Fictivity: Fiction Redefined
A need, a desire, a yearning, a longing, has the power to draw the person who has it towards the object of that need, desire, yearning or longing. This is the primary force which underlies how human transactions work, including transactions between a reader and a piece of fiction. We're calling it 'vacuum power'.
How does this apply to the subject of fiction? The word 'fiction' is usually defined along these lines:
fiction: literature in the form of prose, especially novels, that describes imaginary events and people. It comes from late Middle English (in the sense ‘invented statement’) via Old French from Latin fictio(n-), from fingere ‘form, contrive’.
The whole idea behind the idea is that it is to do with things that are made up.
And so it starts from a 'writer-centric' perspective: whatever a writer wants, thinks or feels should happen next is ‘fiction’. And so fiction writers sit at their desks or in the chairs and write whatever they imagine. And that’s what is called fiction.
The biggest problem with this is that there is absolutely no guarantee that anything that emerges from a writer’s mind will be of any interest whatsoever to a reader.
Restating that (because it's important): as a writer, you can make up anything you wish, and it becomes a piece of fiction. But the mere fact that you have written it does not in any way ensure that anyone else will be even remotely interested.
If you’re a relatively new or unpublished writer, used to receiving streams of rejection letters, you may have rationalised this by telling yourself that ‘Publishers are missing an opportunity’ or ‘No one is recognising your genius’. You may have developed a mind-set in which the universe appears to owe you some success for having made the effort and sacrifices involved in writing. In your darkest moments, you have perhaps wondered whether your writing was any good. At the dreadful heart of that thought is the stark possibility that perhaps your work is simply not connecting with readers.
You may have written something worthwhile in terms of style and subject matter; you may have crafted things wonderful to behold; you may have created powerful characters and plots full of incident. But the truth is that you can do all of this and still not connect with another human being.
What is it that connects any piece of writing with any readership?
Needs, desires, yearnings, longings — these have the power to attract, to grip, to guide and to earn emotional commitment. Vacuums have the power to draw in readers.
Page after page, chapter after chapter, draft after draft, manuscript after manuscript — they can all be penned without adequate attention paid to vacuums. Then the writers wonder where the readers are, and why they persistently get rejected by publishers. Then they give up. Or, if they persist, they continue to fail even years down the line.
Perhaps this is why you have given up, or lost heart at times.
After all, the aim of every writer should be to just write, right? Commitment from readers will eventually come, right? It’s all a numbers game and, with a bit of luck and a fortunate encounter with a positive publisher, success will come, right?
Writing for its own sake as an aim of fiction is based on a completely inaccurate understanding of what successful fiction is.
If you think that simply by putting words on a page or screen straight from your head you will eventually end up 'striking it rich' in terms of reader commitment, then by all means continue to pour out your imagination onto the page or screen. Less than 1% of successful writers succeed that way and they eventually succeed because they hit by accident upon some of the principles described herein.
My book How Stories Really Work is the best introduction to all this, primarily because it is loaded with convincing examples. But you may be beginning to perceive the theoretical truth of this. ‘Fiction’, in the sense of something made, created, developed by a writer, does not necessarily or automatically have any overlap with the world of readers: the ‘magnetic bond’ or attractive force holding the two together must be crafted into place.
Once you see that reader commitment is something that is generated as the result of something else, then suddenly you can appreciate that just churning out volume writing for its own sake can produce a lot of wasted paper. Writing page after page after page without reference to the needs of readers produces in the writer a deep sense of alienation, self-deception and a mounting feeling that the universe is unfair and doesn’t recognise genius.
Let’s not be misunderstood here: there’s nothing wrong with writing straight from your head or with producing lots of material that way. But if you set 'just writing' as the uppermost goal of a writing life, it will ultimately lead to the downfall of yourself as a writer. You won't connect with readers, except by accident.
What should the uppermost goal of a fiction writer be, then?
Everyone has goals, and everyone, therefore, is surrounded by emptinesses which precede or cluster around these goals: needs, or as we call them, vacuums. These vacuums draw a person towards anything which looks as though it might fill the vacuum. Thus a person might need a new watch or be desperately searching for a cure for migraines or be looking to order a pizza for a large family, or be seeking a lost friend or fleeing a war in search of sanctuary. Each of these things is a vacuum of a particular kind. There are lots of kinds and sizes of vacuums, as you can probably imagine, but for now it’s the basic principle that we have to take in.
If everyone is walking around driven by their needs, what are they looking for?
Something that will fulfil their needs.
What should your fiction be in that case?
Something that will fulfil their needs.
If your writing is built around that datum, all shall be well. But the idea of vacuum power opens the world up to new possibilities. The first thing to do, obviously, is to establish what exactly your readers needs are and then work to find those readers whose needs match what you can provide. But how do you generate interest and energy and movement and forward progress?
How do you attract hordes of readers and guarantee that they will be happy?
You can see that setting goals is one thing — harnessing the vacuum power around those goals is something else.
To be truly and spectacularly effective, goals should harness the maximum number and size of vacuums of everyone involved. And if you look at any goal that anyone has ever achieved, it’s usually by tapping into the goals and vacuum power of those around them too.
A writer who has these all aligned and active would harness enough power to take over the world.
A writer who even bothers to ask what the vacuums of his or her readers are, let alone activates or aligns them, will ignite attractive power and become effective.
That looks like a re-definition of fiction itself.
Fiction, as redefined in Fictivity, is an operation of ideas built around vacuums.
That opens up things somewhat.