For anyone joining me here having skipped the Introduction to the Chronicles in Creation; I start this, the most theory-driven part of the series, with the following disclaimer – Please do not mistake me for a Qualified Person who Knows Things.
This and its following two sections are based on my own writing ethos built up over years of reading books, watching film and tv, and writing… well, just generally writing everything I wanted to try out. Like anyone who is self-taught in an area, I have done lots of research, then thought long and hard about why some things work for me and others don’t.
You may feel that what I am about to outline as the theory under-pinning my world-building is flawed or just out-right wrong. You may find that it doesn’t work for you at all. That’s totally fine!
Now I swore when I started this series that I wasn’t going to go on and on into long discussions about what my philosophy on writing was. On the other hand, if you are interested enough to read this series, then I’m sorry but it probably won’t make sense without going through a few basics, the gravel at the bottom of my foundation trenches, one might say, first.
So, when I told my friends (who have very patiently been living with me and my stories for far longer than the internet has, poor souls) that I was writing this blog series, the first response that came up several times was, ‘No, don’t give away your plot! You can’t spoiler your novel before you write it!’
Or words to that effect.
Also, can we get a ruling on whether ‘to spoiler’ has become a verb yet?
Now of course world-building (or setting as we’re calling it from now on for ease) and plot have plenty to do with each other but they are also not interchangeable. I know that the plot is the part that people remember and talk about first, but I can see from listening and reading about audiences’ responses to films and books that sometimes it’s easy to mistake setting-based issues for plot-based ones. You know that plot you’ve seen which just doesn’t seem to fit together properly as you’re experiencing it? You just couldn’t buy into it, and all you could see where the parts that didn’t fit together correctly, not the things that legitimately worked?
The good news is that the problem might not have been the plot at all. At least half the time, it’s got a lot to do with having the wrong setting.
The Holy Trinity of Narrative
So before I dive right into deep concerns about what kind of plants can become dryads and such, I wanted to talk a little about why I think setting is the neglected child in the narrative family and why we need to love it more and understand its purpose in the world (and why if you get it wrong it can ruin your plot by stealth as revenge.)
Next time, we’ll look at the flip-side; why setting and plot are not the same, and why you should not try to use your super-awesome setting as a plot.
Again, I promise you faithfully we are not going to do theory stuff too often in this series, and I fully acknowledge my lack of formal teaching and that these theories are entirely based on my own ideas and empirical evidence. Do not take them too seriously, ok?
So here we introduce The Holy Trinity of Narrative; Plot, Characters and Setting. Cutting things right down to their very basics:
The Plot is the reason we are here, why we are reading the story or watching the film. Everything else in the work needs to support it and push it forwards. If the other two start to conflict outright with the plot or fight to take the attention away from the plot, the whole thing falls apart (you know that book where all the characters are way more interesting than the plot they were following? Or that movie that everyone agrees looked fantastic but absolutely everything else about it was terrible?).
The Characters are why we care about the plot. Their motivations drive it, their struggles are what it needs to overcome for us to feel satisfied by it, and the lessons they learn are what we relate to. Movies especially tend to suffer from weak characters pulled around by the plot, instead of having strong(er) characters pushing the plot forwards with their developed and relevant motivations. ‘Because the plot says so’ is a quick way to get through your first draft, not the final product meant to produce a memorable and worthwhile story. I absolutely cannot stress enough that the audience only cares if the characters care. That is the only way you can have any remote sense of tension in your narrative at all. We don’t have to agree with them, we just have to know that the characters really want (or don’t want) the things that the plot needs them to achieve (or avoid).
NB: If any of you are interested, we’ll come back to this when discussing Plot Contrivances, ok? Let me know in the comments.
Setting is often thought of as the backdrop against which all of this happens and therefore can be seen as the least important of the three. I personally would argue that setting is unimportant like seasoning your food is unimportant – you could eat food with no seasoning and it would be totally edible and whatnot, but something would be notably missing.
In the same way, you can absolutely have a story with a good plot and relatable characters and no real, concrete mention of any setting whatsoever and it could potentially work, but it’s still not going to have the depth, interest and/or believability as a tale where there is some kind of setting established.
It doesn’t even take very much; here’s a couple of quick examples:
- ‘Once upon a time, far, far away, there lived a boy.’
- ‘Once upon a time, so long ago that water ran up hill instead of down, and so far away that the clouds touch the sea, and the trees prop the sky up, there lived a boy.’
- ‘In 1973, in New York City, there lived a boy.’
So the first one is a traditional way to give your story a setting; it’s taking place in a fairy-tale land of make-believe and need not be taken even a little seriously. Sadly it’s also not very interesting and makes clear that the setting (or world) of this story is in no way interesting to the narrator or the audience. It’s taking place in the land of Who Knows, Who Cares? This is a hold-over from the days when stories were told as a way of teaching a lesson. The story and the characters are not the important parts, the lesson is the only important thing for people to remember. Which is all well and good, but story-telling has moved on. This method is also a last-survivor from the times of an almost-exclusively oral story-telling tradition in which the rules are as totally different as those between, say, an opera and a film, and correspondingly some things simply do not translate.
The second one actually added a sense of there being a world that this story is taking place in; there’s a quantification for how long ago (apparently so long ago, we hadn’t invented gravity yet) and so far away that we’ve hit the edge of the metaphorical map and the sky is joining up with the horizon. It’s also setting up the world for the reader to show that the narrator isn’t going to take themselves too seriously here, that there is some form of humour inherent in the narrative and that the normal rules of nature don’t apply with its upwards-flowing rivers and sky-propping trees. So if we also meet a talking horse or a band of singing and dancing chrysanthemums, well, we’re not going to question it. The narrator has told us that anything is possible and logic can be firmly checked in at the door and don’t question this.
And the final one is the most specific; this story apparently is taking place in this world, in the recent past, and is presumably supposed to have actually happened. The upside is that such specific details mean that the audience is more likely to place actual credence in the story, treat it like it’s real and whatnot. The downside is that the narrator now cannot make up the rules on a whim; they have established that this is a real point in time, in a real place and if they now wish to throw in a stampede of wingéd unicorns, they are going to have to justify that nonsense and fast. Everyone knows unicorns don’t have wings!
Place a narrative in the wrong setting and the entire plot can fall apart in seconds. Don’t believe me?
The film Titanic (yes, I know, obvious example but work with me) is set in 1912, the year of the ship’s maiden voyage. Therefore the technological restriction need no explanation, we’re not expecting anyone on-board to whip out a mobile phone and call for help, for example; this does not need to be justified. Nor are we all that surprised to hear that a well-dressed white woman is being married off against her wishes by her father to a rich guy. This is 1912, women do not have the vote, or independent income and their fathers rule their lives until marriage when this role is taken over by their husbands (there were exceptions, yes I know but this is movie-world where we deal in trends not outliers). James Cameron did not need to justify this beyond, ‘We need the money, daughter’ and the audience goes with it.
Now contrast that to trying to sink a ship with hundreds of people on-board in 2016. Communications technology is much better, as are the navigation devices which can detect (among other things) icebergs, and if the romantic subplot opens with a man marrying his daughter to some rich douchebag for money just because it’s his right to do so? Yeah, nothing about that set-up is believable at all. The audience is going to have some really big questions and no small amount of scepticism which will pull them right out of the story, make them question everything else about it, and ruin the whole thing.
So the moral of the story is this; love your setting and give it the thought it deserves, or its revenge will come in the night and devour all that was good and precious in your work!
Missed Chapter 1 in this series? Go here to catch up.