A King is brought the news that his son has fallen in battle. A mother whispers those much-needed words just before she flicks off the lights for the night. A furnace spells imminent doom as it threatens to melt the eyebrows off of best friends, Woody and Buzz.
We have all cried from experiencing events that never happened.
What is this bizarre power? What is it in a spirit or brain that triggers such intense emotion for fictional characters? I love considering this idea. Grappling with emotional intensity is one of my favorite aspects of fiction.
Great writers of a medium can bring forth the waterworks regularly. As difficult as the execution may be, it’s not rocket science to understand. Anyone with experience reading, writing, or watching fiction should be able to readily identify the sequence needed to cause misty eye syndrome:
- You learn about a character. You get some background.
- This helps you to care about, or hopefully even relate to, the character.
- Then something happens. Tragic, joyous or simple, it doesn’t matter. By this point, if the character feels it, then we’ll feel it too.
Sometimes it takes a whole book, movie or screenplay, but eventually we’ll get that catharsis. Again, not quite that easy for the writer to accomplish, although generally—formulaically—predictable.
But none of this quite settles the discussion like I’d like it to. I want to go one step further in my appreciation for fiction.
The Golden Thread
Based on a true story.
That descriptor is everywhere, from book covers to movie posters. Why only “based” on the true story, though? Why can’t we just experience the story in its pure form?
A few obvious reasons could be to blame. Maybe original events weren’t filmed. Maybe no one recorded the actual dialogue. Maybe some plot items need conjectures to fill gaps in information.
More importantly than all of those things, however, the two words “based on” give writers the chance to perfect a story.
What do I mean here when I say “perfect”? In this case, I use perfect as the verb to describe the process of improving upon the true story for the sake of effect. (Is it offensive, or wrong, to say that a true story can be improved upon? Maybe, I dunno.) Writers use fictional fragments—large and small—invaluably woven into many true stories in order to connect the parts of an incident more effectively for the audience. It can be the golden thread of any story, holding it together and drawing focus and appreciation to targeted parts of the overall work.
It’s not rare. These days, the twining of fiction and nonfiction has become the norm when it comes to “true stories.” Simply put, it’s a necessity for shaping a narrative into a viable, profitable mechanism. A story being told must loosely resemble the arc of the stories that people have grown to expect—a build-up, followed by a conflict, stamped for approval by a resolution (usually a happy one).
This all leads to a rhetorical question that I’d like to ask, just for transition’s sake:
Can the golden thread of fiction be used as the primary component of the entire work, instead of just the complement?
Of course it can. That’s called a work of fiction, ladies and gentlemen.
The thing about this golden thread is that—in the realm of threads—it’s perfect. It can be anything as needed, like the Wild card in Uno. (Check that off the analogy list.) The golden thread can be toyed with endlessly, finally forming the exact sequence of letters and scenes as the author intended. The hatched together work is comprised of characters doing exactly what the creator wants them to, at exactly the right moment.
Ideal balance of tone.
Ideal combination of characters.
As a writer, nothing needs to be held back anymore. For the perfect emotional peak, for the ultimate situation and for the supreme solution to the insurmountable obstacle, you’ll need all the golden thread you can use.
Within fiction’s capacity is the ability bring all ideal elements together. That’s why I’ve never kicked my addiction. That’s why, as a full-grown man, tears are not an irregular feeling to me. I’m always on the hunt for that next gripping, emotional roller coaster. Fantasy, magical realism, coming of age, romance, sci-fi—all of it. Fiction fuels me.
Like many of you, it’s what I live for. I don’t expect that to change anytime in this life.
Go forth and read, my minions.