The Art of Pushing Buttons


As I’ve previously disclosed, I do occasionally visit a couple of writers’ forums. There are published writers in such places, but they are mostly populated by starry-eyed scribblers just starting out on the road to publication.

 In most cases they use nicknames to identify themselves, and it’s no wonder when you realise how breathtakingly rude or arrogant some of these people can be. The anonymity of the net really seems to unleash the id on these forums and writing, of course, inspires powerful passions. Attitude and art – a dangerous cocktail.

 My approach, typically, is to dip into those conversation threads which interest me and bestow upon the online writing community some precious pearl of my semi-pro wisdom – 20 years of writing and two books published – surely I have learned something worth passing on to the dilettantes!

 The dilettantes don’t seem to think so. They can be just as rude to me as they are to each other (mind you, I take care to preserve my anonymity and tend not to tell them I’m published). The point is, on these forums it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done, your opinion is no more or less valid than anyone else’s – and that’s what makes it fun. I particularly enjoy the passionate, opinionated types who remind me of myself when I was 20 – full of imminent destiny and dripping with the ‘fine scorn of the unpublished’ (to quote my hero, Orwell).

 My favourite thing to do – especially if it’s late at night and I’ve had a couple of glasses – is to end posts with pithy statements of infuriating glibness. Quite often I’ll then go to bed and discover a day or two later that a whole flame war has erupted over something I’ve said – and I’ve only made it worse by not being online to defend myself.

 A recent example was when I ended a post with the statement: what is literature, after all, but the pushing of readers’ buttons?

 I thought that might keep ’em going for hours, but sadly only one fired back, deploring my cynical, contrived and unoriginal approach and proudly claiming that as soon as he suspects a writer is trying to push his buttons he will put the book down just on principle.

 Well, he won’t get to finish too many books is my response. But what exactly is button pushing?

 It’s the writer deliberately manipulating the reader into responding in calculated ways at particular points during the novel. Those ways can include excitement, intrigue, terror, joy, disgust, pity, love or any number of other vicarious feelings – the most important of which is curiosity.

 It is curiosity that keeps the pages turning and to inspire curiosity, writers resort to devices – the most important being plot. A plot is a carefully calculated drip feed of information, the timing of which answers questions in the mind of the reader but raises others. At its most fundamental, plot construction is all about raising and answering questions or presenting characters with problems and getting them to resolve them.

 Writers know that readers have buttons and know how to push them, in fact many readers’ buttons come pre-pressed. If you use a three act structure (or any of its permutations) you are pushing buttons – playing with the emotions surrounding the ‘boy gets girl – boy loses girl – boy gets girl back’ paradigm.

 If you employ cliffhangers (eg, ending every chapter or subchapter with a question) you are playing with the readers’ curiosity.

 If your main character is a flawed but loveable type, confronted with overwhelming odds but attempts nevertheless to overcome them, you are pressing a shitload of buttons.

 If you use any sort of cliché, trope or stereotype you are accessing the readers’ lifelong repository of narrative and deriving reflex responses which have been pre-programmed by all the books, TV and movies they’ve absorbed over a lifetime of experiencing literature.

 In other words, you are pushing buttons.

 In fact, I pride myself on being a fairly original writer both in the types of stories I write and the vehicles I construct for their conveyance. But can you be original and still be a button pusher?

 Of course you can. Think of any watershed book like, for example: Ulysses; The Lord of the Rings; 1984; Catch 22; Lord of the Flies; Chimera et al and they are all stuffed with buttons. The use of buttons has nothing to do with originality – deliberately contrived manipulation of emotions is good storytelling.

 Try to imagine a book without buttons. It would have no plot; no identifiable characters; no action; no coherent subject matter and no resolution. The only books I can think of which match this description are the dictionary and the telephone book, and even those get from A to Z in the end!

 As John Barth so famously said: the relationship between teller and told is a quasi-sexual relationship, and you can’t make love without pushing buttons. So, to all you proud, uncontrived idealists out there who regard button pushing as lazy, or unoriginal, or unwarranted manipulation…you are, in fact button pushers yourselves.

 If not, you’ll never be writers.