Tag Archives: Harry Potter

Developing Your Novel’s Story World

J. R. R. Tolkien referred to the world of the faery-tale as the author’s sub-creation. The truth is, all fiction has a sub-created world, or ought to. Tolkien’s point is key, but before taking a closer look at the principle, we need to be clear about the term “story world.”

Writing instructor John Truby explains it this way:

Story world is one of the main structural elements in a good story, consisting of the society, the minor characters, the natural settings, the social settings and the technology of the time. (from “Downton Abbey: John Truby Analyzes the Writing Behind the TV Hit”)

Clearly, every story has a story world to one extent or another. Then are we simply talking about “setting,” the place and time during which the story occurs? Tolkien had something more in mind, and I think Truby would agree.

First, story world is more than lots of period furniture and clothing or time-appropriate architecture. Telling details are certainly important, but not in and of themselves. Rather, they are like dabs of paint on a canvas that eventually forms a picture. The dabs themselves are meaningless apart from how they interact with the other dabs and strokes. The absence or addition of a dab here or a dab there ought to change the picture.

For Tolkien the necessary element was “the inner consistency of reality.” Anyone could conceive of a green sun, for example, but to do so and to do nothing else with it was gimmicky. A world with strangeness and no inner consistency was underdeveloped. Instead, the writer as sub-creator needed to draw upon the ramifications of a green sun to the fiction world he was creating. The same is true for an engagement party, though, or missing car keys.

That inner consistency is evident in the story world of Downton Abbey. This British TV hit takes place in early twentieth century England, before, during, and after World War I.

The war itself is a perfect example of the show’s inner consistency of reality. Rather than existing as a surface element to move characters in and out of the main action (I read one book that used war in just that way), the war, as depicted by the writers in this show, changed relationships and affected society. Loved ones died or came back changed; some stepped up to meet the challenges and others exploited them. In other words, the war was an integral part of the story because it shaped the characters and influenced the action.

The Civil War serves the exact same purpose in Gone With The Wind. But not every story needs a war. The same kind of inner consistency of reality is evident in the Harry Potter stories. Myrtle the ghost was not mere window-dressing, for instance, but a key player in several of the books. So too the house elves, the portkey, the quiddich championship, and Hermione’s ability to go back in time. Each of those elements added texture to the world, but in turn they affected the way the story unfolded. In other words, they didn’t exist in a vacuum. Their existence affected the characters and the action.

Besides this inner consistency of reality, there are two other story world techniques available to authors. First, setting a story during a time of great social change naturally brings conflict to the story. These changes must naturally (if the story has consistency) affect the characters, thus creating an additional level of tension.

A good example of a story set in changing times is The Hope of Shridula by Kay Marshall Strom. The story takes place before, during, and after India’s struggle for independence from the British empire. The forces of change add another dimension to the struggles the characters already experience with economic hardship, caste struggles, religious struggles, and relational issues.

Another story world technique is to position the story in a closed system. Examples of such systems include the English class system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (when Downton Abbey took place), the pre-Civil War South, a military base during any time period, a boarding school, the Mafia, a religious convent. The system itself affords levels of conflict, whether individuals are fighting to maintain the system, to break free from it, or to bring it down. The Hope of Shridula also employs this advanced story world technique.

In summary, consistency is a must regardless of genre, if the story is to be a good one. In addition, an author may choose to situate the story during a time of social upheaval or to place it in a closed system. Both these techniques will add layers of conflict, provided the story has the inner consistency of reality.

Reblogged from an article first posted here in March 2012.

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Trends And Knowing What To Write

HP and the Goblet of Fire coverWhat creates a writing trend? Why, for example, did vampire stories proliferate? Why did urban fantasy become a craze? Why did young adult dystopian fiction become a hot commodity?

On the other hand, why were books about faeries rather short lived? Why didn’t pirate novels take off? Why did chick lit have a fairly short shelf life?

The truth is, no one really knows. No one predicted that a series about a boy wizard would become the phenomenal success the Harry Potter books turned out to be. Of course, once a book succeeds, some writers capitalize on the obvious reader interest and look to write something similar, only different, and a trend is born.

By the time most of us recognize a trend, however, it’s too late to join the party. Granted, the Christian market seems to be trailing behind the general market, so agents and editors in the latter may be saying they don’t want any more dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction, but the former is still interested in acquiring in those genres.

Having said that, it’s a pretty sure bet that a good number of authors have dystopian manuscripts with agents who sell to Christian publishers. In other words, someone who wants to begin a dystopian novel will most likely find by the time he has finished writing and revising that he is too late.

Published authors have the advantage of selling stories based on proposals, but new authors need to finish a book before trying to sell it. This fact alone makes it hard for someone starting out to get ahead of trends, or to arrive when they are hot.

Because of these realities, agents and editors at writing conferences will often answer trend questions by saying, write your passion. I’m sure they mean to be helpful. They know that trend chasing is a dead-end street, and they want to spare newer writers, but “write your passion” is so generic, it doesn’t serve as much of a guideline.

Here’s what agents and editors are looking for: they want something familiar repackaged in the guise of something new.

Harry Potter was, at its heart, a boarding-school story. But it was also a coming-of-age story and it was a story of sacrifice and of good triumphing over evil. And it was about magic. Each of those alone would not have been fresh or new (see Ursula Le Guin’s article “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists” reminding us that she wrote a story about a school for wizards). By bringing the threads together, J. K. Rowling created a new look, a fresh take on the familiar.

Stephenie Meyer did the same thing with her love triangle/vampire stories. The Twilight series gave readers a good vampire who became the love interest, not the villain. A heroine with two love interests who must decide between them is not a new story, and Anne Rice had been writing about vampires for years, but bringing the two threads together was fresh–was being the operative word.

You see, once it’s been done, doing it again will only feel like copying or “borrowing.”

The thing is, all writers borrow. The most repeated phrase in the writing world, I think, is that there are no new stories. So finding inspiration in what another writer has produced isn’t wrong. The problem comes in deriving that inspiration from something current or currently famous. Those are the stories that acquire the “derivative” label.

By “currently famous” I mean a work that has resurfaced as a popular book, such as Lord of the Rings. Although the books were well known and well read–famous–they became popular again after the first movie in the series came out. A book that now borrows from Lord of the Rings would be spotted at once–as if the veil had been pulled back, showing beneath the thin veneer of the author’s personal input, the original work. The contemporary writer, then, looks lazy at best, and at worst, like a cheat.

West Side Story2Other stories, such as any of Shakespeare’s plays, may be famous but not currently popular. Writers might find inspiration in any of those. Romeo and Juliet apparently was just such an inspiration for Arthur Laurents’s West Side Story (see “West Side Story”.

So what does that mean for a writer who wants to begin a new work? I think there are some specific guidelines that might be helpful.

1. Find inspiration from something that is not current or currently popular.

2. Put a new face on the story you want to tell.

3. Do so by reworking the story to fit the genre of your choice. West Side Story was a contemporary story about star-crossed lovers, not a remake of Shakespeare’s medieval tale.

4. Look for ways to twist the original. Seth Grahame-Smith did this with his mashup, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. (Mashups, by the way, became a short trend that quickly burned out).

5. Twists should be unexpected and uncommon. “The pauper orphan is in reality the lost prince” has become a predictable and common twist. What could be true about the pauper orphan instead? Love triangles have been done and redone, but perhaps there’s room for one more twist. What would be an uncommon element in a love triangle? Murder mysteries from Colombo to CSI have been told and retold. Is there some way to turn the basic story on its head one more time?

These are the guidelines an author should follow rather than chasing existing trends. Hopefully she’ll be passionate about the story which serves as her inspiration and about the twists she wants to introduce. So, yes, write your passion, but do so with an eye to creating a trend of your own rather than following the ones already out there.

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Putting Things In Order

domino_lineOrder matters. Whether in science, math, or sentence structure, order matters. It also matters as a fiction technique–one often overlooked by writers.

Believe it or not, order matters in fiction because of how it affects the overarching goal of a novelist–to give the reader an emotional experience.

Writing instructor Randy Ingermanson explains this purpose of stories this way:

Your reader is reading your fiction because you provide him or her with a powerful emotional experience. If you’re writing a romance, you must create in your reader the illusion that she is falling in love herself. If you’re writing a thriller, you must create in your reader the illusion that he is in mortal danger and has only the tiniest chance of saving his life (and all of humanity). If you’re writing a fantasy, you must create in your reader the illusion that she is actually in another world where all is different and wonderful and magical. And so on for all the other genres.

If you fail to create these emotions in your reader, then you have failed. If you create these emotions in your reader, then you have succeeded. The better you create the desired emotional experience in your reader, the better your fiction. Perfection in writing comes when you have created the fullest possible emotional experience for your reader. (excerpt from “Writing the Perfect Scene”emphasis mine)

In what way does “order” contribute to creating reader emotion? Primarily by allowing readers to experience emotion along with the characters.

Authors that overlook this principle of order at times show a character response before showing to what he or she is responding. Hence, the character might be expressing fear or joy and concern, but the reader is experiencing confusion. The reader is wondering, why is he reacting that way?

When the author pulls back the curtain and shows the reader what the character has already learned, there is no shared emotional experience–simply shared understanding. In short, the premature revelation of a response robs the reader of feeling what the character feels and turns the story into more of a cerebral rather than emotive exercise–at least if this reversal were carried all the way through the story.

Harry Potter and Deathly HallowsI’ve been re-reading the Harry Potter books, paying closer attention to author J. K. Rowling’s craft. The world she created is so rich in detail, so believable, and yet I’ve felt strangely detached from the title character. I’ve speculated that perhaps this is because of the omniscient point of view which distances readers some from the character’s inmost thoughts and feelings, but I’ve also discovered that Rowling has a number of “reversals” in which she shows or tells a character’s emotion, then reveals what caused the reaction.

Often there is only a small delay before the reveal, but when the author shows or tells the reader the response before the cause, the reader no longer has an openness to his or her own emotions.

Here are a few examples from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

“Don’t make us hurt you,” Harry said. “Get out of the way, Mr. Lovegood.”

“HARRY!” Hermoine screamed.

Figures on broomsticks were flying past the windows. (excerpt from p. 419)

– – –

“Have we come to the right place? Doby?”

He looked around. The little elf stood feet from him.

“DOBBY!”

The elf swayed slightly, stars reflected in his wide, shining eyes. Together, he and Harry looked down at the silver hilt of the knife protruding from the elf’s heaving chest. (excerpt from p. 473)

– – –

Then he heard a terrible cry that pulled at his insides, that expressed agony of a kind neither flame nor curse could cause, and he stood up, swaying, more frightened than he had been that day, more frightened, perhaps, than he had been his whole life . . .

And Hermione was struggling to her feet in the wreckage, and three readheaded men were grouped on the ground where the wall had blasted apart. Harry grabbed Hermoine’s hand as they staggered and stumbled over stone and wood.

“No—no—no!” someone was shouting. “No! Fred! No!”

And Percy was shaking his brother, and Ron was kneeling beside them, and Fred’s eyes stared without seeing, the ghost of his last laugh still etched upon his face. (excerpt from p. 637)

In each of these examples, a character reacts slightly ahead of the reader learning to what they are responding. This reversal does not allow the reader to fully experience what the character experiences. The last example is most illustrative.

The young man who died in the scene was a minor character, but he had been standing near Ron, one of the central characters. First Harry comes out of the rubble caused by an explosion, then comes his close friend Hermione. Next are the lines recorded above. My first thought as a reader when the characters were reacting was, Oh, no, not Ron. When I learned at the end of the chapter that Fred had died, I actually felt relieved.

I doubt that was the emotional experience Ms. Rowling was going for at that point in the story. If she had shown the cause of grief, then given the reaction, I believe I would have entered into the emotions with the characters rather than standing apart and feeling something altogether different.

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Developing The Story World

J. R. R. Tolkien referred to the world of the faery-tale as the author’s sub-creation. The truth is, all fiction has a sub-created world, or ought to. Tolkien’s point is key, but before taking a closer look at the principle, we need to be clear about the term “story world.”

Writing instructor John Truby explains it this way:

Story world is one of the main structural elements in a good story, consisting of the society, the minor characters, the natural settings, the social settings and the technology of the time. (from “Downton Abbey: John Truby Analyzes the Writing Behind the TV Hit”)

Clearly, every story has a story world to one extent or another. Then are we simply talking about “setting,” the place and time during which the story occurs? Tolkien had something more in mind, and I think Truby would agree.

First, story world is more than lots of period furniture and clothing or time-appropriate architecture. Telling details are certainly important, but not in and of themselves. Rather, they are like dabs of paint on a canvas that eventually forms a picture. The dabs themselves are meaningless apart from how they interact with the other dabs and strokes. The absence or addition of a dab here or a dab there ought to change the picture.

For Tolkien the necessary element was “the inner consistency of reality.” Anyone could conceive of a green sun, for example, but to do so and to do nothing else with it was gimmicky. A world with strangeness and no inner consistency was underdeveloped. Instead, the writer as sub-creator needed to draw upon the ramifications of a green sun to the fiction world he was creating. The same is true for an engagement party, though, or missing car keys.

That inner consistency is evident in the story world of Downton Abbey. This British TV hit takes place in early twentieth century England, before, during, and after World War I.

The war itself is a perfect example of the show’s inner consistency of reality. Rather than existing as a surface element to move characters in and out of the main action (I read one book that used war in just that way), the war, as depicted by the writers in this show, changed relationships and affected society. Loved ones died or came back changed; some stepped up to meet the challenges and others exploited them. In other words, the war was an integral part of the story because it shaped the characters and influenced the action.

The Civil War serves the exact same purpose in Gone With The Wind. But not every story needs a war. The same kind of inner consistency of reality is evident in the Harry Potter stories. Myrtle the ghost was not mere window-dressing, for instance, but a key player in several of the books. So too the house elves, the portkey, the quiddich championship, and Hermione’s ability to go back in time. Each of those elements added texture to the world, but in turn they affected the way the story unfolded. In other words, they didn’t exist in a vacuum. Their existence affected the characters and the action.

Besides this inner consistency of reality, there are two other story world techniques available to authors. First, setting a story during a time of great social change naturally brings conflict to the story. These changes must naturally (if the story has consistency) affect the characters, thus creating an additional level of tension.

A good example of a story set in changing times is The Hope of Shridula by Kay Marshall Strom. The story takes place before, during, and after India’s struggle for independence from the British empire. The forces of change add another dimension to the struggles the characters already experience with economic hardship, caste struggles, religious struggles, and relational issues.

Another story world technique is to position the story in a closed system. Examples of such systems include the English class system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (when Downton Abbey took place), the pre-Civil War South, a military base during any time period, a boarding school, the Mafia, a religious convent. The system itself affords levels of conflict, whether individuals are fighting to maintain the system, to break free from it, or to bring it down. The Hope of Shridula also employs this advanced story world technique.

In summary, consistency is a must regardless of genre, if the story is to be a good one. In addition, an author may choose to situate the story during a time of social upheaval or to place it in a closed system. Both these techniques will add layers of conflict, provided the story has the inner consistency of reality.

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