Stories are created from countless layers. Today we are looking at the many outwardly visible aspects of a story. These are the surface features that define not only genre but which either attract or repel a reader at first glance.
If you’ve ever seen a pond on a calm day, you may have noticed the sky and any overhanging trees reflected on the still surface. The picture I’ve included at the top here is one my husband and I took while walking the McLane Nature Trail, not far from our home. We took it in July of 2018.
If you were there on a stormy day, things were different. The waters were gray, reflecting the color of the clouds. Ripples and waves stirred the waters.
The surface of a story is the Literal Layer, the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer.
In a story, events and the way our characters move through them stir the surface, creating the image our reader sees.
This surface is comprised of
- Action and Interaction
- All visual/physical experiences of the characters as they go about their lives.
When we look at the surface, we immediately see something recognizable.
Setting and props – things such as:
- Objects the characters see in their immediate situation
- Ambient sounds that form the background
- Odors/scents of the immediate environment
- Objects the characters interact with
- Weapons (swords, guns, phasers)
The mechanical order of events forms the structure of the literal layer because they appear to be the story. This framework is the easel on which the setting and props are displayed:
- The opening.
- The inciting incident.
- Rising action and events that evolve from the inciting incident.
- The introduction of new characters.
- The action that occurs between the protagonist and antagonist as they jockey for position.
- The final showdown
How do we shape this literal layer to entice the casual reader? We can add tropes common to a particular genre. Sci-fi or fantasy elements offer an immediate clue to a prospective buyer.
Many sci-fi and some fantasy novels are set in close-to-real-world environments. The settings are familiar, akin to what we know. As readers, we could be in that world.
Good world-building creates a literal layer that is immediately accepted by the reader.
An obvious point I still want to make, is that the literal layer is also comprised of word combinations and word choices. This aspect distinguishes the level at which the intended reader will be able to comprehend and enjoy.
I prefer the prose in my casual reading material to be suitable for the average adult, not too pretentious, and not dumbed down. I seek that happy medium when I peruse the paperbacks or use the “Look Inside” option for eBooks at the big store in the sky.
What we put into the surface layer of our story draws the reader to look more closely at the depths. Setting, action, interaction—these most obvious components should give the reader a hint that there are profound aspects of the story, more than what-you-see-is-what-you-get.
While the surface elements of the story ruffle the surface and stir things up on the literal layer, they are only a glimpse of the deeper waters.
A memorable story has soul and hidden depths. It makes you think about larger issues you might not have considered before.
Plot charts the twists and turns of events, but depth opens our eyes, enabling us to see how other people think, feel, and experience life.
Depth changes observers into participants.
Prose and how we choose words to express emotion and ideas most powerfully is the medium by which we convey depth.
Writing to formal constraints, as I’ve discussed in several previous posts, forces us to find words that drill down and say what we really mean. By using the dictionary of synonyms and antonyms, we can find ways to write concise prose that isn’t repetitive, isn’t longwinded, but still has a cadence to it that is our voice, our style.
Have you read the opening page of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss yet? That is your homework.
Go to the eBook section of the library or go to the online store of your choice and use the “look inside” option or the “download sample” option. You don’t have to do more than read the first paragraphs to complete this task.
Use one of the above cost-free methods to see how a master wordsmith uses prose to stir the surface in the opening pages of a fantasy novel.
With that ruffling of the waters in the first paragraphs, you are given a glimpse into the depths that lurk below.
Credits and Attributions:
Photograph, McLain Pond in July, © 2018 by Connie J. Jasperson, from the author’s private photos.
Sentinel, 05 August 2019 (One of the Needles, Cannon Beach) © 2019 by Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved (author’s own work).