Monday, January 23, 2012

Story World Matters: Part 1

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It's story world week on Novel Matters. Three articles examining three aspects of creating an organic story world for fiction that feels like real life.
I'm taking over the week and teaching some of the basics. I hope this will touch off a series of questions, discussions, and contributions from each one of us. I offer these articles as starting points, things to consider and fiddle with as we write. I don't pretend to have all the answers or suggest that this is the only way to create story world. I know it works for me, and I offer these ideas up to you for your consideration.

Like all elements of fiction writing, story world is multifarious. Meaning, it isn’t one thing, but a composite of techniques, perspectives, and aspects of the writing craft, which are also multifaceted.

Story world is exactly what it says it is: the world in which your characters live, breathe, and have their meaning. It includes the setting, but is much larger and complex than setting alone. It is the world you create in order to express your characters. Story world “shows” (demonstrates) your hero’s personal growth as it morphs and changes throughout the story.

In this way, writing fiction is the opposite of real life. John Truby puts it this way, “In good stories, the characters come first, and the writer designs the world to be an infinitely detailed manifestation of those characters.”

The key here is “manifestation of those characters.” Story world isn’t separate from your characters. It isn’t a rigid space that existed before your characters came into existence. The space your story takes place in (a house, a town, a city, a jungle) represents your characters. And it changes as your characters change.

Where do you begin building your story world for your characters? It starts by knowing exactly what kind of story you are writing. I’m not referring to genre. I’m talking about story structure, the bones of the kind or type of story you want to tell and how you want to tell it.

This is a difficult step that will take a great deal of time to work out. I’m against formulas in fiction writing as a rule, but I will offer you this “formula” for puzzling out how to decide story structure because it is an organic one rather than paint by numbers.

Story structure is: Story process + original execution.

Story process refers to the type of story you are telling (love story, fairy tale, coming of age, dystopian, journey, fish out of water, myth, masterpiece, etc). Original execution refers to the unique way you will tell the story.

Here are some examples of this formula:

The Time Traveler’s Wife: A time traveler learns to love his wife and leave a legacy for his child knowing he will die at age 43. (Story process: love story. Original execution: he is a time traveler, plus the ticking clock of his approaching death)

The fact that The Time Traveler’s Wife is a love story means that the story world is largely made up of man-made, indoor spaces where people are thrown together in intimate ways. Apartment, house, crowded bars, even the library where he worked. He moves from man-made space to man-made space and each move is more claustrophobic than the last. Only the sprawling meadow (a natural arena that juxtaposes the man-made arenas in the rest of the book) by Clair’s childhood home provides a utopia for Henry. There, he falls in love and becomes a man. This made it all the more poignant when Henry meets his demise in the meadow.

Notice the amount of detail that went into creating this shifting, intimate, and yet menacing world? The story world expressed Henry, not the other way around.

Let the Great World Spin: A single moment in history is the catalyst for tragedy and hope, expressing humanity’s irrevocable connectedness. (Story process: Allegory/myth hybrid. Original execution: bringing diverse and seemingly unconnected characters together inside a defining moment in history.)

Story world: New York City, beginning in the heart of Manhattan, and spidering out into the various boroughs.

The story world in this novel is overly familiar: New York City. McCann takes the city and creates a series of enclosed spaces where the characters live out their disconnection (a hovel apartment in a dangerous neighborhood, a space under a bridge, a sweeping Central Park apartment, cabin, an institutional home for the physically impaired), crowned by the space below, and around the World Trade Center buildings.

Here’s and example from John Truby’s book The Anatomy of Story:

It’s a Wonderful Life: Express the power of the individual by showing what a town, and a nation, would be like if one man had never been born. (Story process: dystopia to utopia= fairy tale. Original execution: An angel shows George two versions of his small town.)

Story world: Two different versions of the same small town in America.

Because the structure of It’s a Wonderful Life is a fairy tale, it requires a kingdom in which the characters live and our hero rules over (in this case a small town). And, because the original execution is two towns, every element of the first kingdom had to have a contrasting element in the second version (which also had a different “king”, the banker Mr. Potter). No detail could be missed, from the buildings, to the town’s name, to the weather, to the moon overhead.

Your story world is no less detailed.

Detailed and limited. You need to erect boundaries around your story world. The drama of your novel will take place inside of these “walls” (even if there are no walls at all—State of Wonder, Ann Patchett’s latest release takes place in outdoor spaces, first the streets of a city, then the jungle). When you think of your novel, you need to think in terms of contained space. Where are the boundaries of your story? Is it a town, a city, an island, a house, a boat, a shoreline, a hut, a jungle, etc.? Then, within those boundaries, you will create secondary spaces (rooms with in a house, a house within a city, a campsite within a forest, etc).

If your story structure requires multiple worlds (for example: Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, Pleasantville, etc.) you must connect the worlds in some fashion. My newly completed manuscript takes place on an island off the East coast, but I have a man-made space on the mainland that I need to include in my story world (it symbolizes futile attempts to attain wellbeing outside of the character’s organic story world); therefore I used the system of ferry service as a bridge between the two worlds. That meant that I needed scenes on the ferry, and that the ferry itself be organically part of the larger story world.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, a brief introduction to the topic of story world. There is a great deal more to consider based on the specific story structure you will use, and the original execution you will employ. We’ll explore further in part two, coming on Wednesday.

For now, the key take away is that the world your characters live in is a manifestation of those characters.

Thoughts? Also, feel free to ask any questions or for clarification. I’ll do my best to engage with your ideas and ponderings and together, we might come up with something helpful.


Patti Hill said...

Bonnie, can we think of our homes as a demonstration our personal story world? That is, if we lived in a novel. Just for illustration.

My home is so very different than five, ten, fifteen years ago. Not because of a change in my circumstances, but because of a change in me. I'm de-cluttering, I'm okay with a fraying sofa and mismatched appliances, and while the essentials of housekeeping get done, eventually, I'm more interested in receiving folks with open arms than operating room sterility. I'm changing and so is my house.

Bonnie Grove said...

Patti: I love that analogy. Our homes do change as we grow older, have children, raise them, set up a home office in the living room (ahem....maybe that's just me), become comfortable in our own skin.

An excellent example of a house as the story world that changes with the characters as the story progresses is Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Also, Meet Me in St. Louis. Both of these stories have deeply organic story worlds, incorporating seasons, weather, technology, open and closed spaces (and in the case of Housekeeping, even dogs) to create a shifting world that changes with the characters.

Steve G said...

The world has this important element, yet it usually remains "almost" out of sight - like the bridesmaids to the bride, or the basement foundation to the house. They surround and support, yet their role is to point to the main character(s). I suppose they should often be awarded the best supporting actor award, per se.

Your post has got me thinking about the story world much more. Because I think in pictures, i tend to see the worlds of the books (much more than the details of the characters, usually). As a reader, this actually helps me dig a bit deeper in the book, to not focus just on the action, but the environment.

Great post.

Marian said...

I had that talk with my heroine and my villain last week and they convinced me I had them stuck in the wrong story doing things they didn't have their heart set on. They are the victims of my rigid paint-by-number plotting. So I am thinking of freeing them from that story.
If I'm reading you correctly, I have to know the story type, story process and story world and then let the whole thing evolve organically. Sounds more exciting then what I have been doing. Do I have to know all the main characters right from the beginning?

Bonnie Grove said...

Marian: You always add such great personal insight to Novel Matters. Thank you for that.

To answer your question about characters from the onset of development/writing: I doubt any writer has set about to write a novel and really knew every character that would eventually appear. Maybe, but it seems doubtful to me.

My experience has been that I tend to know the main character, and the main opponent at the outset, plus a few of the secondary characters. Others tend to pop up (or change) as I plan and write.

For example, in my recently completed novel, I began knowing Joan would be the main character, Fish the main opponent (that does not necessarily mean 'bad guy'), and I had the main character for the subplot. So, three people. As I planned the novel I had the most interesting experience. I was picturing my subplot character Hank sitting at his favorite watering hole, Finnegan's. I'm picturing the bar, the tables, the people sitting around, the conversation. All sudden this woman appears. She's behind the bar, obviously works there, but she's too old to be a bar tend, she must be the owner. Fantastic!

She starts talking to Hank. Saucy, familiar, intimate banter, she's hard as nails with a heart of flesh. Who IS this woman? I LOVE her!

The whole short scene played out like an audition. As if an actor appeared to read for a part I hadn't known was in the story. She blew me away and I "hired" her on the spot. She became the heart of the subplot and one of my favorite characters in the novel (which is saying a great deal since this is an ensemble story brimming with quirky characters that made me laugh and fall in love over and over again).

And I hadn't even known about her for months as I was planning!

Planning, I think, means looking ahead with a plan and the knowledge that the plan should and will change as you go.

Marian said...

Thanks for all that. It makes sense. By the way, you just sold me on your book.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Yes, thank you for mentioning the house in Housekeeping as story world. And Patti, we must be on the same page - a comfortable, lived in house can stand on its own.

sadie crandle said...

Fantastic post. I look forward to the rest!