Another Fine Mess.
There is no answer to boredom. -- Katherine Fullerton Gerould
No one will read your story if he/she is bored. So one of the first problems of a fiction writer is to make the story interesting. It must be interesting to the writer (else he will not complete it) and it must be interesting to the reader (else he will not complete it). Since reader interests vary widely, and in particular may differ from your own, this may seem a shot in the dark, a pig in the poke, a bird in the bush, a vote for… You get the picture. But while there is no royal road to story-writing, there may some commoner footpaths.
A story usually presents either a Decision to be Made or a Problem to be Solved. These define two distinct kinds of fictions, sometimes said to be distinguished by having a Story Line or a Plot Line, respectively.
One day, Jimmy decided he would drive the family car to St. Louis.
Okay, we know who has set out to accomplish what. But it’s not very interesting. Why would anyone read any further? So, how about:
As the dust from the meteor strike began settling over the ruins of Denver, Jimmy decided he had better take the family car and high-tail it to St. Louis before the engine became choked with grit.
That’s better. He's high-tailing it, not merely driving. We not only know the Situation (drive to St. Louis) but we know why it’s Important. Now try this:
As the dust from the meteor strike began settling over the ruins of Denver, Jimmy decided he had better take the family car and high-tail it to St. Louis before the engine became choked with grit. But first he had to tie wooden blocks to his sneakers so his feet could reach the pedals.
Wait. He’s a kid? Why is he driving the family car? Where are his parents? WTF’S GOING ON HERE?
The Beginning is that portion of the Story in which the Main Narrative Problem is set out (the Story Situation) and its plausibility justified (the Explanatory Matter). The Beginning is however long this takes. It ought to be done rather briskly, but for Stories of Decision, could encompass the bulk of the Story! In The Lord of the Rings, the Main Story Problem – can Frodo destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom? – does not emerge until the Council of Elrond; and (speaking of rings) we don’t learn about the Ringworld until chapter six of that novel. (Well, technically we don’t. The title was kind of a hint.)
There are two basic kinds of Situations:
- Story of Accomplishment: Some feat to be accomplished. The Situation is called a Story Purpose. These are said to have a Plot Line.
- Story of Decision: Some course of conduct to be chosen. The Situation is called a Story Problem. These are said to have a Story Line.
Most popular fictions are Stories of Accomplishment. Much of literary fiction consists of Stories of Decision. Readers of the former often complain that in the latter “nothing happens.” Readers of the latter scoff at the former because there is often little character development. But an interesting plot can make up for ordinary characters; and interesting characters can make up for an ordinary plot. It’s a matter of emphasis. Superior stories do both.
In laying out the Story Situation, the author presents happenings that make clear to the reader that the Situation calls upon the Chief Actor to engage at once in action. This is often triggered by a force outside the personality of the Chief Actor that knocks him “off track.”
- Ancient Shores (Jack McDevitt). A North Dakota farmer unearths a buried sailboat made of a substance unknown to modern science and knocks Max Collingwood, a family friend, and April Cannon, a chemist he hires, out of their ruts.
- Jumper (Steven Gould). When his abusive father begins to beat him with a belt buckle, Davy Rice discovers he can teleport himself out of harm’s way.
- Lest Darkness Fall (L. Sprague deCamp). A lightning bolt knocks Martin Padway, an archeologist, out of modern (then, 1930s) Rome into the Gothic Italy of the Sixth Century.
- Ringworld (Larry Niven). Nessus, a Pierson’s Puppeteer, visits the bored-with-life Louis Wu and knocks him out of his rut by promising a voyage beyond Known Space to investigate a strange artifact the puppeteers have discovered.
- Up Jim River (Michael Flynn). The
challenge by the harper to help her find her missing mother is the force
that knocks the scarred man out of his comfortable niche in the Bar of
Each of these triggers -- the farmer's excavation, the abusive father, the lightning bolt, the Pierson's Puppeteer, et al. -- is external to the character of the Main Actor: to Max and April, Davy, Martin, Louis, and Donovan buigh.
Similarly, the events of Madame Bovary are a chain reaction that started with Charles’ decision to become a doctor, something external to Emma’s character. In Booked to Die (Dunning), the murder of bookscout Bobby Westfall triggers a series of events in the personal and professional life of Denver cop Cliff Janeway. In Good Behavior (Donald Westlake), the kidnapping of a nun by a deprogrammer leads the convent to hire the hapless burglar John Dortmunder as rescuer. In The Daybreakers (Louis L’Amour) the attempt by Long Higgins to kill Orrin Sackett at his wedding sets Orrin and his brother Tyrel on the road west.
John Gardner suggested that there were two basic openings:
- a man goes on a trip
- a stranger comes to town
Both represent upheavals in the relationship of the Chief Actor and his environment, one outward-directed, the other inward. The Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkein) begins by setting Frodo on a trip. The January Dancer (Flynn) begins when a stranger (the harper) comes into the Bar of Jehovah and questions the scarred man. The trip may be physical or representational; the stranger may be human or physical (such as an epidemic)
Gardner also recommends the omniscient voice which, while still common in mainstream and literary fiction is little used in genre writing.
Write the opening of a novel using the authorial-omniscient voice, making the authorial omniscience clear by going into the thoughts of one or more characters after establishing the voice. As subject, use either a trip or the arrival of a stranger (some disruption of order—the usual novel beginning).-- John Gardner, “The Art of Fiction” (1984)
This Story Situation puts the Chief Actor at odds with some element of his Environment.
- The Chief Actor may be singular (Davy in Jumper) or plural (the harper and the scarred man in Up Jim River). Plural actors may have plural problems. The harper must find her mother. The scarred man must come to terms with his split personalities.
- The Environment includes
- the physical setting,
- the human interactions (moral, social, cultural) within that setting,
- and the atmosphere
(emotional mood) of the setting.
Meredith and Fitzgerald, in Structuring Your Novel, list ten ways to place your Chief Actor in conflict with his environment. They are not mutually exclusive and while a short story might employ one, a novel might employ two or more. Logically, since the Actor was previously in harmony with the Environment, either the Actor must change or the Environment must.
- A change in the environment. As Scout grows to school age in To Kill a Mockingbird her tomboy character comes into in conflict with her new more grown-up human interactions. The eruption of Yellowstone in Supervolcano: Eruption (Harry Turtledove) changes the physical environment of Colin Ferguson and his scattered family. The change need not be to a physical environment. In “Nano Comes to Clifford Falls” (Nancy Kress), the social fabric of life changes when nanotechnology becomes easily available.
the Chief Actor and placing him in a strange environment. Martin Padway is uprooted and dumped into Ostrogothic Italy in
Lest Darkness Fall. In Up
Jim River, Donovan buigh is uprooted from the Bar of
Jehovah. The eponymous Dr. Zhivago is uprooted from his
comfortable bourgeois life by the Russian Revolution. In City at World's End (Hamilton) an entire town is transferred to a far future in which the sun is dying.
- An environment in conflict with another environment. The Grapes of Wrath places the cultural environment of the migrant workers in conflict with that of the fruit growers. In Eifelheim (Flynn), the culture of the Krenken is in conflict with that of the German peasants.
- The Chief Actor wants to change an environment. The settlers in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy want to change the physical environment of Mars. Martin Padway in Lest Darkness Falls wants to stave off the Dark Age.
- The Chief Actor wants to conquer an environment. In G. David Nordley’s story “Into the Miranda Rift,” Wojciech Bubka and his fellow cavers/climbers set out to “climb” through Uranus’ moon Miranda, which is portrayed as a ball of rubble permeated with caves, cracks, and tunnels.
- The Chief
Actor wants to escape an environment. John Radkowsky and the crew in Mars Crossing (Geoffrey Landis) must win
free of Mars and return to Earth. Lois
McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan wants to escape his role as a Vor noble for a
life as a mercenary captain. Think, too, of Huckleberry Finn trying to escape the environment of Hannibal for the supposed freedom of life on the River.
environment that does not want the Chief Actor in it. Tom
Jones wants to be accepted by Sophie and Squire Allworthy; but society
rejects him as a bastard. Charlie Gordon
in “Flowers for Algernon” (Daniel Keyes) wants to be accepted by his co-workers
and does not realize at first that he is not.
(This is the opposite of #6, where the Actor wants out. Here, the Actor wants in.)
- An environment unsuited to the Chief Actor’s character. Lorenzo Smythe in Double Star (Robert A. Heinlein) is temperamentally unsuited to the environment of John Joseph Bonforte, a politician whose policies he detests.
- A change in the status quo of the Chief Actor within the environment. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch was in harmony with his small-town Southern environment until he decides to defend Tom Robinson, which brings him into conflict with it.
- A change in the status quo of the environment itself. In Guns of the South (Harry Turtledove), Robert E. Lee finds his environment changed by his acquisition of AK-47s from time-traveling South Africans.
Our favorite Situations. What Story Situations have left you curious to learn more, to learn how it would be resolved? What about the Situation aroused your curiosity? Did it fit into the framework of ten model Situations outlined above? What about multi-character tales in which different Actors face different Situations. Did multiple Situations leave you confused or interested (or both)?
Morgan of Hed had a crown under his bed, and it's so dusty you can't even see the jewels properly any more.ReplyDelete