It is a privilege to be read. We ask readers to trust us : to give us an hour or more of their lives. In a world filled with many distractions, that’s a tricky ask. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your language: without a story, there is a finite amount of time in which you can hold the attention of your readers. Which is why plot is so important.
A story keeps a reader involved. At the Hearth Arts Centre in Horsley we recently put on an event called Haunted. In the dark days of Northumbrian winter, two superb actors, Stephen Tomlin and Janine Birkett, read tales of the supernatural. The room was lit only by tea lights and a couple of stage lamps.
As I was involved in promoting the evening I was anxious for it to succeed. But it was soon clear that the readings were very popular. I watched as the audience bowed their heads as they listened to Stephen and Janine. It was clear they were deeply involved.
It took me back to Ponteland Infants School when a favourite teacher, Mrs Nelson, used to read us a story. Or later in my school days, when another teacher, Mr Copeland, read us stories by Damon Runyan. A story holds us: it helps us forget the stress of everyday life.
But a story has a particular structure. It’s this:-
A story is a character, in pursuit of agoal, who overcomes obstacles of increasing difficulty as they succeed, or fail, to reach that goal.
In the film Billy Elliot the central character wants to succeed as a dancer. We know Billy succeeds because the last scene shows him going onstage at the Royal Ballet. He achieved his goal. In addition, he achieved his dramatic need by being reconciled with his dad, who is in the audience. So he achieved his goal (the thing he wanted) as well as his dramatic need (the thing he didn’t know he wanted but which we, the audience, did know.
So your character should want to do something. If he succeeds it’s an up ending. If he fails it’s a down ending.
In either outcome he or she is changed.
Why does this hold our attention?
I think it’s a matter of brain chemistry. As writers we deal in two substances:-
Cortisol – the stress hormone – helps us empathise about a character and care abpout their fate.
Oxytocin – the love chemical – is our reward when we follow a character’s story and see them survive and succeed.
In telling us a story we first capture our readers by getting them to care about our characters. Once they do, they want to know their fate. Will they succeed in the pursuit of their goal? Or will they fail?
Will they? Or won’t they? It’s the same question which keeps us glued to a sporting event or a real life drama.
Will they? Or won’t they?