I know that, last time, I promised I would explain consistency in magic systems. And I will.
But before we get to that, we need to understand why consistency is important. And to understand that, we need to understand how a story works. This post is applicable to almost any post about writing that you will find on my blog. This may be the single most important post you will ever read on the art of writing a good story—in any genre. I’m not trying to say I’m the only person who knows how stories work, or how to a write a good story. But I have yet to read anything that actually breaks down the concept, in simple terms, of reader-writer interaction. And reader-writer interaction is the foundation of story-telling.
Reader-writer interaction is the basis of tension. And tension is the basis of a good story. You can have a story without tension, but it will be boring. You will hear from a lot of people that conflict is the basis of a story. That is false. Tension is the basis of conflict, and—being more basic—it is thus more important to a good story than conflict. There can be conflict without tension. And again, it will be boring. Now refer back to the first sentence in this paragraph. You should now understand why reader-writer interaction is the basis of good story-telling.
So, you are probably wondering what I mean by reader-writer interaction, and you are also wondering how it works. It’s pretty simple. Tension is built on the reader’s understanding of the way the world works. The reader knows (or thinks they know) what can and can’t happen, and thus they know whether the characters are in a tough spot—or not. Their understanding of the world is based on their knowledge of the real world, genre conventions and tropes, and what the author tells them. These three legs support their world model. What does the reader model have to do with how stories work? Stories are made up of “scenes (and sequels)” Each scene is like a miniature story. To understand how a story works, we need to know how scenes work. So, what is a “scene” how do scenes work?
A scene is a sub-section of the story consisting of a set of closely related and chronologically sequential events. It is the writer’s input into the reader’s world model.
Scenes work like this:
The reader starts with a model of the real world. They then modify it to fit the genre of the story—and thus, the scene. Since this scene is the beginning of a larger story, they may further modify it to fit what they learned about the story from a) the back cover blurb and b) the little excerpt that often comes after the glowing recommendations from other (popular) authors. This is called a “primary (world) model”. The reader then proceeds through these steps:
- The reader loads their primary model.
- The story provides the first scene. The reader reads this scene and then runs it through their world model to determine the most likely outcomes. At the beginning, the reader’s model is likely to be rather generic. They don’t know enough about the story yet to generate a specific, complex and realistic model. (This modeling occurs in real time, re-modeling every time the reader learns/discovers something new.)
- The reader looks at all possible outcomes. If the writer is good, there are a few, prominent outcomes that over-shadow all the rest. If they are really good, there is one of these that is not only the most likely, but also the most horrible. Alternatively, there may be a small group of bad outcomes.
Tension is created in the third step, as the reader begins to question the inevitability of these horrible outcomes: Is this what will really happen? Can the characters avoid this? If so, how? The more horrible the outcomes are—and the less chance the characters have of avoiding it—the greater the tension. If there is no tension, the reader has no reason to care about the scene, and thus no reason to care about the story. This is bad.
But wait, you may be thinking… what happens next?
Next, the writer must resolve the tension. How do they do that?
This goes back to the idea of the world model. A writer will have a complete world model, where the reader only has a partial model. In order to resolve the tension, the writer must apply this model to the scene. Unlike the reader, they know exactly which outcome will occur, and why. They just apply their complete model, and the outcome is obvious.
Sounds easy, right? Wrong. To keep the reader interested in the story, the writer must maintain suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t matter whether they choose to surprise the reader, or conform to their expectations. (The first resolves tension by saving the heroes from the undesirable outcome; the second by getting the pain over with. Both are powerful methods and do much to shape the course and feel of the story.) The reader must not be allowed to question the inevitability of the writer’s chosen outcome. They must eventually accept it as the right one.
- Writers achieve this goal by completing three basic tasks: They must make sure their complete world model allows for the outcome.
- They must make sure the reader’s primary model allows for the outcome, but doesn’t exclude others.
- They must retroactively exclude other possible outcomes with as little conflict with the reader’s primary model as possible.
At the end of a scene, the reader has formed a slightly different model of the world, a secondary world model. The goal of a story is to slowly guide the reader’s model towards becoming consistent with the writer’s model by repeating the above process so that the two are identical at the end. Not every scene has to bring the reader closer, but there must be an average shift towards the writer’s model. That’s why the writer’s model must be consistent with itself, or they’ll never bring the reader into the fold. (But that’s next post.)
To sum up: Tension is created by differences between the reader’s model of the story world and the writer’s model of the story world. These differences are not a matter of fundamental differences, but of the reader’s model not being as complete. The goal of the story is to slowly complete the reader’s model in a way that does not push them out of the story. (This post also touches on “suspense” quite a bit, even though I don’t call it that. But I’m going to do a post on using suspense later, so I didn’t want to spoil it.)