What Makes Great Fiction 'Great'?
Writing fiction tends to begin with images. Writers pick up images from other books, from films, from life, and these manifest themselves in the imagination (‘Imagination’ could be called a ‘nation of images’) until they seem to take on a life of their own. They want to escape; they press themselves against the doors of a writer’s mind, urging their way towards freedom.
What usually happens next is that, if a writer gets the time to open those doors, these images pour out onto paper or a screen in a chaotic tumble of ‘this-happened-then-this-happened-then-this-happened…’ until that initial ‘tumbling energy’ wears off. This normally occurs pretty quickly, within a chapter or two of writing. The images lose momentum, they begin to wander. The writer begins to wonder. Specifically, the writer wonders: What should happen next? Where is the story going?
If by some miraculous chance the writer finds time to continue writing, sometimes the initial images are pulled together - chapter after chapter is squeezed out of them into the rough shape of a plot, a sequence of events supposedly culminating in a climax which then constitutes the ending of that particular story. This is often a process of generating more and more images, more and more events, each forcefully interacting with each other until a kind of synthesis results in a ‘finished story’. More often than not, though, even this fails in the medium or long term.
By far the greatest number of manuscripts are formed along the above lines: imagination exploding outwards then losing force, frequently collapsing altogether, but occasionally falling into line and forming some kind of system which more often than not burns up its own energy and then dies.
By far the greatest number of creative writers in the world are left staring at a kind of burned-out husk. It was once a collection of brightly coloured images, thriving in the mind, shining with potential, but somehow it ended up escaping into the outer world and fading into a manuscript made up of dead words.
But not all fiction is like that.
The great novels, the great epics, the grand tragedies and the lasting comedies, the superlative ironies - these things live on, not burning out at all but growing even brighter with each passing generation. Their authors become almost gods to us: Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Hitchcock, Kubrick and so on - in popular culture these names are not those of human beings any more but of demi-deities, creators who were somehow able to manufacture artefacts which did not die. Great fiction, whether it be in the form of novels or plays or poetry or films, is immortal, even when its creators have left us.
What did they do differently?
Did their minds work in the same way as those of lesser mortals? Or were they gifted with superhuman powers?
To answer that question - and it really does have an unrhetorical answer - we need to look at the sequences described above using some analogies. Let’s imagine that the bright panoply of images which jostle in our minds to escape onto the page of our fiction actually exist in some kind of physical way, like stars or planets, for example. These things swim in our minds, possessing a life of their own, like unborn children in a womb (to use another analogy). Then, if we manage to give them time, they emerge, like the Big Bang, or like birth, into a mess of life and action in which numerous very important things happen in a very short space of time.
We scribble down our opening lines and our first chapters; we feel the rush of energy associated with these entities finally escaping into the breathing world. Persisting with writing, we also sense that their energy is changing rapidly as we write: like seedlings which appear too early or in the wrong conditions, our images start to wilt before they have put down roots.
But great fiction has a sun.
That sun shines down upon the newly emerged plants; or, using the other analogies, a mother is there to feed and protect them, or a solar system develops to conjure order among floating planetary bodies.
What is this nurturing force in fiction?
In great fiction, there are images, and there are ideas. Images come from their own country, the ‘Imagination’, full of riotous energy and power, crackling with life and colour; ideas come from the analytical world of Reason (‘Ratiocination’ would perhaps be the equivalent word, but it’s too unwieldy.) Reason is the sun which warms the seedlings and gives them energy; reason is the mother that feeds and safeguards them; reason is the gravitational well around which all the images fall into orbit.
Reason yields the things which we know from school or from literary criticism as ‘themes’. Homer’s themes of pride, mortality and fate guide everything that happens in the Iliad and Odyssey; Chaucer’s themes of courtly love, corruption and humanity are the sun which shines down on every aspect of The Canterbury Tales; Shakespeare’s themes of power and psychosis are the centre around which every image in Macbeth orbits.
That’s the central distinction between great fiction and the works which millions of wannabe writers type into their laptops every day all over the world: great fiction has a centre. That centre is essentially simple and rational, and can usually be stated in a few words - but it is cloaked and warmed and coloured by images. Do the images nurture the ideas, or the ideas the images? They interact, feeding from each other: but the evidence suggests that the normal sequence for most writers is images pouring out into the world and then perishing due to the lack of a sun, a centre around which they can circle.
Ideas, the Reason at the heart of fiction, tends not to ‘pour’. It tends not to have that kind of life. Ideas are invested with energy and motion when they come into contact with images, with the offspring of the imagination. Picture a sun, floating in the void of space, content to radiate but devoid of movement or action - that’s an Idea. Themes are stated, as mentioned, in a few words: pride, fate, mortality, power, love. Only when a host of planets swing into orbit around that lone star do we get action.
So Reason and Imagination work together to produce great fiction. Without Reason, we have a tumble of short-lived images, which, if they manage to assemble themselves into some kind of cohesive shape, don’t survive for long; without Imagination, we have a set of stark ideas, appealing only to rational argument but not breathing and with no blood.
Exactly what patterns the images take as they fall into orbit around ideas is also a known thing, and will be the subject we take up next.
(See How Stories Really Work for more.)