Showing posts with label setting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label setting. Show all posts

Thursday, February 11

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and the Hero's Journey (Part 1)



In the last few posts I’ve discussed a story’s setting. Today I want to discuss a story’s setting and how it changes in the context of the hero's journey.

Setting Reflects Changes

The setting of a story changes as the story progresses. Often, the setting for each scene mirrors the hero’s arc. (If you’re unfamiliar with the notion of the hero’s journey, I’ve written about it here.) 

Just in case all that is clear as mud, let me give you a few examples of what I mean.

Setting Reflects Story

Dichotomies: Tagging the hero and villain

In the movie, The Matrix, Neo, Morpheus and Trinity are dressed in black while their opposition wears business suits. 

Here the opposites are agents of order versus agents of chaos. The agents of order (and, yes, they were actually called Agents!) are dressed in business suits and are part of an irredeemably corrupt system.

The agents of chaos, the ones wearing black, are trying to tear down that corrupt system. It was clever to subvert the audience’s expectations and have the good guys wear black. This nicely illustrates that aspects of a setting, such as the clothing/uniform each side wears, helps with characterization. Or, at least it can. 

On the topic of business suits, in The Matrix the enemy was an outside force but often the enemy is closer to home, sometimes it even wears a seemingly friendly face. In the movie, The Firm, Mitch McDeer’s opposition was the people he worked beside everyday and they all looked alike. They wore the same thing, they had the same kind of house, the same kind of car (expensive!). They were “one happy family”™. The sameness was part of what made the opposing force so insidious and scary.

Setting Reflects The Protagonist's Need

In general, at the beginning of a story the protagonist has a weakness, a need. For instance, take Susan. She has a weakness that prevents her from realizing her full potential, something that prevents her from living a life that is as meaningful as it could be. In order for Susan to meet this need, she must change. But this is mixed news for Susan because there is no change without destruction, without sacrifice, and that brings turmoil, pain, and possibly death.

The storyteller’s goal is to construct a suitable crucible for heroes-to-be like Susan, one that will challenge her and, ultimately, singe off the bits that have to go to make room for new and improved bits.

The Hero’s Desire

A story world should explain the hero's desire for their goal. In “The Firm,” Mitch McDeere's desire is to never, ever, be poor again and his specific goal is to make partner in a wealthy law firm. At the beginning of the film he’s poor and working as a waiter while still receiving top grades from one of the best law schools in the world, Harvard Law School. That nicely illustrates Mitch’s ambition and intellect. 

Here’s another example. (I know I used this example too much!) Luke Skywalker was a skilled pilot but, while his uncle kept promising he could leave the family’s moisture farm and attend the academy, something always came up to prevent it. A droid would break down, the crop wouldn’t be as big as expected, and so on. This meant they couldn’t afford to hire someone to replace Luke, so he felt obliged to stay.

Another thing. I see Luke’s landspeeder as a representation of this conflict between Luke and his family. It reminds us of Luke’s desire to become a pilot as well as the sacrifices he has to make. (That, and landspeeders are just plain cool!)

The Opposing Force

A story wouldn't be much fun if the protagonist wanted something then, without further ado, got it. They must be opposed. This is the job of the antagonistic force that opposes the protagonist in their attempt to attain their goal. 

There is a symmetry between the hero and villain. Whatever the hero’s specific goal is, it needs to be something that both the villain and he want, but which at most one of them can achieve. Both can fail but both can never win

The Hero Confronts Death

At some point the hero will suffer a devastating setback. It will seem to him that his quest is over. It is at this point that the hero often has an epiphany, a revelation. 

How could the story world reflect this, both the danger and the epiphany? 

This is going to sound obvious because it is obvious… I could say ‘dead obvious’ but I think that would be going too far! ;) Anyway. Often the hero confronts death in a setting that brings death to mind. So, how do we do that? What makes us fear? Well, the dark. So caves, dungeons, crypts, pits--sometimes even one’s bedroom at the witching hour! What was that noise? Footsteps? But no one’s home! 

In Star Wars IV: A New Hope Luke and his allies are nearly crushed in a trash compactor. Countless movies have the hero visit a creepy old house, or abandoned insane asylum. Perhaps the hero is lured into a cellar, or a dark and musty basement (the Paranormal Activity movies), and then is brought close--even symbolically--to death. (Also, sometimes at this point one of the hero’s allies dies. In a mystery this will often give the hero/sleuth a valuable clue.)

That said, the hero could confront their mortality anywhere; for example, in a law office or as the hero runs through a crowded city. There are no hard and fast rules. The only thing you can take to the bank is that if you don’t write anything you’ll never have a story! So write!

-- --

I think that’s a good place to stop for today. I’ve only blogged half my chapter, so I’ll try and get the second half up tomorrow. In the meantime, good writing!

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Sunday, February 7

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Character (Part 3)

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Character (Part 3)


This post is a continuation of yesterday's post BUT in what follows I don't talk about horror stories. Alas. Horror stories are very fun to talk about--or even to write about. Here I go on about the various wonderful ways in which your setting can affect your story.

2. Setting And Character

I've already written about the importance of the social environment of the story for character development (see the links at the end of this article), and given that we are social critters, it’s obvious that it would be significant, but I want to step back for a minute and ask what will at first seem like a silly question: Why? 

Why is it the case that the social environment is so important for character development? It is the social environment, the society, that sets the rules for what counts as acceptable conduct. The society sets up the specific expectations for your character, how they should act, who they should love, what profession they should study, and so on. The social environment sets up what the society thinks the character’s goals should be, it sets up the default value structure. 

(And this is one reason that the first five or ten percent of a story is so important, because you’re setting up these background conditions, conditions that everything else in your story will contrast against.)

Of course your character will depart in various ways from what is expected of them, and that’s good. That creates conflict. However, everything depends upon making it clear what values your hero is departing from.

Shared Customs

As Dwight V. Swain says in his excellent book, Creating Characters: How To Build Story People, shared customs (customs such as which clothes are acceptable for which occasions) and appropriate behaviors (for example, how to behave in a church as opposed to a temple as opposed to a mosque as opposed to a synagog as opposed to...) are just the sort of things that breathe life into, and that differentiate, characters.

When developing a character I ask myself what social rules and practises, what rituals and traditions, this character follows.

Another thing I try to pay attention to when creating a character is the distinction between knowing a social custom and following it. Perhaps a character knows that Custom A is mandatory, but do they follow it? Perhaps they follow it in public but not in private. Perhaps if they are given an opportunity to depart from the norm, they will. Or maybe they won’t. Either way, that says something about them.

3. Setting And The Senses

In the classic movie Die Hard, the initial setting was a Christmas Party, in Raiders of the Lost Ark one of the initial settings was a long abandoned ancient temple. The particular setting of your story is essential to bringing the world to life. How do things come to life for us? What makes us pay particular attention to something? 

In a word, vividness. 

Everything, of course, comes to us through our senses--smell, taste, sight, touch or hearing--and then is stitched together, somehow, to create our own personal version of this wonderful world in which we live. For us to pay attention to one particular thing, for it to be memorable, it must stand out from the rest.

As Dwight V. Swain writes in Creating Characters, our world is made of hot, sticky, ashvalut and looming, grey skyscrapers, barking dogs and purring cats with bottomless copper eyes; it's made of cheese so pungent it will make your eyes water, and hot bitter coffee, fresh squeezed apple juice, and hot sticky cinnamon buns. It's made of the comforting weight of linen and the harsh blare of car horns. 

Sensory impressions bring a story to life, immersing readers in the story world, wrapping it around them, drawing them ever deeper into the fantasy you're weaving. Swain writes that "the seen, the heard, the smelled, the touched, the tasted" are how we spin a world into being. So, what is the takeaway? Make your images vivid.

4. Setting and Conflict

Conflict isn’t everything, but if you don’t have conflict you don’t have a story. 

Conflit is what results when a character's efforts to attain a goal are opposed or frustrated. What sorts of things oppose a character's efforts to attain their goal? Quite a few. Another character, sure. Often it is that character themselves! But many times what opposes a character's efforts to attain their goal is the setting itself. 

For instance, perhaps your protagonist, Hank, is a teenager and his goal is to win the prestigious Sunnyside Surfing Competition but he can't win unless he trains. That’s a problem because Hank's family recently moved from the sunny, sandy beaches of Sunnyside California to the snowy confines of Montreal Canada and it's the middle of December. That means Hank can’t surf, so he can’t train for the competition. So he’s not going to win. Here just a change of setting sets up a problem, an obstacle to the protagonist reaching his goal.

Increasing Conflict

Have you ever watched the television show, Monk? The screenwriters were fabulous at using setting to introduce conflict. Here’s the description of the show from IMDB:

“The series follows Adrian Monk, a brilliant former San Francisco detective, who now consults the police as a private consultant who battles with an obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

For example, in Mr. Monk and the Psychic (season 1, episode 3) Monk is introduced to the police commissioner, someone he needs to impress since he wants to get back on the police force.

Monk wants to convince the commissioner that he has his OCD under control. But, Monk is Monk. He is unique. In one scene the commissioner has a few crumbs on his jacket. That’s the setting. Monk is compulsive about cleaning and really wants to brush the crumbs off the commissioner's jacket but he knows that would seem odd to the commissioner and if he seems odd then he won’t get his job back.

What does Monk do? Does he sacrifice his chance to get back on the police force so that he can brush the crumbs of the commissioner’s jacket? Of course he does! And what happens because of this? Conflict.

Here's another example, one you've probably seen countless times in movies and on TV. Two characters are sitting at a table. Perhaps it is a job interview or perhaps it is a first date. The general idea is that it is a situation in which one of them is trying to impress the other. Then a server walks by, stumbles, and spills scalding coffee into the character’s lap who most wants to impress the other. 

How will they react? Will they jump up and yell at the server? Will they be gracious and downplay the incident? Will they turn the incident into a joke and make the other character laugh? How that character handles this situation, this conflict, will help reveal what kind of a person they are.

These are just a few of the ways in which the setting can be used to introduce or increase conflict. The way I think of it, characters are not created to populate a world, a world is created to, as John Truby wrote in The Anatomy of Story, "express and manifest your characters, especially your hero."

And that’s it for today! Thanks for reading, good writing, and I’ll talk to you again soon.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Saturday, February 6

Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)

Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)


(FYI, this post is part of my How to Write a Genre Story series. By rights I should have titled it How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Mood (Part 2), but I couldn't resist the more evocative title: "How to scare the pants off someone!" There are links, below, to other articles in this series, but you don't need to have read any of them to understand what follows.)

Setting does many things in a story. 

First, it helps establish the mood. Do you want your reader to be horrified (horror/thriller)? Do you want your reader to be curious (mystery)? Do you want your reader to be excited to explore a society dramatically different from their own (fantasy)? And so on.

Second, the setting brings the story world to life through the senses: smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing. 

Finally, the setting of a story is used to introduce, and increase, conflict.

Today I'm going to chat about the first of these, setting and mood. I'll address the second and third points in the very near future.

1. Setting And Mood

Mood draws the reader into a story. Since one of the reasons to tell a story would be to produce a particular emotion in the reader, creating the right sort of mood is crucial.

An Example

How can setting affect mood? 

I think the best way to illustrate this is by talking about horror, both the mood and the genre. So let's say that you’re writing a horror story. Naturally, you want to horrify your readers.

It is so obvious I hate to say it (well, type it), but a person isn't going to be horrified if they aren't afraid. What has to happen for a person to be afraid? They need to perceive a threat and feel vulnerable to that threat. 

For example, imagine that you're walking down your front path to get your mail from the cute letterbox your kids got you for Christmas. You hear a noise, perhaps a footstep, to your right. Out of the corner of your eye you see something pink and frilly. "Oh that's Mrs. Jones," you think. Mrs. Jones is your relentlessly friendly nextdoor neighbour who walks around in a poofy pink dressing gown. You turn to wave but then you see that Mrs. Jones has turned into a shambling, half decayed zombie. And she's heading right for you!

Perhaps you're made of sterner stuff than me, but I would be horrified! I would promptly forget all about getting the mail and, fearing for my life, run inside. Why? Because (of course!) I would be afraid of being turned into the thing my grey haired, slipper-wearing, absent-minded next door neighbour had become. 

I think that fear is, fundamentally, an acknowledgement of, or recognition of, my vulnerability in the face of imminent danger. 

Here is a partial list of what I think evokes a feeling of horror:

- Recognition of the imminence of my death or the deaths of family/friends.
- Recognition of the imminence of my pain or the pain of family/friends.
- Recognition of the imminence of the unknown (or unknown unknowns).
- Recognition of the imminence of my disfigurement or the disfigurement of my family/friends. (Think of slasher films like Saw.)
- Recognition of the imminence of disillusionment or the imminence of destructive revelation.

Now ask yourself: What sort of setting would help communicate these sort of feelings/thoughts to the reader? What would its characteristics be? 

I had intended this post to be about how to evoke more moods than just horror, but here are a few things that I think would contribute to evoking that particular mood.

4 Things that Evoke Horror

The Dark

The dark hides things, it makes the familiar alien, it contains unknown unknowns. Chaotic things lurk out there beyond the light of the bonfire.

I know that observation isn’t original, but the dark is used in (I’m rifling through my memories) every single horror story for a reason.

Isolation

When the hero confronts the Big Bad they can’t receive any help, they have to confront the antagonist all by their lonesome. If the hero is to win and escape the horror, they will have to do it relying on their own wits and strength. This is especially true in the case of a horror story. 

The hero, or the hero and his allies, usually travel to someplace remote and unusual. Someplace they haven't been to before. (And then of course there's a story a local tells them that scares the pants off them but which they discount, and so on.) At the end, the hero's allies have met an unpleasant death but she is still there and now she's really ticked off and has a plan. But all of this is facilitated by the isolated nature of the setting. Otherwise she'd just use her cell phone to call someone for help!

Monsters

The monsters that scare me the most are normal things that have been twisted. I haven't been the same since I read Stephen King's book, Pet Sematary! 

Here's an example of how twisting a familiar setting can create horror. The story is called Bad Dreams and was published anonymously on Dramatica.com but, before you head off there, know that the site is NOT work safe. That's putting it mildly. But this story is fine, it is one hundred percent PG.

‘Daddy, I had a bad dream.’

You blink your eyes and pull up on your elbows. Your clock glows red in the darkness--it’s 3:23. ‘Do you want to climb into bed and tell me about it?’

‘No, Daddy.’

The oddness of the situation wakes you up more fully. You can barely make out your daughter’s pale form in the darkness of your room. ‘Why not, sweetie?’

‘Because in my dream, when I told you about the dream, the thing wearing Mommy’s skin sat up.’

For a moment, you feel paralysed; you can’t take your eyes off of your daughter. The covers behind you begin to shift.

Great story, right?!

The setting used here is familiar. Intimate. Isolated. The protagonist is in his bedroom with his wife and child. Would the story have the same impact if it was morning, rather than the witching hour? Would the story have the same impact if the exchange took place while the protagonist was preparing to drive to work? I don't think so.

I think that the closeness, the intimacy, of the threat contributes to the isolation. If the wife was in the kitchen or even just out in the hall the situation wouldn't feel so intense and creepy. It's the intimacy of the threat (your wife is lying right behind you) that adds to the feeling of isolation. For example, I'm in a crowd then someone sticks the muzzle of a gun in my back and tells me, "Don't scream, don't talk, just walk." I'm instantly isolated because I can't call for help.

Surprise, Disorientation & Isolation

I've already talked about some of these things, but I need an excuse to trot out one of my favorite horror scenes. This scene--well, I suppose it is more like a series of scenes--occurs toward the end of one of the best horror movies ever made, Alien. (Yes, okay, that's my personal opinion. If you disagree, let me know in the comments.)

Toward the end of Alien, when Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) makes her way to the shuttle, she runs down twisting hallways expecting danger at every turn. For me, that was the most suspenseful part of the movie. 

The dark--both of the spaceship and the surrounding, suffocating, emptiness of space--isolates the hero from any possible aid and disorients her, magnifying her fear--which, mysteriously, has become your fear even though you're perfectly safe and sitting snugly on your couch chowing down on buttered popcorn. Or, no, wait! that was me. ;)

Well, that's it for today. If you'd like to chat or ask a question or tell me I'm wrong, leave a comment. Until then, good writing and I'll talk to you again soon.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Wednesday, February 3

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)

There are many stories that don't fit the hero’s journey. For example, the movies Psycho and The Princess Bride. And that's great! There are as many ways to write a story as there are writers. 

I mention this to emphasize that what I am going to talk about is only one way of doing things. If it doesn’t work for you, or you have developed your own way, great! However, if you are looking for an example of how things could be done, this is one possible way.

Narrative Setting

Narrative setting is the setting where the events of the story take place. 

The story world includes, among other things, the physical environments your characters will encounter as well as the groups they interact with. You can create these environs from your imagination or you can set the story in the actual world. 

Conjuring a story world from nothing but the materials of your imagination may save long hours of research, but keep in mind that the story world (unlike the real one!) needs to be consistent. A happy medium between these two is to set the tale in a fictional world but to use the actual world as a starting point. By changing aspects of the actual world one can often produce a setting that is both unique and plausible.

Social Setting

However you go about crafting your story world, the most time-consuming, intricate and important aspect of a character's environment is their social environment.

What are the rules of your world's societies, rules both written and unwritten? What sorts of pair bonds are sanctioned? What are their norms, their unwritten rules? Are certain practices, certain actions, sanctioned but discouraged? 

Getting finer grained, what kinds of groups, or sub-groups, does the society contain? By this I mean any kind of group: political, recreational, medical, artificial, criminal, natural, sanctioned and unsanctioned. And if you see fit to give your world something like the internet, don't forget online groups!

The most important environment for social creatures such as ourselves is our social environment; our family, our friends, our coworkers, our distant relatives, our facebook friends. Of course, your protagonist need not be sociable! Let your imagination run wild. Anything is fair game as long as it's believable.

Above all, think about ways to introduce opportunities for conflict when creating a story world.

The Elements of Setting: Time

What time of year is it in the story? Spring, Summer, Fall or Winter? If this is a fictional world, does it have seasons? How much time passes in your story? Hours? Days? Months? Years?

Is there anything unusual about the flow of time in your narrative? Is your story written as a stream of consciousness? Does your novel employ time-jumps for flashbacks to convey the story? 

The Elements of Setting: Place

Where does your story take place? What is its geography? Is it an unexplored wilderness or is it well populated? Does the story take place in a town? A city? A tropical jungle? A rainforest? Is the place barren? Lush? Isolated? Densely populated?

Is there water nearby? A pond? A sea? Is the air dry or wet? Is there snow at Christmas time? What sports or hobbies could a person easily engage in given the features of the area? Snowboarding? Skiing? Swimming? Surfing? What sports couldn't your characters do? For example, could your characters swim without risking hypothermia in December?

The Elements of Setting: Circumstances

What social groups is your character involved in? Are they religious? Spiritual? Politically involved? Do they have a large family? Small family? No family? If they're a loner, do they have a network of friends online? What kind of social groups is your character a part of at work? Are they self-employed? Unemployed? Are they the first one at the water cooler in the morning, gossiping, or do they keep to themselves? Do they get along with their boss? 

What are the signs of group inclusion? Do your characters have an accent? Do they wear a uniform, or some sort of special clothing? Do they have markings that identify them as part of a particular group?

Do different groups, different societies or cultural groups, have different accents? Different ways of speaking?

How do these marks of social inclusion, these accents and languages, differ from those which existed a century ago? A millennium ago? Also, what will these groups, these societies, be like a century--or a millennium--from now?

Setting & Scenes

Let’s talk about setting as it relates to each scene.

I've touched on some of this information above, but let's get specific. Stories are made up of scenes and scenes occur at a place and a time. 

For each scene, in addition to knowing what season it is, know (if outdoors) what the weather is like, what characters are in the scene, what happened just before the scene started and what will happen just after the scene ends. Also know what time of day it is. Is it morning or high noon? Nighttime? Twilight? The witching hour? You don’t have to--you likely shouldn’t!--put all this information in the scene, but it helps to know.

What associations do the main characters have about this time? What memories might it invoke? For instance, a character might wake during the witching hour and remember a nightmare they had as a child. (This introduces conflict: the character would like to sleep but the nightmare, and now the memories invoked by it, trap them in the waking world.)

Place: Indoors? Outdoors?

If the scene takes place outdoors what's the weather like? Is the sun hidden behind clouds turning day into twilight? Is it nighttime, yet lightning flashes making the landscape bright as day? Is it snowing? Raining? Does the unbearable heat of the sun bake everything to a brittle hardness? Are the characters in the Antarctic? Are they isolated by distance and the unbearable, bitter cold? What associations might they have to snow? How about rain? 

While an adult might hate to wake up to a winter wonderland, a child would likely be overjoyed--especially if it means a snow day!

If the scene takes place indoors, what are the characters' surroundings like? Are they lavish? Poor? Shabby? Drab? Colorful? Ostentatious? Is it a human-made structure or natural, something like a cave. 

Wherever your characters are, were they invited here? Are they comfortable here? Does this place make them feel at home or are they unsure how to act? 

A room could be lavish and yet make a character uneasy because, while they have always desired it, they are unused to such luxury. Another character, one equally uncomfortable in such surroundings, might feel the urge to destroy it. Setting can be used to develop character. Before we examine that, though, let's briefly look at the importance of being able to use setting to generate conflict.

Conflict

I've mentioned this before but it bears repeating. One thing all stories must have, whatever the story world is like, is conflict. Political parties contend with each other. Countries go to war. Social groups hold diametrically opposed yet strongly held views about what constitutes appropriate conduct.

What do your characters believe? Where in this ever shifting maze of interconnectedness do they fit? What groups do they belong to? What do they believe about the world? Which social practices and which social institutions do they embrace? How do these preferences generate conflict both within and between characters?

It is one thing for a character to understand what sort of behavior a particular society expects from its members, and quite another whether, and to what extent, they will go along with it.

Writing Challenge

Select one of your favorite books and try to answer the following questions: 

- What is the setting for the story?
- Does the world have seasons? If so, during what season, or seasons, does the story take place?
- How much time elapses during the story?
- What is the geography of the story world like?
- How many distinct social groups exist and what characteristics distinguish one from another?
- Which aspects of the setting created the most conflict and how was it generated? 

A Thought Experiment

Imagine two societies are remarkably similar but one--Society A--helped defend the surrounding region against an enemy while the other--Society B--did nothing. As a result, many citizens in Society A despise Society B. It's winter, food is scarce, and a fire has ripped through Society B destroying its food reserves. Many in Society B accuse Society A of setting the fire. One thing is certain, unless Society B gets food many of its citizens will starve to death. What will Society B do? Attack the city that defended it? What will Society A do? Share it's food reserves with the city that not only didn't help defend against the enemy but that now accuses them of sabotage?

Given this setting, who would be your protagonist? I think I would choose a child from Society B who discovers evidence that their food reserves were destroyed by the enemy they thought Society A had defeated. But will he be believed?

Okay, that’s it! This was a bit of a grab bag of ideas. I hope you got something from it. I’ll talk to you again soon. In the meantime, good writing!

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Wednesday, December 9

A Theory of Story


What makes a story seem real? What gives it verisimilitude?

I'm trying out a new idea or perhaps just putting a twist on an old one. I'm not sure if you'll agree with me and if you don't that's okay! I would be interested in what you think.

A Theory of Story

Stories are nothing new. I think in our earliest days as a species we were already telling ourselves stories, stories that helped us understand the world around us. But certain stories were better than others at doing this. Over time, one can imagine that the stories that were better at helping people succeed in the world were favored. They spread.

There are two things here: First, some sort of theory, some sort of idea about how the world works, Second, there is what is actually out there in the world.

And there are levels here. In real life I tell myself stories about molecules and atoms and subatomic particles and I expect that out there in the world there are things that these ideas, these theories, more or less refer to. The theory has some ‘traction’ on what is out there, on whatever it is that impinges on my senses.

These two things, these two levels, let's call them A and B.

A) What is

When we write a fictional story we take one step back. We’re no longer talking about an objective reality. We are the gods of our stories, creating worlds from whole cloth. As creators we get to invent whatever we want. 

Broadly interpreted, what we create is what we call the setting of the story. What is the physics of this world? What is the politics like? What sort of biological systems exist? Do gods exist? Does magic exist? If so, how does it work? And so on.

B) Human (or other) machinations

Then there is what I’ve called some sort of theory of the world, some sort of story--or stories--that the characters tell themselves about what is true, about what are the best ways of getting what they want. 

My point is that these two constructions (A & B) are related, and that things will turn out for a character better or worse depending upon how well they hook into each other. 

The Idea

So here’s my idea. This is an oversimplification, but for every major character, they will have ideas about what the story world is like. Now, you will have made the story world--the setting--in a certain way so there are only two possibilities: your character will be right about how the world is or they will be wrong about how the world is. 

Let's call "alignment" the degree to which how the character sees the world aligns with or agrees with how the world really is. I think that a character's degree of alignment is relevant to the kind of character they are. 

If there is a high degree of alignment, if how the character sees the world more or less matches up with the character's ideas of how best to get on in the world, then chances are the character is either the protagonist or someone helpful associated with the protagonist such as his sidekick or his mentor.

On the other hand, if there is a low degree of alignment, if the story they tell themselves about the best way to get on in the world, is at variance with how the world really is then chances are the character is either the antagonist or someone associated with the them such as their sidekick, mentor, minion, and so on.

Here's how this idea, or these ideas, relate to the notion of verisimilitude: A character's degree of alignment needs to be matched up to the kind of character they are (for example, protagonist or antagonist) in order for the story to feel real, or at least, in order for the story to feel satisfying. [1]

In what follows I try to unpack this idea. [2]

Luke Skywalker

For example, Luke Skywalker. He is a young man working on his aunt and uncle’s moisture farm, but he is a skilled pilot and wants nothing more than to head offworld, fly fast planes, and have adventures. 

In a way, that is every teenager, ever. 

And then something unexpected happens (The Call to Adventure) and Luke is asked to go on an adventure to help the rebel alliance and save a beautiful princess. This is everything Luke has ever wanted… And he says “No.” Why? Luke says he has a duty to his aunt and uncle and he can’t just leave them to run the farm on their own.

And this is consistent (or so I would argue) with Luke’s character. Yes, he wants to go off on an adventure, but then why hasn’t he? He could have left and gone to school even though his uncle and aunt didn’t want him to. He stayed because he was grateful to them and because he loved them.

Let’s break this down into (A) and (B).

B: The parts that are important here are Luke’s attitude toward his aunt and uncle, his belief that duty matters--this shows how he feels toward those close to him and it shows that he loves his family. He is loyal. He puts the needs of others above his wants. 

A: Also, we get a peek at the political world of the story, at that part of the setting. There is an Empire (bad, repressive, brutal killers) and a resistance (fighting for life and liberty). And, of course, given what we know of what kind of character Luke is, we aren’t surprised that he sympathizes with the resistance BUT refuses to join because he recognizes his duty to his aunt and uncle.

So I would say that Luke was a good character in the sense that we are given a certain setting (the external world filled with rebels and stormtroopers) and a certain kind of character (loyal, courageous, a bit impatient) and how that character acts in that world makes sense. We have a character with a good goal and a close fit with reality.

More Examples


The Evil Queen from Snow White

As I mentioned, not all characters, though, have a close alignment. An example of a character with a distant alignment and a bad goal is the Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

I think this is often true for antagonists; that is, they often misrepresent the world to themselves. Why? It often happens that a certain way the world is radically disappoints them. Often this disappointment is due to what we might consider a character defect.

The Evil Queen, for example, has a magic mirror that always tells her the truth. So here we have (A), how the story world really is. And the queen, who we are told is vain, asks the mirror who is the fairest in the land, and one day she is told that it’s not her. Instead, it’s her step daughter.

It seems to me that we all realize that people age and beauty doesn’t last forever. At a certain point the queen had to know she wouldn’t be the fairest in the land. But, what’s her reaction? Does she react in a way consistent with this truth, with reality? Not so much. She tries to kill Snow White so she will, once again, be the fairest in the land. 

I think this is very effective at setting the queen up as an evil character. I mean, what is her long term plan? As she continues to age her beauty will continue to fade so what is she going to do, kill all the pretty young women in the land until she’s the only female left? That shows she doesn't care about the people in her community. 

Also, and as you know, this is another mark of an antagonist: her goal is a bad long term goal. As I mentioned, her beauty will inevitably fade but, more than that, putting her entire focus on being the most beautiful is a selfish goal. She isn't trying to accomplish anything that will help her community or the broader world.

But the Queen's behavior (exaggerated though it is) is believable, it’s plausible, because she is vain and intentionally not thinking things through because that would be traumatic for her, it would uncover certain errors in how she understands the world around her. (I’m not saying that most of us haven’t had a moment of vanity here and there, but hopefully none of us carried things quite this far! ;)

Cypher from The Matrix

Let’s look at one more character: Cypher from The Matrix. Like the Evil Queen, Cypher wanted to deny reality. What he wanted to be true and what was true were at variance, and since he couldn’t change reality, he decided he would change his beliefs about reality, he would rather accept a lie as true than accept the bitter dystopian reality that the world actually was. And so he betrayed those who had been his friends to their enemies and exchanged the bitter truth for a pleasant lie (although it is hinted that Cypher’s actual reward for his treachery was death). 

Conclusion


I'm not sure whether this has been one long waffle or if I'm beginning to get at what might be an interesting idea. But I thought I'd share! Let me know your thoughts, and good writing!

Notes:


1. Here I don't say anything about, for instance, the protagonists arc. At the beginning of the story there will be some distance between at least one of the protagonist's beliefs and how the world really is. For example, Luke Skywalker is naive. This was the result of a lack-of-fit between how he viewed the world--his ideas about how to best get on in the world--and the way the world really is (I'm including the social world, other characters, in "the world" since they are, perhaps, the most important aspect/part of the world/setting).

Similarly, I think the same applies, only reversed, for the antagonist. Perhaps at the beginning of the story the antagonist's ideas of how best to get on in the world more or less match up with how the world really is, but over the course of the story they will become more and more divergent.

2. In a future blog post I want to incorporate into this analysis the idea of a character's goal, whether it is good or bad. Broadly speaking, I would say that a character's goal would be considered a good goal if it helped the hero's community and/or his entire world and bad if it would harm them. So this would yield a 4x4 matrix. On one axis we have good and bad goals and on the other we have a close and distant alignment. I think this is how the combinations break down:
a) Close alignment & good goal --> protagonist
b) Distant alignment & good goal --> fool
c) Close alignment & bad goal --> nemesis
d) Distant alignment & bad goal --> big bad
Anyway, I may have more to say about that in a future post.

Thursday, April 17

Parts of Story: How Setting Can Help Bring Characters To Life



When writing a scene, how much description is enough?

All writers have certain things we do well--or at least, that we do better than others. Things that, relatively speaking, we excel at. I know someone who writes descriptions that make you feel like you're there; you taste the salt in the sea air and feel the early morning chill. But when this person writes dialogue, although it's good, it's not at the same level. And that's fine! Actually, it's reassuring. It wouldn't be, well, human, to be terrific at everything. (Which, I suppose, is an argument that Neil Gaiman is not quite human, but I digress.)

Descriptions aren't my best thing. There, I've said it. I'm talking specifically about the sort of description that needs to go at the beginning of scenes and stories to orient the reader; description that isn't intimately connected with the action of the story but needs to be mentioned. I can't tell you the number of first drafts I've finished where I had given no hint as to the protagonist's hair color, it's length, whether she was cute or handsome or beautiful. Or even a he or a she!

Why? Because it wasn't intimately connected with the action of the story. Or so I thought. Obviously, I under-describe. Readers like to know, for example, whether a character is male or female because they form assumptions, assumptions that may later be proved wrong and that can be disconcerting. 

So back to my question: When writing a scene, how much description is enough? 

I've spent some time mulling this question over and rereading many of the books I've listed in the recommended reading section. I think that, perhaps, in order to answer this question we need to recognize that:

1. A setting isn't just physical, it's also emotional.


In his book, The Fire In Fiction, Donald Maass writes that we should select specific things about the characters environment and describe them in a way that shows the character's emotions. He writes that the combination of details about the setting and the emotions attached to them, "together, make a place a living thing. Setting comes alive partly in its details and partly in the way that the story's characters experience it. Either element alone is fine, but both working together deliver a sense of place without parallel."

Yes. Exactly. That's a great way of stating what we want to do. But (and this is the 64,000 dollar question), how do we do it? I hate it when writers state a question perfectly then quickly pronounce it a problem for the ages, shake their hoary heads, and move on.

Donald Maass doesn't do this. He answers the question and does so with examples. I won't reproduce them here, those were Donald Maass' examples, passages that spoke to him. I've written before about Stephen King, enough perhaps to give you the idea that I admire his writing, especially the way he could draw me into the worlds he created.[2] (I used to swear there had to be dark magic involved!)

But I think Donald Maass, here, has put his finger on another technique King uses, one which I hadn't noticed.[4] The following are the first few paragraphs from one of Stephen King's best books, The Shining (1977).
"Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.

"Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.

"As he listened to Ullman speak, Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk--under the circumstances."[1]
Right away, I noticed three things about these paragraphs. First, King uses them to describe the characters not the room. We understand the characters, the circumstances, first. Then we get to the physical setting. 

a. Character first, setting second.


The first time I read the above paragraphs I don't think I realized I wasn't 'seeing' an office. I don't think I realized that Jack Torrance was there for a job interview. But that's okay. That information isn't important, not right away. What is important is that we understand the kind of man Jack is, what is important is that we understand how he reacts to Ullman as well as what sort of relationship they have to each other. And we get that (a start at least) from the opening paragraphs, all without knowing the color of each man's hair, if the walls are painted or wallpapered, what kind of desk Ullman has, and so on.

But look at the information we are given. In the first sentence we are told that the protagonist is Jack Torrence and, through that, we know he's (probably) male. We also have an idea of how old Jack is, an age range. A child probably wouldn't have thought 'officious.' That belies not just an adults vocabulary but, most likely, either an educated person or someone who reads a lot. 

Also, a child who thought "officious little prick" (depending on their temperament) might well have also said it. But Jack didn't. He's angry but controlling it. 

And, finally, that first sentence also gives us the point of view: third person, subjective.
"Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men."
From the second sentence (I'm only going to talk about the first two) we learn that Ullman is short and fat and that Jack thought he was prissy. It's interesting (interesting to me at least!) that while we're told how tall Ullman is, how he moves, that he's plump--quite a number of physical details--we aren't given any of this information about Jack Torrence, the protagonist. 

But that makes perfect sense, doesn't it? After all, we're seeing all this from Jack's perspective, from the narrators point-of-view which is firmly ensconced in Jack's mind. As a result everything Jack sees, everything the narrator tells us about the world, also tells us about Jack. And Jack--this character--couldn't care less about his hair color or how it's cut and styled. One feels Jack would label that as 'prissy,' something Ullman would be concerned about. 

It isn't until a few paragraphs later that we learn what we are watching is a job interview and that the characters are in Ullman's office:
"He slipped Jack’s application back into the file. The file went into a drawer. The desk top was now completely bare except for a blotter, a telephone, a Tensor lamp, and an in/out basket. Both sides of the in/out were empty, too.

"Ullman stood up and went to the file cabinet in the corner. 'Step around the desk, if you will, Mr. Torrance. We’ll look at the floor plans.' He brought back five large sheets and set them down on the glossy walnut plain of the desk. Jack stood by his shoulder, very much aware of the scent of Ullman’s cologne. All my men wear English Leather or they wear nothing at all came into his mind for no reason at all, and he had to clamp his tongue between his teeth to keep in a bray of laughter. Beyond the wall, faintly, came the sounds of the Overlook Hotel's kitchen, gearing down from lunch."
The second thing that jumps out at me is that ...

b. Intimate settings reflect the personality of the characters.


When Stephen King--or, rather, the narrator--describes Ullman's desk (see the passage, above), he is describing Ullman. He is describing items--the desk, the chair, the in/out basket--that Ullman has impressed his personality on. These setting details, therefore, are a reflection of Ullman's character, of who he is and how he wants the world to be. 

It is only in the last paragraph that we are given the information that these characters are at the Overlook Hotel and that it's just after lunch. By this time we know that Jack was enduring a job interview ("He slipped Jack's application back into the file"). But we are only interested in these things because, now, we are interested in these men--particularly Jack--and the peculiar tension between them.

c. Use the setting to introduce conflict.


King uses the setting--which largely consists of the two men, at least at the beginning--to inject a mammoth amount of conflict right from the first line: "Officious little prick." But, as I mentioned above, Jack's thoughts tell us more about him than about Mr. Ullman:
"Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk--under the circumstances."
What are the circumstances? King doesn't answer this question right away. He lets the information unfurl, naturally, like we're perched on Jack Torrance's shoulder, riding along with him on this most disagreeable of days, a voyeur learning about this character and his world; a world which just happens to be the world of the story.

And we're hooked!

Or at least I am. King gets me every time. After I read about three or four paragraphs I couldn't put the book down if I tried. And who's trying? 

2. Describe only those aspects of the setting that are relevant to the scene's purpose.


I've spent most of this chapter talking about Stephen King and what his work can show us about how and when to use description (he also has a wonderful discussion of this in his book, On Writing). I'd like to close with a more general point about keeping description focused.

As you know, each scene has a purpose: the protagonist wants to achieve some goal and they probably won't. Each scene must advance the overall plot and move the story closer to the final, inevitable, show down. 

- Who is the main character, the focal character, in the scene?[3] 
- What is the focal character's goal? 
- What must the focal character accomplish to attain that goal? 
- What opposing force prevents the focal character from attaining their goal? 
- How does the focal character react to the opposing force? 
- How does the focal character meet this opposition? 

Once you answer these questions you'll not only know the scene's purpose you'll know its overall structure.

But how does that help us describe the setting? Donald Maass suggests that to discover what aspects of the setting are important--to discover what aspects of the setting we must describe to readers--we must first find the turning points. To do this ask:

- What has changed?
- When does it change?
- How is the focal character affected by this change?

Make sure that setting has been described in enough detail, and with enough emotion, to ground each turning point. What has led up to these points, these changes?

Everything else--including details about the setting--should focus on these points. If a detail of setting doesn't contribute to any of the turning points in the scene then ask yourself: do you really need to include it? Perhaps it would be better placed in another scene. Or another novel. 

I hope some of what I've written, above, is of help in describing how much description is enough. In the final analysis I agree with Stephen King: It's all on the table. Use whatever you want, especially on the first draft. Experiment, try new things, let it fly! After you've set your manuscript aside for awhile and come back to it, and hopefully read it with fresh eyes, then it will be easier for you to see which parts work and which don't, as well as where you've described too much or too little.

(Note: This is a chapter from my upcoming book: Parts of Story. I've decided to blog the book because, that way, I'm more likely to stay on track. And it seems to be working (Yay!).)

Links/References


1. Notice that these paragraphs were written in third person and yet King seems to have achieved all the intimacy of first person. I've written a bit about how Stephen King might have achieved this--one of the techniques I think he makes use of--in this post: Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul.
2. Stephen King, since writing his enormously helpful book, On Writing, is well known for believing that stories exist external to, independently of, writers. He believes he discovers stories in much the same way an archaeologist discovers dinosaur bones.
3. Briefly, a viewpoint character is the character whose point of view the chapter is being told from. If the point of view is limited then this viewpoint character will be one of the characters in the story. The focal character is the character that all the fuss is about; they are the protagonist, the main actor. For example, in many of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes was the focal character while Watson was the viewpoint character. 
4. Stephen King also, and very powerfully, uses his character's emotion-laden thoughts to lay bare their souls and make us interested in them. Or at least that's what I think. I've written a bit about this in my article on Free Indirect Discourse (I've given the link, above, in note 1). See also: How Did Agatha Christie Hook Readers?
5. The remark about it all being on the table is from King's book, "On Writing." 

Monday, March 10

Two Ways To Introduce Setting Quickly And Effectively

Two Ways To Introduce Setting Quickly And Effectively




When I first started writing, I had no idea how important a well-developed setting was for enabling a reader to imagistically enter into a story and wrap it about them as one would a warm blanket. I knew the importance of characterization and 'hooking' characters into the setting, but not setting itself. I didn't yet view setting as almost a character in its own right.

For example, here's a passage from P.D. James's short, wonderful, book on the writing of detective fiction:

"[...] I was on a visit of exploration in East Anglia, standing on a deserted shingle beach. There were a few wooden boats drawn up on the beach, a couple of brown nets slung between poles and drying in the wind, and, looking out over the sullen and dangerous North Sea, I could imagine myself standing in the same place hundreds of years ago with the taste of salt on my lips and the constant hiss and withdrawing rattle of the tide." (Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James)

Wow. I'm there, I taste the salt, feel the wind, hear the ocean.

Of course I always had known, even if I was unable to articulate it, that the author's description of the setting was a large part of my reading experience, but knowing is one thing and being able to articulate exactly what it is about a piece of prose that causes a location to become so real to one's imagination it seems one is transported there ... well, it's difficult. I've become better at it lately, but it has not been easy.

Still from the first episode of Sherlock, season three: The Empty Hearse.
I wish I could be like Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch's interpretation) and instantly spot which elements of story contributed to my immersive reading experience. But, alas, in this I am often more like Watson.

I have a tendency to shortchange setting and go right to the action--perhaps because I'm worried readers won't find my description of setting terribly interesting and will move onto more engaging pursuits. Which is why I found Deborah Chester's recent blog post, Setting on the Run, so encouraging: she talks about two ways of introducing setting that won't bore the pants off readers.

Weaving Setting Into Narrative


To recap. The problem is that a storyteller must describe setting even though doing so will slow the pace; and slowing the pace isn't the best thing to do at the beginning of a story when we're trying to hook a reader's interest. 

Deborah Chester puts it this way: "Description is notoriously slow going. It basically puts the action on 'pause' while the author inserts whatever details of the locale are deemed important."

Here are DC's two solutions to this problem:

1. The Dominant Impression


DC writes:

"Now, I was trained to use dominant impression when describing a place or person. Dominant impression is simply selecting the primary detail or information that you most want the reader to absorb and focusing on that in a brief, vivid paragraph."

I looked around for an example of this and finally chose the following. It doesn't describe a physical characteristic, but it does describe an aspect of character:

"I don't call people for help. It's not because of the way I was raised, at least I don't think so; it's the way I was made. Johanna once said that if I was drowning at Dark Score Lake, where we have a summer home, I would die silently fifty feet out from the public beach rather than yell for help. It's not a question of love or affection. I can give those and I can take them. I feel pain like anyone else. I need to touch and be touched. But if someone asks me, 'Are you all right?' I can't answer no. I can't say help me." (Bag of Bones, Stephen King)

2. Deborah Chester's Method


DC says the following is effective in fantasy, but I think it generalizes to other genres.

a. Tell "readers where they are--for example Dickensian London or the fire pits of Ustan."


b. Plunge "the viewpoint character into immediate trouble–either in scene action, conflict, or peril" and present "the dialogue and character reactions true to their particular locale."


Why this works:

"The reader, reading quickly to stay with the story action, has to keep up, orient himself to the locale, and envision the kind of place where characters would speak and behave in this particular manner." DC comments that this method of introducing setting is "quick, engaging, and anything but boring. Avoid the temptation to explain and embroider. Give it a try, and see how it works for you.

DC recommends "The Anubis Gates" by Tim Powers as a book with examples of this technique.

Question: How do you communicate a sense of place quickly and effectively?

Photo credit: "Sunrise under scrutiny" by Loco Steve under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, March 7

The Importance of Setting In Writing A Murderously Good Mystery

The Importance of Setting In Writing A Murderously Good Mystery


Today I continue talking about murderously good mysteries and how to write them.

The Five Elements: Milieu, Victim, Murderer, Suspects, Detectives



"The detective story has five elements — the milieu, the victim, the murderer, the suspects, the detectives."

I want to look at each of these in turn but that's going to take a while so, for today, let's start with a murder mystery's milieu.

Milieu


a. The Society/Setting must be closed.


I think that what W.H. Auden meant by "society" was, in practical terms, the sum total of characters that would have to be taken into consideration when solving the murder. One's pool of suspects.

Small suspect pool. When Auden writes that the society must be closed he means that, in selecting the setting, we need to pick something that will limit the number of people who could have committed the murder; that is, limit the number of suspects we'll have to deal with.

For example, in Agatha Christie's Murder at the Vicarage the society would be everyone in the village of St. Mary Mead where the murder took place. The suspects are those who had, or could have had, the means, motive and opportunity to kill the victim, Colonel Lucius Protheroe.

One murderer. In addition to having a relatively small suspect pool it must also be clear that the murderer is one of the people in the society you set up.  Auden writes that what the murder mystery writer needs to avoid is any possibility the murderer comes from outside the society. For example, it wouldn't do for the murderer to be someone on a road trip from London who killed the Colonel for kicks and then drove back to London. 

It must be clear from the beginning that one of the people in the society (in the case of my example, the village of St. Mary Mead) must have committed the crime. The only question is: who?

By the way, it doesn't have to be just one murderer, but the principle of parsimony applies and if the evidence doesn't suggest more than one murderer was at work, it's likely best not to complicate matters. On the other hand, as time goes on it may appear that there was more than one murderer. In several of Agatha Christie's books it turned out this was the case but she tended to use this as a twist near, or at, the end of the tale.

Every character within the society should have multiple connections with every other member.


Characters, like people, aren't islands unto themselves; each character has--or should have--multiple connections to every other character. This raises certain questions: i) what kind of connections and ii) how are they relevant to the murder (many connections probably wouldn't be) and iii) how will the sleuth discover them?

Kind of connections. Auden writes that everyone in the society should be closely related either by family ties, by geography (a small village such as St. Mary Mead), by occupation (they all work at the same company or go to the same lodge) or by happenstance (happen to be trapped in an aeroplane together). 

Relevance and discoverability. Each and every character should be a potential suspect, but the detective might have to dig a bit; do some research, interview a few characters; to figure out the exact nature of the connection between the suspect and the victim and whether it's relevant to the murder.

In the beginning, the members of the group--the society--will first appear to be strangers to each other, but the sleuth will discover they have many interesting, intimate (and possibly scandalous) connections with each other.

Examples:
- Group of relatives (Auden gives the examples of the Christmas dinner at the country house).
- Geography keeping people together; a small rural village, a college campus, a military academy.
- A group of people who work together. Auden suggests a theatre company, but it could also be a band, choir, writers' convention, and so on.
- A group isolated by technology: an airplane, a train, an RV, and so on.

b. Nothing bad ever happens here.


Auden writes that:

"Nature should reflect its human inhabitants, i.e., it should be the Great Good Place; for the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of murder. The country is preferable to the town, a well-to-do neighborhood (but not too well-to-do-or there will be a suspicion of ill-gotten gains) better than a slum. The corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because, even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing room carpet." (Auden)

The setting should be unsullied by murder. The society should be such that murder is ... well, if not unthinkable, then very very unlikely. A nunnery, academia, the church choir. This way, when murder occurs, the crises is greater. If a murder were to occur, say, in the bad area of a big city late at night we wouldn't be as shocked than if it occurred in the middle of a play on a cruise ship in mid-afternoon.

Also, having the murder occur in a setting, a context, where murder is rare helps put pressure on the law to solve the crime in order that things can get back to normal. 

In addition, the law itself would be a disruptive influence, one that many would find unwelcome. This may be bad for the characters, but it's great for the storyteller because it's a source of conflict. Every character--even the (apparently) most blameless, most upright, is cast under the same pall of suspicion. This makes everyone--everyone except the murderer!--anxious to expose the murderer and get things back to the way they were.

Characters


Auden writes:

"The characters in a detective story should [...] be eccentric (aesthetically interesting individuals) and good (instinctively ethical) — good, that is, either in appearance, later shown to be false, or in reality, first concealed by an appearance of bad." 

In other words, it should, on the face of it, seem implausible that any of the suspects committed the murder. (If there is someone around who hated the victim then give them an ironclad alibi.)

As the murder mystery unfolds, those who seemed to have no motive will become serious contenders for the murder. Similarly, those who seemed most likely to commit the murder will be shown either not to have had the opportunity, or to have vastly different motives than it first appeared.

Thats it for today! It looks as though these posts have morphed into a series. In the next instalment I will look at what W.H. Auden--lifelong lover of murder mysteries that he was--had to say about what makes the perfect victim. In the meantime, good writing!

Photo credit: "Recreation" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

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.