What about a novel sweeps us up into its world? What carries us along even when the imperatives of plot are on hold or absent? What makes us ache for something without knowing what it is? What makes us impatient for a story’s resolution at the same time that we want the tale to go on forever? What is it that causes us to feel that a story has touched our souls?
It’s not plot, scene dynamics or micro-tension. It’s not the inner journey. It’s not setting, voice or theme, although those things undeniably affect us. What I’m talking about is a deeper, seemingly mystical force that engages readers in a way they can’t explain and holds them rapt. It’s nothing overtly stated in your pages.
That irresistible, invisible current is a feeling. It’s a feeling that springs from what you wrote (how could it be otherwise) but which readers can only sense. It’s a feeling to which readers do not assign a name. What causes them to feel this feeling is not so much anything that you put into your story as the spirit that underlies it.
That spirit is hope.
Hope is not something easily contained in one story moment. It’s a difficult feeling to deliberately stir in readers, and one that does not lead characters into action. In fact, it’s not really part of the story at all. Rather it’s a longing, an ache, for something unnamed and unobtainable which you, somehow, cause readers to believe is both real and possible.
Hope is anticipation in readers, but it is often mistaken for something else. For example, consider a classic low-grade horror movie scene. You know the one. It’s the scene in which a teenaged boy and girl are walking up to a derelict cabin in the woods at night. The boy is saying, “Come on, Susie, let’s go inside!” Susie says, “Oh, I don’t know, Johnny. That place looks creepy. Can’t we go back to town?”
Johnny talks Susie into going inside, at which point we know these two are too stupid to live and richly deserve what will be done to them by the monster in the leather mask. It’s the expectation of the gore to come that causes us anxiety, right? Well, maybe. But there’s another emotional force at work on us, one which is as strong, or stronger, than our fear.
What’s triggering our feelings isn’t only Johnny saying, “Let’s go inside!” It’s Susie saying, “Can’t we go back to town?” Susie is the voice of hope. We hope, just for a second, that Johnny is not as stupid as he looks, that he’ll make a good decision, and that he’ll save Susie from a horrible torture and evisceration. Our feeling is, “Look out, you’re going to die!”, that’s true enough, yet it is also, “Please, please don’t die!” (Unless the movie is really bad.)
An absence of hope explains some puzzles about fiction; for instance, why thriller writers can sometimes pile on more and more danger, raise the stakes higher and higher, yet give us barely an ounce more thrill. It explains why beautifully rendered literary fiction can feel ice cold, even when its endings are redemptive. It’s why certain dark mysteries depress us while others nearly identical in plot have us cheering.
Hope is the current running through fiction that we love. So, as we read a novel what do we hope for? Happy endings? Certainly, but that wish is temporary and limited. Characters who find happiness will not remain happy forever. How can they when they’re human? Perhaps we wish to learn something about ourselves and grow? That’s a noble intention and may happen, but is it a pleasure profound enough to explain why we turn to fiction over and over again, searching for the great reads?
I don’t think so. [Read more…]