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What a Story Really Is

Writing can be an addiction.

Many writers yearn for, hunger for, thirst for the time when they can sit down and write, in the same way that others might crave the release that they find from a drug. This isn’t so much an escape from the grim reality surrounding them (though that enters into it too) but a desire for a particular state which writing can bring on.

How to describe that state? It’s a kind of dream, a sort of reverie or trance, in which the commonplace, hard, physical world is replaced by another. It’s not even that this ‘other world’ is intangible or phantom-like in any way, not while you’re in it: just like a dream, everything appears real and has its own logic and substance while you’re there.

An outsider might easily dismiss this as ‘escapism’ and label it as dangerous, but in every human culture since time began there have been story-tellers, seeking to fulfil a deep and eternal need within their audiences. What is that need? Well, you’re getting a hint of it right now: we can feel the magic of writing by doing something that we take for granted, something that you are doing right now, which is the process and action of reading.

The word comes from Old English rǣdan, of Germanic origin, related to the Dutch raden and German raten ‘advise, guess’. Its meaning embraced the concepts of ‘advise’ and ‘interpret’ as in ‘interpreting a riddle or dream’. And when the process is considered more deeply, it can seem as though one is engaged upon some kind of ‘dream-interpretation’: after all, when reading, you are taking symbols in sequences and drawing meaning from them, both the meaning that the author installed in them (it is hoped) as well as various other meanings that you may add yourself. Examined closely, this can be seen to be a kind of guesswork: what you end up with may only be an approximation of what was written, and could even be at wild variance with the original intention depending on what exactly has taken place in the interim.

But in that ‘guesswork’ is part of the glory of what stories are doing.

Consider how a child learns to read: first, he or she must grapple with the reality that a set of particular symbols, chosen over time by the surrounding culture, has individual sounds connected with it. As I have written elsewhere, things then get more arcane: the sound ’t’, coupled with other sounds, adds up to something quite different from a mere noise. The symbols ’t’, ‘r’, ‘e’ and ‘e’ combine to form the sounds ‘tree’ but also the meaning ‘tree’. Human beings link physical sounds with written shapes and then progress beyond that to something intangible, the idea behind them. ‘Tree’ may seem a little too tangible as an example, like most physical nouns; ‘love’ may make the point more strongly. A feeling, an idea which has outward signs but which is in itself a mental or spiritual thing, has been bound to a set of emblems imprinted on a page. No wonder that the word ‘spell’ is derived from the same root as the ‘spell’ that is practiced by a mage.

This is what a writer does and this is what a story is seeking to achieve: to place a spell on readers. Placing these representative tokens that we have come to know as ‘words’ together, writers create almost infinite effects through sentences of various types and complexities which form paragraphs, which develop into chapters; chapters evolve into books. And every step of the way, the reader takes symbols and works with them to arrive at meaning.

By reading, we enter into the spell conjured by the writer. Reading is not a one-way transmission of information, perception or opinion from one mind to another, but a participative act: the reader brings both a personal understanding (or misunderstanding) and a personal contribution (or lack of contribution) to the process.

How do we form our own views of what is going on in the world? What lies at the foundation of our imaginative thinking?

Writers are in possession of a set of powerful artefacts which can influence others, for good or ill. One of the first things a writer should do is decide how he or she will use those things to create specific effects. But often, caught up in the craving, the yearning to simply write, we make words spill out onto the page heedlessly. Images burst forth, then get caught up in their own momentum: before we know it, we have written pages of material, but our writing energies have dwindled. Over 90% of stories that are begun are never finished for this reason: we open the gates of glory and let out wonders, but without guidance or control.

So a story is a spell. It has the power to create effects. Those effects are broadly to uplift or to cast down - we can write comedies or epic adventures ending in some kind of victory, or we can write tragedies and ironies, ending in death or a soul-deep despair. Writers have power over readers but often set out to write without recognising that power.

I have made a study of fiction in various forms over the last 40 years. In a short series of forthcoming articles, I’ll write about the various things I cover in my book How Stories Really Work, and its related courses, including

• the magnetic power that attracts readers even before the introduction of any character

• what the thing called a ‘character’ actually is, and how to rapidly build a convincing one

• the things called ‘plots’, what they are and how they are actually made

• what ‘protagonists’ and ‘antagonists’ really are, and what the connection between them consists of

• the four categories of the powerful force that compels readers to turn pages

• the ‘nuclear reactor’ that drives all successful stories through to their conclusion

• how the four basic genres - Epic, Tragedy, Irony and Comedy - are composed and how they work to create different effects.

Stay tuned to get an insight into how you, as a writer, can use your magic to weave enchantment around a growing number of readers by using the secrets of the master authors, from the ancient scribes of the past right up to modern day sit-com and screenplay writers.

I look forward to taking you on that journey soon.


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