Five Basic Mechanisms
You read so many stories as a child, and at school, loving them or hating them without really knowing why.
You encounter so much fiction through films, plays and the internet, and are drawn to it or repelled by it without understanding the forces that are at work.
You accept so many standard things, like characters and plots, without questioning how they are affecting you.
Fiction can be taken apart, right in front of you, with its components laid out before you like the pieces of an engine - and when it is, you will truly appreciate what it does and how it accomplishes its effects on you.
There are five basic mechanisms at work in any good story:
These create forces which act to
• attract you to a central figure, which you know as a 'character' (you'll find out what a 'character' really is and how to build a convincing one in minutes -and it has nothing to do with listing out what he or she would do in certain situations)
• compel you to turn page after page to find out what happens
• stick you to every scene until you can figure out what is really going on
• involve and engage you by asking you to make moral choices
• captivate you completely in the author's main message and drive you forward to the story's conclusion.
If any of these mechanisms are missing or not functioning at full capacity, a story loses its power to move its readers.
You, as a reader, lose interest; your attention wanders; you predict too easily what will happen; you put down the book or walk out of the cinema or switch off the television.
Effectively, the story fails.
Introduce any of these mechanisms (not even all of them) and a story can pick up your interest, grab your attention, surprise you, and glue you to your seat until the tale is done.
Apart from these five basic mechanisms, there are other things too which most good stories contain:
• a set of incredibly distinct and amazingly universal archetypes (quite different to those you might be expecting)
• a sequence of happenings which propel readers and viewers forward time after time, even though they have seen the same sequence many times before
• four powerful and moving endings which create lasting impact on readers and viewers
• 'attention commanders' embedded in the tale which tell you what to expect and what the story is really all about.
Once you know how the engine of fiction is constructed, you will never be able to read a book or watch a film or attend a play in the same way again.
But, rather than spoiling your fun, you'll become an expert, and be far more able to appreciate the magic and the craft of story-telling.
You will become a 'story-whisperer', able to see things in and do things with fiction which will seem like magic to those around you.
Your own favourite stories will suddenly come to life in new ways; you will immediately appreciate how your favourite authors had such an effect on you.
And you will become expert in doing the same things in your own fiction.
In 2016, this material, the result of four decades of research and testing, was condensed into the book How Stories Really Work, about which you can read more here.