Thursday, January 23

Narrative Setting: Making Your Story World Reflect Your Hero's Journey

Narrative Setting: Making Your Story World Reflect Your Hero's Journey


I'm finishing my series on setting today! Yes! I'm excited. Finally I'm getting to the material I've wanted to talk about for ages: connecting the setting of a story up to, hooking it into, the arc of the hero's journey. (The other episodes can be found here, here, here, here, here and here.)

Another way of saying this is: have the setting mirror the protagonist's arc--which is going to be the main arc of the story. (Here I'm talking about a story where, although there may be several main characters, there is one character whose quest sets the spine of the story.)

Here's how I'm going to approach this. First, we'll (very quickly) look at the progress of the hero from bondage to freedom; from (as Michael Hauge would say) living in his identity to living in his essence; from unconsciously living with a weakness that was destined to prevent him from realizing his true capacity, to finding the strength to conquer his weakness and (at least try to) live the life he really wants.

Not all stories go like that. Tragedies, for instance, often take the character from living a good, fulfilled, life and--because of the hero's tragic weakness, or because of the machinations of the gods or fate--his life, and the lives of those he loves, are destroyed. 

In what follows I'm going to focus on a typical story that more-or-less fits the hero's journey.

Truby's Seven Key Steps of Story Structure


I should have said this before, but most of this material, and all of the quotations, are from John Truby's excellent book, "The Anatomy of Story."

1. Weakness and need
2. Desire
3. Opponent
4. Plan
5. Battle
6. Self-revelation
7. New equilibrium

Creating The Story World Around The Protagonist


1. Weakness and need.


The protagonist has a (at least one) weakness, a need, something that is preventing him from realizing his true potential, preventing him from living the life that would make him truly happy.

Story world

Show a story world "that is a physical manifestation of the hero's weakness or fear." 

For example, Luke Skywalker grew up on a desert planet, one that was on the outskirts, away from anything Luke considered remotely interesting. His uncle kept promising he could leave the farm to go to the academy, but something always seem to come up, something it was his duty to attend to.

2. Desire.


The protagonist has a desire, something he wants more than anything else. 

- Perhaps (The Firm) he wants to escape the trailer park of his youth so he dreams of becoming a partner in a rich law firm.
- Perhaps (Pi) the protagonist wants to discover the number that is the name of God and created all things.
- Perhaps (Lord of the Rings) the protagonist wants to destroy the One Ring and so defeat the Big Bad.

This desire will form the 'spine' of the story. The idea is that everything--setting included--should relate to the protagonist and, most especially, to the protagonist's desire.

Story World

Your story world should express the hero's goal. For example, in The Firm, the hero (McDeere) begins his quest at university--Harvard Law School. The protagonist's desire is to never, ever, be poor again and his goal is to make partner in a wealthy law firm.

3. Opponent.


The antagonistic force opposes the protagonist in his quest to fulfil his desire. Note: Desires can be general, diffuse. A goal should be concrete enough that one could take a picture of it being achieved. For example:

Desire: I want to be rich.
Goal: 
- Become a partner at a prestigious law firm.
- Find the lost treasure of the Incas.
- Rob the bank on 1st and 3rd.

Also, the goal should be such that it can be achieved by either the protagonist or the antagonist, not by both. (Many times, both could fail to achieve it, but only one can succeed.)

Story World

Protagonist & Antagonist: 

- Their lairs, their living spaces, their domiciles, their homes--as well as their workplaces--should express their desires. For the antagonist, his physical domain should also represent "his power and ability to attack the hero's great weakness."

- Also, Truby holds that the "world of the opponent should also be an extreme version of the hero's world of slavery."

4. Plan.


The protagonist devises a plan to defeat the opposition and achieve his goal.

Story World: 

Apparent defeat or temporary freedom

Apparent defeat: All hope is lost. At this point all of the "forces defeating and enslaving the hero are literally pressing in on him." 

For example, Star Wars IV where Luke and company are in the garbage compacter.

5. Battle.


The protagonist battles the antagonistic force.

Story World

This is the climax of the story. The battle--or confrontation; it doesn't have to be physical--"should occur in the most confined place of the entire story." Why? Truby writes that this creates a "pressure cooker effect".

"Realistically, a dogfight would occur in open space where the pilots have room to maneuver. But Lucas understands that the best battle occurs in the tightest space possible."

6. Self-revelation. 


At some point the hero will suffer a devastating setback. It will seem to him, and to the audience, that his quest is over, that there's no way he can continue. 

Cue the self-revelation.

Generally there's a B-story (the A-story tracks the hero's quest for an external goal while the B-story tracks the hero's quest for an internal goal), and the answer/resolution of this B-story often provides the hero with the key to the A-story. It will give him an idea for how to overcome whatever opposition he is experiencing and, against all odds, achieve his goal. (Or not, it's up to you.)

Story World: Visit to death

The hero thinks he is going to die. "He should encounter his mortality in a place that represents the elements of decline, aging, and death."

I'm tempted to use Luke's imprisonment in the trash compactor again--but I won't. Countless movies have the hero visit a creepy old house (or other structure) with skeletons (Raiders of the Lost Ark), or take them down into the cellar, a dark and musty basement (the Paranormal Activity movies), and bring them close--even symbolically (e.g., a shrivelled rose)--to death.

7. New equilibrium. 


The hero has been transformed by his confrontation/experience with death. He goes back to the Ordinary World, the world before the adventure, but he's changed. At the very end of the story we see how the lessons the hero has learnt through his quest enable him to respond to the challenges of daily life in different ways. (Or not. A comedic story often ends with the hero learning nothing.)

Story World: Freedom or Slavery

Truby holds that the world "should represent in physical terms the final maturation or decline of the character."

Take the hero, the protagonist, back to their original world--the Ordinary World. Show how the journey has changed the hero.

Going back to Luke and Star Wars IV, there is a clear difference in what he's wearing. In the beginning he's in off-white, ordinary, clothes. Alone. 

At the end he is in a white uniform, in front of many people, standing with close friends, being honored for his contribution as a leader.

Look at where Luke is. When we first meet Luke he is outside in the desert, assisting his uncle as the man shops for droids. When we leave Luke at the end of his journey he is inside a rebel base, in a gleaming white room. Rather than assisting anyone, he is being honored as a leader.

Points to keep in mind when crafting your setting:


1. Identify the key visual oppositions.


These oppositions should be based on your character's values. (e.g., Star Wars IV, V, and VI all provide terrific examples of this.)

2. How is time expressed in the story world?


The Past

Truby writes: you set a story in the past to "show values dominant in the past that still hurt people today."

The Future

"You set a story in the future to give the audience another pair of glasses, to abstract the present in order to understand it better."

The Seasons

Each season can convey certain meanings to the audience about the hero and the world.

How?

a. Change the seasons to reflect the inner states of your hero has he changes.
b. If you take your hero through all four seasons this can provide a nice way to compare and contrast the protagonist's start and end states.

Note: Think of ways you can use a reader's anticipation to surprise them.

For example, a person in shorts and t-shirt is unexceptional on a beach in July but quite exceptional walking to the store in December--if there's snow on the ground.

It's normal for many animals to give birth in the spring. Unconsciously (or consciously) we tend to associate the two. 

To shake things up, why not have someone give birth in the winter? This could work as a symbol (humans out of touch with nature) or it could increase conflict. 

For example, snowdrifts cling to the sides of an isolated cabin. Inside a woman gives birth. The lights flicker as a storm shakes the cabin, highlighting the woman's dwindling supply of firewood.

Or something. This is one way to use the setting--the story world--to introduce, or increase, conflict.

Holidays and Rituals

Truby writes: "A ritual is a philosophy that has been translated into a set of actions that are repeated at certain intervals."

Rituals are dramatic. Think of your last family get together, perhaps for Thanksgiving. Was it calm and relaxing or dramatic?

What do these rituals mean to the protagonist? How do they tie into the protagonist's desire? (Perhaps they don't.)

A Single Day

You can use a daily event/ritual (say, lunch) to track a few characters acting simultaneously.

That's it! This is the end of my series on setting, I hope you found something you could take away, something you can adapt to enrich your writing.

In any case, good writing!

Photo credit: "Walk Alone..." by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

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