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'Once Upon a Time' - The Mystery of Fiction

’Once upon a time…’

Whenever a story-teller says those words, what happens in the minds of his or her audience?

A story-teller is a conjuror: with these words, the listener or reader is invited into a world separated out from the one in which they sit listening or reading. ‘Once upon a time’ introduces a bubble, an empty space and time, which the conjuror will now fill with things recognisable to us and yet not so: figures will appear with which we have some familiarity - the orphan, the princess, the knight, the king, the jester, the wizard, perhaps all dressed in different clothes but not so disguised that we, the audience, have no inkling of who they are. And they begin to do familiar things - they answer to needs, set off on journeys, feel losses, are moved by events. They do not behave so strangely that we lose compassion for them, but neither do they perform so ordinarily that we are not drawn to them.

Slowly, the void initially created by the story-teller’s words is populated by lights and shadows. Motion takes place which we follow; emptinesses are carved out into which we are drawn. Depending on the nature of the story, that void is gloriously filled or left gapingly empty at the end. We emerge from the conjuror’s spell and glance around at the world in which we live, either refreshed and uplifted - ‘and they lived happily ever after’ - or with our gaze darkened and turned inward.

My attention was drawn to these things by the oddity of what happens in a popular story when a character comes across a hero famous in the world outside the story. For example, in a James Bond film, we have that classic and anticipated moment in which the secret agent identifies himself to his adversary: ‘My name is Bond, James Bond.’ Fleming’s creation, star of a series of successful novels and one of the world’s longest-running film franchises, is known globally. Bond is literally a household name. Why then, are we able to swallow that moment in one of his films when he announces his identity without the adversary snorting with the laughter of recognition? ‘Oh sure,’ they should naturally respond, ‘like the guy in the films?’ But they don’t react that way: instead, they go on as though they had never heard of him. That means we are to some extent jerked out of the reality that the director is trying to portray as real. We dive back into it willingly, wanting to ‘go along with the fiction’ of it, knowingly participating in a world which is now more clearly one step removed from our own.

Another example: the BBC’s long-running and globally popular science fiction series Doctor Who features a blue police box as its hero’s means of transportation and the narrative device which gives rise to the considerable array of adventures he has. Blue police boxes were once familiar on Britain’s streets as tools of its police force, though almost all have now vanished. The police box as a thing is now only truly recognisable as the Doctor’s time/space machine, the TARDIS. Given that, why do the characters on screen not immediately recognise it as soon as it appears? Why are they not anticipating the emergence of the Doctor from it as soon as it materialises?

‘Because it’s a story,’ you may protest. ‘If audiences recognised Bond or the TARDIS we wouldn’t have a story, only some kind of parody!’

That’s true. But what I’m looking at here is the very foundations of what a story is. The conjuror, whether as a writer or director, fills the pages or scenes of the story with things recognisable to us and yet not so. On one level, we realise that we are engaged in a peculiar act, what has been called a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, as soon as the act of story-telling begins: we know that what we are watching on screen, for example, is a portrayal of invented people by other people, actors; we know who Bond and the Doctor are, but for some reason we are totally willing to pretend that the actors in the scene we are watching do not. It’s a strange game: if those same actors portrayed characters who failed to recognise a cat or a book or light when presented with them, we would disengage with them to a degree. But the fact that they don’t recognise the world’s most famous secret agent, or the universe’s most well-known time-traveller we are prepared to go along with.


For the sake of the ‘story’.

The story is that fragile balance conjured in thin air between the screen or the book and ourselves: we see in it things with which we have great familiarity; we see those things moving around in ways which fascinate us; and then we emerge, as though from a trance, and re-enter the ‘real’ world which is also full of things with which we have great familiarity, moving around in fascinating ways.

Have you ever wondered why a child can play with a doll shaped like Father Christmas, at the same time as he or she watches a movie featuring Santa Claus, after emerging from a ‘Christmas Grotto’ where he or she has whispered what gifts they would like for Christmas to an old man dressed up as the same figure? Where, in their worlds, is the real Father Christmas? In the doll? The film? Or the man? Or are all of these somehow representations of the actual Father Christmas who sits benignly at the North Pole looking down upon our antics and patiently awaiting December 25th?

These are the mysteries of fiction: what is ‘real’? What is merely a conjured image? And what do we mean by ‘merely’?

The book How Stories Really Work is probably the first to explore this strange new/old world in this way.


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