The Thing That Resonates With Readers
What resonates with readers?
No, I don’t mean that you all have to rush off and write horror novels - though I know one famous and best-selling writer who, having no luck with science fiction manuscripts sent to publishers, went on to enjoy huge success when he switched to horror and crime.
Nor do I mean that all novels are entirely about fear in various forms. Having said that, though, it’s worth looking at how fear plays a central role in stories.
When the novel first began, back in the days of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, story-telling in print was something of a novelty - hence the name ‘novel’ that was given to it. Prior to the rise of the novel, the literate public had been used to reading only the facts presented to them in the flimsy periodicals of the time, or the high-minded poetry of the day. ‘Fiction’ mainly consisted of the classics, or of theatrical plays, which featured figures of high legend or kings, queens and lordly folk. The idea that someone could make up a story about a relatively ordinary person and have it sell as an entertainment was, well, novel. Defoe’s Crusoe and Fielding’s Tom Jones broke new ground by telling tales about figures who were recognisably ‘normal’, middle-class and unexceptional. ‘Why on earth would anyone be interested in such matters?’ was probably a common question among the high-brows of the day: surely fiction merited attention only because it was about great wonders or meritorious action or moral lessons. The mere ‘adventures’ of a mere ‘man’ were scarcely worthy of anyone’s time.
And yet the novel grew into perhaps the most popular form of human entertainment ever. After Defoe and Fielding came Austen and her peers, then Dickens, Hardy and many others. Millions of copies of stories about the adventures of ‘ordinary people’ poured out from publishing companies in an effort to fill the vacuum - a new market had been found.
What did fear have to do with it?
In general, novels presented the concerns of the bulk of the literate population, with an emphasis on ‘concerns’. Robinson Crusoe’s supposedly accurate historical record of his shipwreck on a desert island was only partly attractive because of the exotic description of far away places, places that would forever be out of reach of the average reader at that time - the main attraction was the danger into which the hero was plunged. How would he survive? How could even cope without the basic necessities of life? What would happen to him in the end?
So it was with the novels which followed: a recognisably ordinary protagonist was subject to loss or deprivations or hardships of various kinds, ranging from the smaller social mishaps of Austen to the dramatic life and death struggles of Dickens. All the way through each story - in incredibly similar and fascinating ways, which are fully outlined in my book How Stories Really Work - the readers’ fears about the security and comfort of the protagonist and his or her companions are encouraged by the wily authors to mount, until each and every story either fulfils the promise it hinted at in the beginning, or intentionally does not fulfil it, leaving the reader devastated on purpose.
As the 19th century wore on, the stories which left the reader feeling empty and introverted grew in number, heralding a new cultural age. That brought the use of the horror story, glimpsed in the early Gothic tales and seen maturing in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Bram Stoker’s Dracula and culminating in a glut of such tales in the twentieth century. But the point is that all fiction used fear as a major factor in grabbing and holding onto reader attention.
It’s not just ‘fear’ in a general sense: it’s the precise use of a growing fear, beginning with a fear of loss of something minor and progressing to a terror of death, which forms the arc of the greatest novels.
And thereby literally hangs a tale.