Why Is It So?
There used to be a short segment on Australian television in the 1960s and 70s called ‘Why Is It So?’ It featured an eccentric scientist, Professor Julius Sumner Miller, presenting simple physics experiments to a live audience of children. I didn’t pay that much attention, except to Sumner Miller’s sometimes odd remarks or caustic wit, but the question contained in the programme’s title stayed with me: why wasn’t it phrased as ‘Why It Is So’ - a statement? Why did we have to perform experiments to figure out why things behaved as they did?
When I was even younger, observing the working world around me - roadworks, construction work, buildings going up, buildings being demolished - I would occasionally ask my parents ‘When is the world going to be finished?’
To my mind, there was something odd about the way in which the world was impermanent and unknown; it seemed wrong that it wasn’t both permanent and known. Later, at university and after, this kind of philosophical pondering turned up again when I examined a drug compendium containing the detailed make-up of thousands of pharmaceutical medicines. To my surprise, the thick book merely listed ingredients, effects and side-effects with no details about why a particular drug affected the body in a particular way. The drift of the thing was that hundreds of experiments had been performed and that some drugs had produced certain results while others hadn’t. No one really knew why. I suppose a bio-chemist probably had a better idea of what happened at a molecular level, but I’m willing to bet that even that would not be a much better idea.
This type of question was even less answered in the humanities. In English literature, there were whole floors of the library devoted to studying works of fiction from as many angles as a mathematical protractor - entire fields of study, each with its own rationale, describing the inner workings of stories and poems in a variety of ways. But none had any certainty. As with the physics programme, or the world of work, or the drug compendium, there was a tremendous amount of guesswork, incompleteness and unknown-ness about it all. I wasn’t sure what to make of any of it. Various schools of thought resolved into bodies of philosophy, all of which claimed to have at least part if not the whole of the picture about anything. But ‘Why Was It So?’
When I began pondering fiction, I was in awe of the great thinkers of yesteryear. It took me a while to step out from their shadows and think for myself. There must be a simpler way of looking at stories, I thought - a way which resolves everything about them satisfactorily, without necessarily undermining all the other viewpoints about them. In fact, I surmised, a really workable theory of fiction would not only be simpler than anything proposed so far, but also able to explain all the other theories and viewpoints. There must be, I pondered, a single unit or concept which underpinned everything, in the same way that the Higgs-Boson Particle supposedly underpinned things in quantum physics. If that ‘particle’ could be isolated, everything else in fiction could be understood: stories would open up like flowers to reveal their inner beauty.
Of course, this simple ‘fiction particle’ must be so small, like the Higgs-Boson one, that I would need the equivalent of a massive cyclotron to isolate it. But smallness didn’t really apply to the world of fiction as it did to the world of physics: the basic fiction particle had remained elusive not because it was small in size, but because it was invisible by nature.
The basic building block of fiction is emptiness.
Think about it for a moment.
A story is a web weaved from nothings. If we ‘tell a story’ about something that really happened, it tends to become a factual report, devoid of emptiness and full of ‘facts’ - and for that reason it feels imaginatively ‘empty’. As soon as we enter pretence into the equation - the possibility, in other words, that something may or may not be a ‘fact’ - we get a different kind of emptiness, an attractive emptiness, a vacuum which draws in our attention.
This has wider applications than may appear at first glance. But for now, take the first glance - at emptiness, at the gaps and hollows and missing elements which make fiction work.
Stories will never be the same for you again.
I wrote a book about it: How Stories Really Work.