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Engineering a Story

It’s probably true to say that within every successful story is a progression from Light to Dark. Most stories (Comedies and Epics or adventure stories) then have what Tolkien called a ‘eucatastrophe’ at the end in which the darkness is turned into light, but some (Tragedies and Ironies) leave readers in that darkness, for them to make of it what they will.

In an earlier article, I looked at a story through the analogy of a ball being thrown across a space from writer to reader. In brief, I imagined that for the ball to arrive at the reader successfully, we needed a number of elements to work together: a accurate aim, sufficient impetus; cohesion. It also needed to be attractive enough in the first place for a reader to want to catch it, and it had to fall within the range of what a reader considered ‘right’ to catch. There were a few other factors too.

That’s only one way of looking at this thing called a ‘story’.

Another, perhaps more challenging way is to step right back from what we normally consider to be ‘fiction’ and look at the whole business of storytelling as a piece of engineering.

Imagine that you had to build a machine which moved a pile of something from one place to another, with the least spillage. Following the line from above, you need to move a whole load of reader attention from point A, in the relative light of day, through point B, the darkness, into point C - not exactly the same as point A, because hopefully the reader has experienced some kind of change as a result of reading the story. Now, I don’t know all that much about engineering as a study, but the first image that comes to my mind is that you need some kind of fulcrum, defined as the point against which a lever is placed to get a purchase, or on which it turns or is supported. Another definition for fulcrum, conveniently enough, is ‘a thing that plays a central or essential role in an activity, event, or situation’. In the case of a piece of fiction, our fulcrum is most usually a protagonist: it is what happens to the protagonist that has a large bearing on what happens to the reader.

Continuing our engineering analogy, the first thing that the protagonist fulcrum needs to be able to do is find a place in the reader to get a ‘purchase’. Both definitions of 'purchase' actually apply here: we need something which motivates the reader to buy the book in the first place, but we also need something which enables a strong grip. There has to be enough of a grip, in fact, to hold onto a quite sizeable load of attention. Those protagonists whom we describe as attractive or loveable or intriguing are precisely the ones who manage to get a hold of a quantity of our attention as readers. Authors have various conventional mechanisms for increasing this ‘grip’, including tropes such as making the protagonist an orphan.

Then, just as in the analogy of the ball, we need direction. A fulcrum which lifted a load of attention and then just dumped it anywhere would not be of much use - there needs to be control and guidance to get the attention to the right point. There also needs to be some kind of force to prevent ‘spillage’ or loss of attention while the load is in transit. This is where the darkness comes in.

Intriguingly, the thing which grips reader attention the most, and which limits if not totally prevents any spillage, is darkness: loss, threat, gaps, something missing, holes, risks, absences. In my book How Stories Really Work I call these ‘vacuums’, because the power of these different aspects of darkness is to suck in attention and hold it, much like a vacuum pump. As our fulcrum-protagonist moves through a story towards a defined end, then, the risk is that the attention that is being gripped will slip out and be lost. Master authors counter this potential for slippage or spillage by increasing the vacuum power all the way up to the story’s climactic point.

In that climax, the job of the protagonist is done; the fulcrum has accomplished its task of taking a load of reader attention from point A to point C. In most stories, point B, it turns out, was not so much a point as a force that was used along the way to point C. In a Comedy or Epic, which form by far the majority of tales, point C is where the attention is released: the reader feels that release and is fulfilled, the journey being over. However, in Tragedies and Ironies, point B was a destination of sorts: instead of experiencing release and the sense of arriving somewhere, readers of these kinds of stories feel trapped, introverted: they are still in the grip of the work, and its product is precisely those emotions of fear and pity which a Tragedy or Irony strives to create.

Try to imagine a story of yours in these terms. See if it helps you understand the mechanics of what is going on. One thing that might immediately occur to you, as it does to many writers attempting this, is that you are not at all clear of where point C (or point B) is: you might not even have been aware that your story had a point C. Clarifying what those points are, where you want to leave your readers, has the effect of pulling together many different elements of any story and strengthening its dynamics.

Please let me know how you get on.


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