrongness, that emptiness, that cavity, that suggestion of blankness or incompleteness, whatever form it takes, is the sparking point for what follows — or should be.
That vacancy, or what I call ‘vacuum’ in my book How Stories Really Work, is what motivates characters and drives plots. If a protagonist lacks this central chasm, if a plot is missing that element of ‘missingness’, then things fail to fire up -- readers are attracted, almost magnetically, by this hollowness. If it’s not there, their attention wanders elsewhere. I use the term ‘vacuum’ because nature abhors vacuums — and when it comes to reading fiction, human beings abhor them too. They want them filled, and will go to any lengths, read any number of chapters, wade through even the most turgid prose, if the vacuums are strong enough and described accurately enough.
Why would that be? Well, without getting too philosophical about it, it’s not too much of a jump to suggest that readers have such things in abundance in their lives already: failing health, finance pressures, family upsets, imminent losses, griefs, stresses, uncertainties and so on. These things are all ‘vacuums’ too, except that they are real and sap the attention of human beings in one form or another all over the world. Reading a good story, in which a set of carefully crafted vacuums is adroitly managed through to some kind of resolution, produces for most people a sense that the hollowness apparent at the centre of reality has been to some degree addressed. A good story can be extremely insightful and uplifting; even a Tragedy or Irony can produce wisdom and catharsis about some aspect of the real world.
Fiction is many things, then, and one of them is a sort of mini-confrontation of the disorder of the world producing a tiny degree of relief and enlightenment, whether one is reading a detective novel or a comedy script or a well-constructed Tragedy. We read for ‘pleasure’: but the pleasure is at least partly this notion of a vicarious processing of the real world.
It’s not necessarily an easy idea to grasp at first, in part because it flies in the face of what many others tell us about the act of writing fiction. We’re supposed to start with ‘a character’; we’re supposed to develop ‘a plot’. But any great work of fiction dissolves into these different components when subjected to even the slightest scrutiny, like a vampire in the sunlight. Great works of fiction are made up of emptinesses, hollownesses, gaps and unknowns. Everything else is about the effort to fill those.
Don’t take my word for it: read any successful story and watch it break down into these nothingnesses before your eyes, once you know what you’re looking for.
What then are we really doing as writers in relation to readers?
In these days of political correctness, there has been a noticeable rise in the concern shown by some authors when it comes to displaying their work to new readers. You have probably noticed the expression ‘trigger warning’ appearing before posts in social media or elsewhere — writers have become keen not to upset readers, and have felt obliged to warn them if some of the material that they are about to read might cause them to descend suddenly into a personal reminiscence which they might find hard to control. Thus, a writer whose work contains scenes of abuse or violence might place a trigger warning ahead of any excerpt from it so as to avoid plunging an unsuspecting reader into an emotional morass.
That’s all well and good, and I have nothing against that at all. But what I think is interesting about it is that it overlooks something very fundamental about the way fiction works.
All effective writing to some degree or another ‘triggers’ its readers.
It does this in four broad categories:
1. It lightly reminds readers of situations with which they may have some passing interest or fancy but which present only a superficial immediate resemblance to anything that the reader faces in reality.
2. It prompts readers to consider similar inconveniences or anxieties that they face in real life, right now, as they read a piece of work, creating a vicarious discomfort.
3. It urges readers to share darker and heavier moments, which may or may not have an exact parallel in readers’ lives but which can call upon not-quite-conscious similar memories to produce a distinctly felt emotional response.
4. It plunges readers vicariously into imaginary situations which contain emotional and perhaps even physical distress, resulting in readers ‘feeling’ the circumstances that the characters are going through and in the end producing a lasting emotional effect upon readers.
A longer piece of fiction written by a master author does all four in one story: engaging attention lightly, then swiftly grabbing more emotional commitment, then ploughing the reader into a set of deeper shared experiences and finally sharing an epiphany arising from the depths of whatever the tale is about.
Thus any great novel attracts our attention with a light suggestion of distant threat, quickly drawing us deeper in through a protagonist caught up in something more serious, before guiding us through peril after peril to a climax which grips us emotionally until we at least partly share the release or relief (or in a Tragedy or Irony, the anguish and despair) at the end. Darker stories have a steeper curve into the emptiness at the core; comedies have the lightest arc — comic characters can still experience terrible things, but a master author has placed us at the correct distance from the drama so that we respond with laughter rather than fear or despair.
Fictivity — the study of fiction based on the works of master authors which reveals its underlying principles as they are rather than as we might imagine them to be — has much to say about this ‘triggering’ process. If we want to become master authors ourselves, we should perhaps learn how to prompt all four levels of response from readers using all the tools available to us.