Story is an arc of action, but it is also a deep pond filled with words. Today we are looking at the visible layer, the surface.
When you look at a real pond you will see the effects of the world around it reflected in its surface. On a windless day, the pool will be calm, still. The sky and any overhanging trees will be reflected in it.
Add in a storm and things change. The waters move; ripples and small waves stir the waters, which only reflect the dark gray of stormy sky.
The surface of the Word-Pond is the Literal Layer; the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer.
The storms that alter the surface are the events and the way our characters move through them.
This surface layer is comprised of
- Action and Interaction,
- All visual/physical experiences of the characters as they go about their lives.
The surface of a story is like a picture. When we look at it we immediately see something recognizable. The surface is comprised of:
Setting – things such as:
- Objects the characters see in their immediate environment
- Ambient sounds that form the background of the immediate environment
- Odors/scents of the immediate environment.
- Objects the characters interact with in their immediate environment.
- Weapons (swords, guns, phasers)
The still, reflective surface of the word-pond is affected by the breeze that stirs it. As mentioned above, the breeze is made of the action and events that form the arc of the story:
- 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
These components form the literal layer because they appear to be the story.
How do we shape this literal layer? 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 that while surrealism is a large, ungainly concept to describe, it can be incorporated into the literal layer. An author might build into the setting an unusual juxtaposition of objects. The characters behave and interact with their environment as if the bizarre things are normal. The setting may have a slightly hallucinogenic feel to it, making the reader wonder if the characters are dreaming. The placement of the unusual objects is deliberate, meant to convey a message or to poke fun at a social norm. Surrealism on the surface level takes what is real and warps it to convey a subtler meaning but doesn’t say “Look what I did!” It tries to pass as “normal.”
Most Sci-fi and some fantasy novels are set in real-world(ish) settings, with a good story and great characters. 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.
SO, we know that the surface layer of our story can contribute to the feeling of depth. Setting, action, interaction—these most obvious components should give the reader a hint that there are deeper aspects of the story, more than what-you-see-is-what-you-get.
While the winds (action and reaction) may ruffle the surface, stir things up on the literal layer, it rarely disturbs the deeper waters of the Word-Pond. A good story has all these components, but it also has soul, makes you think about larger issues. The way our characters interact within this surface layer are influenced by what is going on in the next layer down—the Inferential Layer.
Just below the surface, in the Inferential Layer lies Mood and Emotion. They are not the same and the differences will require a little examination. Friday’s art post will be a dip into surrealism–but on Monday we will pick this discussion up and talk about Mood vs. Emotion.
Credits and Attributions:
Wikipedia contributors, “American Realism,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=American_Realism&oldid=902714117 (accessed June 29, 2019).
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Augustus Edwin Mulready Fatigued Minstrels 1883.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Augustus_Edwin_Mulready_Fatigued_Minstrels_1883.jpg&oldid=335802594 (accessed June 2, 2019).
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Adriaen van Ostade – The Painter in His Studio – WGA16748.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Adriaen_van_Ostade_-_The_Painter_in_His_Studio_-_WGA16748.jpg&oldid=270705051 (accessed May 10, 2018).