Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Story World Matters: Part II

The takeaway from Part 1 of this series was that the world your characters live in is a manifestation of those characters. So, if we create a story world that reveals our characters, does that mean it should rain every time the hero is upset?

Please no.

Characters are complex—meaning they are layered, sometimes contrary, and able to hide truth from themselves. Story world personifies the complexity of your characters over the course of the novel. It’s the ground they stand on, and the wind up their kilt. It’s the dark alley of oppression, and warm house of acceptance. The buildings, weather, land mass, and even the technology inside the story world is organically linked to the characters in such a way that it reveals meaning, themes, and plot.

For example, in my completed manuscript A Girl Named Fish, my hero, Joan, lives on a fictional dystopian island. The story structure is fairy tale, so that means the island is Joan’s kingdom. I emphasize this point by giving Joan and her husband, Leif, an apartment above the chandlery shop they own. This serves as Joan’s ‘high tower’, the place in which she eavesdrops on the world without fully engaging. I crafted a scene near the beginning of the novel in which Joan stands in front of her open window and overhears two women on the street below talking about her. Later, when a girl calling herself Fish enters this rarified space, it is altered. Near the end of the novel, there is another scene where Joan overhears two women talking about her, but the high tower has been transformed.

My island in A Girl Named Fish is fictional, but novels often borrow a real location as their setting. The difference is, when you borrow a real place, let’s say Las Vegas, you make it into your Las Vegas. You craft it’s places and give meaning to it’s buildings, attractions, and streets. It’s motels are as corrupt and gritty as your undercover cop hero, or casinos as glamorous and sparkling as your beauty pageant character, or its neighborhoods as cloistered and manicured as your falsely perfect characters who allow themselves to be blinded by the high fences around their houses that keep truth out.

You take the real place and mold it into a familiar, yet utterly unique place that pulses, shifts, and changes with your characters. You create a world that is a revelation. The city itself reveals a moral truth of humanity. And yes, you do this even with historical fiction. Every place in history has a few nooks and crannies you can realistically use, bend, invent to create the exact story world you need to tell the story.


Remember the adage Fiction is conflict? That isn’t just plot advice. It’s important to crafting all aspects of fiction, including story world. Your story world expresses the conflicts between characters in physical ways.

This means that in order to create an organic story world, you need to understand the web of conflict between characters. In simple stories like romance novels, there is a hero (the POV character) and an opponent (the person the POV character falls in love with), with the rest of the cast of characters there to make tea when the POV character cries. More complex stories are ones that have multiple characters in opposition to the hero and to each other. Every character is a reflection a different way of understanding the hero’s moral issue. Your story world will reflect the conflict.

For example, in The Great Gatsby, there is an initial conflict between the open spaces of the Midwest, and the elegant closed-ness of the city, including its mansions. There is the East Egg (established wealth), and the West Egg (new money). Gatsby is newly rich by illegal means, and his home is gaudy and ill appointed compared to the homes of the less recently rich. Later, the mansions add layers of conflict by introducing the gas station where we find Tom’s mistress. And New York City, by the end, has morphed into a beast, a monster, green and vile. All of these aspects of story world combine to support and diagram the deeper conflict found in the novel. The conflict between people, ideas, systems, and ideologies are all manifest in the story world.

Notice how the physical world in The Great Gatsby not only reflects conflict between characters, but also conflict of values. The values held by your hero (more about that in part 3), and how they are in opposition to the values held by other characters and the systems that entrap each one. Your story world supports and manifests the various conflicts of values found in the story.

In Alice Hoffman’s epic novel The Dovekeepers, the story world is Masada, King Herod’s abandoned desert fortress where 960 Jews chose to die by their own hands rather than be taken hostage by Rome. The novel is a study in conflict. Three women come to Masada from different places (open spaces) and work together in the dovecotes (closed spaces). Masada is a fortress against the gathering Roman army on the desert floor below, and inside Masada there are opulent rooms where leaders reside, and cramped, dark stables where poor families live. And there are hidden places deep within the mountain where magic spells are pronounced and women give birth to illegitimate children in secret. Each space inside Masada highlights the conflict between characters (the cave on the side of the mountain where the Essenes hide away from the “unclean” Jews above, the cistern that runs nearly dry, the dovecotes where a woman and a captured slave are thrown together. All these aspects combine to highlight the shifting alliances and increasingly dangerous conflicts.

The spaces in The Dovekeepers reflect the conflict of values found among diverse yet devout people. They highlight the religious, economic, class, and ideological conflicts, and hold them in tension with the terrible deeds that take place in the open (the desert) in the name of survival.

The general rule is the greater the conflict between characters, the smaller the space should be that contains the conflict. Great stories always have their great, final battle take place inside the smallest spaces in the story. This works best when the entire story before the final battle has made structural use of story world to help tell the story. (Don’t be confused by the term “battle” this refers to whatever form major conflict takes, it doesn’t refer exclusively to combat or fighting.)

The take home is that your story world is the physical manifestation of your character’s conflicts.

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.


Susie Finkbeiner said...

Yes. Yes. This makes perfect sense. As I ready myself for the writing of novel #2 I'm finding this week to be EXTREMELY helpful.

Thank you, Bonnie!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Reading The Dovekeepers.

Wow. Such insight here today. You've got my brain cogs churning to life. I'm thinking about every novel I've ever read and measuring it against this space theory. Talk about brain food!
~ Wendy

Bonnie Grove said...

Susie: I'm a little relieved that these posts are making sense. It's been unusually quiet on the blog--but I'm hoping that is because the posts are providing something useful to think about and ponder. Fingers crossed. Very glad you are finding these helpful.

Wendy: I'd love to know your thoughts on The Dovekeepers when you're finished, Wendy. Do you have my email?
Yay for brain food! Believe me, they are brain food for me too. I'm starting to work on a new novel and writing these articles is helping.

Debra E. Marvin said...

Great examples Bonnie. I like to think of setting as a character, and for what I'm writing it's very important. I appreciate these posts (yes, I'm reading along with the rest of the quiet lurkers)

Bonnie Grove said...

Debra: We love quiet lurkers. Story world is very much about setting. It also takes into account all the spaces inside the setting, the weather, technology, open and closed spaces, and all the other details and connects them organically to your characters.

Thanks so much for your great thoughts!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Not sure I have your email, Bonnie.

Mine is millerct1{at}cox{dot}net.

Would love to discuss this book & others.

Your FB status updates crack me up!
~ Wendy

Megan Sayer said...

Bonnie I'm loving this too!
After I read it last night (because it IS nice knowing when things will turn up) I grabbed Gatsby off the shelf again. It must be about ten years since I read it last (and I've read it a few times) but your unpacking of it's story-world made it come alive!
Not only is the prose so sumptious (makes me long for books to be written that well again) and the characterisation so rich, I'm LOVING this whole symbolism between the traditional East Egg and all the people who long for Gatsby's parties in the West Egg. Awesome!
Thanks so much. Love your work!!!

Marian said...

This is rich.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

This is very deep! I'm totally impressed by your braininess. I'm sorry that my own un-brainy brain is too tired to come up with anything more intelligent to add to the conversation. Just wanted to let you know that I'm reading and enjoying. :-)

... Oh, and I love the fairytale structure of your story and how you've used the apartment as a "high tower" - seriously cool! You know I'll be pre-ordering this book the second it appears, right? :-)

Marti Pieper said...

I feel like Charlie in the Peanuts cartoon. He, Lucy, and Linus are flat on their backs, watching the clouds:

Lucy: If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud formation...What do you think you see, Linus?

Linus: Well, those clouds up there look to me like the map of the British Honduras in the Caribbean....That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor...and that group of clouds over there gives me the impression of the stoning of Stephen...I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side....

Lucy: Uh huh...That's very good... What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?

Charlie Brown: Well, I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie, but I changed my mind.

I won't post my comments about the ducky and the horsie. But you do have me thinking. And thinking--thinking is good.

Even for Charlie Browns like me.

Bonnie Grove said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve G said...

In Star Wars 4 - Luke's final battle is in the narrow trenches of the Death Star, and Obi Wan battles Vader in that tiny room off the huge hanger. In number 6 pilots are flying in this incredible tight maze to try to blow up the second Death Star while Luke battles Vader and the Emperor in the room and finally on a small catwalk.

How does one incorporate this into one's writing? Do you do that as you go along, or after the first draft is done and you are going back doing the weeding and pruning? A bit of both?

Bonnie Grove said...

Wendy: Thanks.

Megan: It has been helpful to me to reread works I know well and look for story world details, just as you have with Gatsby. It helps, too when you realize that you KNOW this stuff on a gut level. When we start talking about it, teasing out separate components it can get heady.

Marian: :)

Karen: Thanks for your vote of confidence! I sure hope to be able to tell you when the book will be available. I'm living the "pinch me" moments of knowing several amazing publishers are reading my work this week-ish and making decisions. YAY!

Marti: Just that fact that you up pulled that wonderful comic strip up and shared it with us proves your ideas far above horsie and ducky.

I'm glad people are finding something to chew on in these articles. Part 3 is Friday, and I'll be asking a question tomorrow to see how many people would like to join me on a teaching conference call to discuss this further. If you're interested, hold off until tomorrow and I'll be collecting numbers. I would need 15 or so minimum to make it work.

Ucheri said...

Great posts. I totally agree your article is very deep! As I follow and learn I just have a question.

Apart from those you've mentioned (Allegory/myth hybrid, Fairy tale, love story) What are the other kinds of story structure ?

To be clear, would I be right to consider horror story, paranormal story, or supernatural story as story structure /process? Also could you mention some others.

Bonnie Grove said...

Ucheri: Horror, paranormal, and supernatural are all genres (or sub genres). They have certain plot beats that must be present in the story in order to be considered of the genre. The story structure, however is different. Horror is often based on gothic structure which comes out of old dark fairy tales that tried to teach women to be pure (in horror, women who abstain from sex, and are nice and innocent are spared, while bad girls who have sex and aren't "nice" are given their just reward (in today's horror stories that means they are killed).

Paranormal can be understood as genre in a loose sense, but it is often used in hybrids. It gets partnered with romance often (thus follows a love story structure).

Here is the key to creating a unique structure regardless of what genre you are writing in: erect the scaffolding of your story so that it reflects the movement of the hero through the entire story.

Don't think of story structure as a template that you must adhere to, think of it instead as the tools you use to build a story in connection to your hero and your characters that makes the story unique.