The Surface of the Story #amwriting

One of my favorite places to walk is McLane Creek Nature Trail. Within that nature reserve is a large beaver pond, with several accessible, easy-to-walk trails that wind around the pond and through the woods.

McLaine_Pond_In_July_©_2018_ConnieJJapsersonStrolling along, watching the birds and animals that make their homes there grounds me. When we leave, I feel spiritually rested, more rooted in the earth, stronger and at peace with myself. It is a serene place, a place of stillness and calm.

The pond is always fascinating. When you watch the water, you can see the effects of the world around it reflected on its surface. On a windless day, the pool will be calm, still. The sky and any overhanging trees will be reflected in it.

When a storm blows in, things change. The waters move, and ripples and small waves stir things up. The waters turn dark, reflecting the stormy sky.

Just like the surface of a pond, the surface of a story is the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer. It conceals what lurks in the depths but offers a few small clues as to what lies below.

This layer is comprised of

  • Genre
  • Setting
  • Action and interaction
  • All visual/physical experiences of the characters as they go about their lives.

Genre determines the shelf in the bookstore: General Fiction, Women’s Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Romance, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult, Children’s books—those labels tell the reader what sort of story to expect.

I see the surface of a story as if it were a picture. At first glance, we see something recognizable. The all-encompassing shell of a story is the setting. The setting is comprised of things such as:

  1. Objects the characters see in their immediate environment
  2. Ambient sounds.
  3. Odors and scents.
  4. Objects the characters interact with.
  5. Weapons (swords, guns, phasers)

The still, reflective surface of a pond is affected by the breeze that stirs it. In the case of our novel, the breeze that stirs things up is made of action and emotion. These are the structural events that form the arc of the story:

  1. The opening.
  2. The inciting incident.
  3. Rising action and events that evolve from the inciting incident.
  4. The introduction of new characters.
  5. The action that occurs between the protagonist and antagonist as they jockey for position.
  6. The final showdown

Depth_word_cloud (50 words)-page-001The components that form the visual layer appear to be the story. However, once a reader wades in, they discover unsuspected depths.

We shape this layer through world-building. We can add fantasy elements, or we can stick to as real an environment as is possible.

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll showed us how an author might play with the setting by incorporating an unusual juxtaposition of objects and animals. The characters behave and interact with their environment as if the bizarre things are normal. The setting has a slightly hallucinogenic feel, making the reader wonder if the characters are dreaming.

Yet, in the Alice stories, the placement of the unusual objects is deliberate, meant to convey a message or to poke fun at a social norm.

Most Sci-fi and some fantasy novels are set in recognizable worlds, very similar to where we live. The settings are familiar, so close to what we know, we could be in that world. That is where good world-building creates a literal layer that is immediately accepted by the reader.

Setting, action, interaction—these most obvious superficial components are the framework that supports the deeper aspects of the story.

WordItOut-word-cloud-4074543The real story is how our characters interact and react to stresses within the overall framework of the environment and plot. Depth is found in the lessons the characters learn as they live through the events. Depth manifests in the changes of viewpoint and evolving differences in how they see themselves and the world.

Creating depth in our story requires thought and rewriting, but in the last week of NaNoWriMo, we are just trying to get the world built and the events in order. The first draft gives us the surface. We have an idea of what lies below, but at this point, all we are concerned with is getting the structure of the story down, and the characters in place with their personalities.

The true depths and emotions are yet to be discovered but will begin to reveal themselves in the second draft, sometime in December or January. That is when the real writing begins.

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