The Power of Fiction
Consider the most powerful, memorable moments in your own reading.
Think for a moment about the scenes in your favourite books or films which created ‘goosebump’ sensations for you.
Try to recall the exact incidents which had the most lasting effect on you as a reader.
Here are some examples:
• the sense of imparted wisdom and humanity at the end of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
• the awestruck silence at the end of Shakespeare’s Hamlet
• the feeling of emotional and social satisfaction at the end of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
• the chilling moment of unsolved mystery at the end of J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls
• the uplifting emotion of triumph at the end of Richard Donner’s Superman film
• the glimpse of transcendent worlds at the ends of C. S. Lewis’s novels Perelandra or The Last Battle.
Of course, memorable moments produced by fiction are too numerous to list. That’s because they exist in microcosm by the thousand in any successful work of fiction, and also come at the end of every successful story that there has ever been, to one degree or another.
These moments, these experiences, have something in common. For the majority of stories, they concern a gap being repaired, an emptiness being filled, a hope fulfilled, something missing being found.
J. R. R. Tolkien coined a word for this 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. 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.
As a devout Roman Catholic, Tolkien calls the Incarnation of Christ the eucatastrophe of ‘human history’ and the Resurrection the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation.
Here are some examples of eucatastrophe:
• the destruction of the Death Star towards the end of Star Wars: A New Hope
• the final critical scene atop Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings
• the closing scene of Frank Capra’s classic film It’s a Wonderful Life.
You will probably have thought of several more. Though events were plummetting towards death or at least devastation, 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.
Not all stories contain the same kind of fulfilment, though. Tess Of The D'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy, A Passage to India, by E. M. Forster, Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell are examples where far from everything going right the reader experiences, and is sometimes left in, at least one nightmare moment where everything has in fact gone terribly wrong. What is happening in these stories?
As we will see, stories which end in joy or triumph and those which end in sorrow or nightmare are all part of a universe of stories which all use these same common patterns and techniques.
They all use the hidden force which motivates readers.
Sometimes the endings are left empty. Instead of eucatastrophe, there’s just catastrophe.
The truth is that the power of any work of fiction, whether it ends in positivity or not, depends upon these moments of fulfilment. They are usually to do with the filling of an emptiness of some kind, or, if the story is to have a negative ending, not filling it.
When the gaping emptiness which is craving fulfilment is not filled and left open and hollow, that also has a resonant effect - but it is still dependent in the first place on there being a huge gap that needs to be filled.
Prior to that climactic moment of fulfilment, the reader was drawn in and made some kind of emotional commitment to the story, otherwise the fulfilment scene would be hollow and would fail. At some point in all the stories we have used as examples, readers made an investment of time and feeling:
• the destruction of the Death Star would be just another special effect unless somehow our emotions had been elicited
• the final scene on Mount Doom would be an empty volcanic explosion in The Lord of the Rings had we not committed ourselves to feel something earlier in the tale
• the finale of It’s a Wonderful Life would not much concern us, having to do with the life of a small town businessman, as it does, had we not been drawn in to identify with George Bailey on deeper levels.
Similarly, Tess’s end in Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, could hardly have any effect had we not begun to profoundly wish that her life had turned out otherwise. A Passage to India, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, and so on all leave us with heartfelt revelations of some kind, hard to reduce to words, but scarcely less powerful than the triumphant endings in earlier examples.
These works 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 effects 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 person’s attention will automatically be pulled along in the same way that water is pulled down a drain, or that a stone, thrown up in the air, is pulled down again by gravity. These things are not just randomly generated. There are specific kinds of these effects 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.
For more, see the book How Stories Really Work.