Fictivity: Vacuums and Goals
You might think that you are a writer because you want to make money. Or you might think that you have something that you desperately want to say — even if you’re not exactly sure what that is.
Flip it around. Look at it from the viewpoint of a potential reader.
Your fiction exists to fill a vacancy for a reader.
Earlier we looked at the concept of vacuums and how a reader in real life probably has a set of such things pressing in on him or her right now, sucking up attention and motivating action. A vacuum is broadly defined as anything that is missing — which might include health, food, shelter, compassion, knowledge, friends, love, comfort, even life: anything which by its absence prompts a need. Vacuums draw things in towards themselves — if we are hungry we seek food, if we are cold we seek warmth, if we are lonely we seek companionship, and so forth. Vacuums are the primary driving force behind most of what we see around us.
Tapping into that force and using it in fiction gives us one of the greatest secrets of the master authors. If as a writer you can suggest, imply, portray or otherwise outline a vacuum that even lightly resembles a vacuum shared by a reader, your fiction has some hope of attracting attention; if you are blundering along writing the first things that come into your head and wondering why you have no readers, it’s because you have not paid adequate attention to vacuums. Perhaps you didn’t know about them consciously — though your own behaviour has been motivated by them to some extent ever since you were born.
Well, you know about them now.
If you can really grasp the concept of vacuums as a tool in fiction writing, you will understand a great many things, including fiction marketing.
If you have a particular vacuum correctly suggested, defined, outlined or implied in your work, then a reader who has some inkling — consciously or not — of that vacuum will simply flow towards your work. In the absence of a definition of that vacuum, you may abandon the effort altogether: you will not attract that reader.
Perhaps you can begin to see how far this could take you. But it’s important to be precise. Particular vacuums attract particular readers.
For example, if I am writing a Western novel, I have little hope of attracting the attention of a single mother who lives in Central London whose main interest is romantic short stories set in Regency times. Similarly, a set of romantic Regency short stories, no matter how well-defined their vacuums are, will have to work very hard indeed to get the attention of readers primarily interested in Westerns.
Having said that, however, a story that is well written enough, with a clear depiction of universal human vacuums, can break through these generic boundaries and captivate all kinds of readers. In that category lie the great masterpieces. In A Tale of Two Cities, for instance, Charles Dickens manages to convey enough about the core vacuums of life and death on a grand scale to transform his novel about the French Revolution into one of the best-selling novels of all time; similarly, Agatha Christie tells stories of human intrigue and complexity which are deftly unravelled by charismatic detectives in such a way that her books have sold over two billion copies around the globe.
What both Dickens and Christie mastered was the art of the vacuum.
Your potential readers — whatever genre you are writing in — are motivated by a force which largely remains invisible to you, even when it’s acting upon you too. Using it, you can tap into the things which drive every single reader, and completely transform your fiction. Every single successful piece of fiction, whether a novel, a play, a short story or a film, uses this power.
That's why it's successful.
Why hasn’t this hidden force been delineated before? Because of its nature: it’s invisible. Vacuums are made, by definition, out of nothing.
By 'nothing' is meant a gap, something missing, an emptiness. This could also be termed a mystery, an absence, a loss, a lack, a want, an unavailability, a deficiency, an omission, an exclusion, or a need.
Yes, of course we can set goals and of course they have to be desirable. But what is it that actually starts someone moving, physically or mentally, towards any goal?
The vacuum between where they are now and that goal.
That's what pulls people forward. That’s what readers describe as ‘page-turning power’ and ‘unputdownability’.
You need a goal, a mountain top, something to aim for, certainly. But that target, whatever it is, is defined by its absence. Right now, you don’t have it; right now, there’s nothing there; right now, there’s a vacuum. It’s such a simple statement that at first your mind may reject it. Set a goal — any goal — and you immediately activate the pulling power of its absence.
An emptiness, a nothing, is almost by definition, invisible. When we think of something we want to achieve, we picture it perhaps, or write it down, or discuss it with someone. But none of those things have much power to move us, despite what all the books on visualisation say.
What moves us is the vacuum power of the goal or target that is not yet there.
Just as a vehicle is sucked into the slipstream of a juggernaut on the motorway, or a boiled egg is sucked into the emptiness of a heated bottle, or an astronaut is sucked out into the vacuum of space through a broken hatch, so we are moved by the power of emptiness.
You have a goal. You can write it down, picture it, mock it up on a stage and hang it on your wall. You can do any number of things with it. But what pulls you into actually moving towards that goal is the emptiness between you and it.
Everyone has these emptinesses. They are needs. We have small needs like the need for a snack or a cup of tea; we have larger needs like the need for a rest or companionship; and we have huge needs like the need for water, health and life itself. The best term to describe them is 'vacuums' because we are all familiar with the basic idea of the power of vacuums in one way or another either from school or because we’ve used a vacuum cleaner.
A vacuum, if it’s strong enough, can make anyone do anything.
This is such a simple idea that it is easy to dismiss. But simplicity is power.
Understand this one and the world is yours to command.
Want to know more? Get the book How Stories Really Work, from which some of the above is taken -- and stay tuned.