Fictivity: The Power of Vacuums
We’re looking at fiction defined as ‘an operation of ideas built around vacuums’.
That’s where we define ‘vacuums’ as needs, desires, yearnings, longings, gaps, mysteries, unknowns — anything which contains a ‘hole’ or incompleteness capable of drawing in attention, as the reader seeks to fill it, to complete it.
The most powerful, memorable moments in your own reading are those moments when the vacuums created by a tale are filled — or, in the case of Tragedies and Ironies, are left intentionally unfilled. From Odysseus’ return in The Odyssey to the latest climactic scene in a Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster, these are those scenes during which the build-up of vacuums crafted by the writer throughout the story is resolved.
These are too numerous to list, because of course every successful story has them. If we see stories as phantom networks woven from emptinesses, these moments are when everything becomes more ‘real’, when those emptinesses and incompletenesses are filled and finished in some way. The gap being repaired, the hope fulfilled, something missing being found, from the culmination of a mediaeval quest to the latest detective thriller revealing who the criminal is, this is what fiction does: it sets us up and pulls the cloth away at the end, like a magic trick.
J. R. R. Tolkien coined a word for the uplifting finale in stories in his 1947 essay ‘On Fairy Stories’: eucatastrophe. Eucatastrophe means the sudden turn of events at the end of a story which ensures that the protagonist does not meet some terrible, impending doom which has been growing more and more imminent as the story goes on, but experiences its opposite. Tolkien formed the word by affixing the Greek prefix eu, meaning good, to catastrophe, the word traditionally used to refer to the ‘unraveling’ or conclusion of a drama's plot. It describes that uplifting and unexpected moment when ‘everything goes right’ beyond anyone’s hopes.
Events were plummeting towards death or at least devastation, and then something occurs which not only restores order but which suggests the operations of a benevolent Providence over the world of the story. These kinds of moments occur in so many stories: Watership Down, by Richard Adams, Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë, The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, Anne Of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, The Wizard of Oz, 1939, Groundhog Day, 1993, Back to the Future, 1985 and so on.
Darker stories follow the same pattern but leave the emptiness unfulfilled: the death or devastation is not suddenly turned around. Fiction which ends in joy or triumph or sorrow or nightmare is using the same common patterns and techniques.
Readers are drawn in and emotionally commit to a story because of vacuums; they invest their time and feelings because of emptinesses. Successful writers deliver. They are all doing the same thing. This has very little to do with the common image of writers pouring their souls onto the page and somehow, some kind of arcane magic then affecting readers to like their work. It has a great deal to do with engineering into place a variety of specific vacuums which all act to draw in reader commitment and set up the reader for the positive or negative legacy of the end of the tale.
A reader’s attention will automatically be pulled towards a vacuum in the same way that water is sucked down a drain, or that a stone, thrown up in the air, is pulled down again by gravity. Vacuums exert a mental force equivalent to a physical force in the outer world.
But these things are not just randomly generated. There are specific kinds of vacuums in every work of fiction: specifically, five types, used in different ways and to varying degrees to create almost every story you can think of.
You’ll learn more about each type in my book How Stories Really Work.