Photo by Kriss Szkurlatowski
by Mike Smith
I’m a great fan of Robert McKee’s book on the mechanics of story (Story, Methuen, 1999). It has changed the way I read. In particular I am persuaded by his contention that there is an Inciting Incident, and an Obligatory Scene. This pair both causes the story, and signals its end. The Inciting Incident, by changing normality, precipitates the events of the story. The Obligatory Scene is the scene without which an audience will not be satisfied. It is the scene which makes the story feel complete. You can’t, to borrow a phrase, have one without the other.
I wonder if there is another, similar pair, that are not so much to do with the story and the reader of it, as with the decision to tell the story, and the feeling that the story has done its intended job. They may not be in the story. They may not even be mentioned or referred to in the story, but without the former the author would not have commenced his act of creation, and without the latter would not feel that he had completed it. C.S. Lewis touches on this idea in his essay ‘On Stories’ (Lewis, in Of Other Worlds, Essays & Stories, C.S. Lewis, Bles 1966). This posthumous publication is full of good things. In this particular essay Lewis talks about the story being ‘only a net to catch something else’. Rather encouragingly, I thought, he suggests also that what is caught usually gets away: ‘what really matters becomes lost or blunted’. This failure to achieve the author’s goals does not preclude a ‘successful’ story from the reader’s point of view. Unusually among the writers I have encountered, Lewis does not temper his admiration for story: ‘good work …[,] even work less than perfectly good, can come where poetry can never come.’ I think of this pair as being the Impelling Perception, and the Necessary Revelation.
I suspect that if you examine your own work you will find evidence of the ghostly duo, standing, as I believe they must inevitably do, behind the impulse to write, and the sense of having done so, or not.
A story of mine (‘Unspoken Truths’ in Markings #25, 2007) might provide an example. A friend once told me that her son had been asked to do work for the secret services, but that he had it turned it down. A few weeks later (a razor sharp mind) the thought occurred to me that he might have been lying. It was this realisation, rather than the simple reported facts of the case that impelled me to write the story. I wrote about a man who tells his mother what my friend’s son told her. In the story the man is lying, and as he is forced into more lies, half truths and evasions, he fills up with the eponymous unspoken truths. My pair of story elements is about how the writer feels, not about the reader. In this case, as in those cited by Lewis, I felt afterwards that my net had not quite caught what I was fishing for. The Necessary Revelation would be something about the terror of the possibility of untruth in those we love, and the pity of understanding the reasons behind it, but the events of the story have somehow got in the way. That did not prevent it from being considered good enough for publication however.
Looking to other writers’ works, I recall hearing it said, of Lawrence and Conrad, among others, that they wrote the same books over and again, as if they were trying but failing to communicate some particular idea. Could these, if they are reasonable assertions, be cases where that original, Impelling Perception precipitated stories that did not in the end provide their authors with the Necessary Revelations?
I have often thought that Cormac McCarthy’s books have this quality, of covering the same ground, albeit differently dressed, in the search for something that has not yet been revealed to the author’s satisfaction. In fact, I can think of so many writers who do go over the same ground, which for many is the basis of a commercially successful career, that I wonder if, whereas the Impelling Perception is easy to find, the Necessary Revelation is a good deal less so.
The motivation for being a writer is general and long lasting, but the motivation for each individual story must be a more specific thing. Something sparks our desire to write about a particular subject, event, set of characters or whatever it is that drives our stories. Something compels us to set off on that specific journey. We are in search of something, related to that Impelling Perception, even if we do not know what that something is when we set out on our quest. Like a rumoured treasure, or a lost world, or simply the answer to the question of what lies over the rainbow, we will know it when we see it, and, perhaps more importantly, we will know it when we don’t. This is the Necessary Revelation that the story must bring out. In my example the Impelling Perception was more or less indistinguishable from the Inciting Incident of the story as told, but the revelation was not the story’s Obligatory Scene. Rather, it was an underlying concept present in all scenes of the story.
If we take the metaphor of the explorer for the writer, we might also take that of the guide for his narrators. The route that the reader takes is already mapped out. He may get the illusion that he is accompanying the explorer, but in fact he is not. The route has been re-traced. The viewpoints along it have been marked, and enhanced, and the path has been altered to include them, and to do so from the best approaches. What impelled the writer to go on the journey is different from what sets the reader off on his. The reader’s arrival (especially in the case of short stories, where that is the point of travelling), is almost certain to be at a view from which the author’s Necessary Revelation may be seen, but it is not necessarily the Obligatory Scene demanded by the reader as a reaction to the Inciting Incident.
 Another essay in the collection well worth reading is that on Science Fiction.