Story Set-Ups

I’m determined to start posting writing “articles” again, for whoever cares (even if it’s just me), and I chose one at random that I thought might fit with the New Year. It concerns the intros of fantasy/sci-fi stories, particularly how worlds are introduced to the character and/or the reader.

A quick disclaimer: everything I post is, fairly obviously, my opinion. I choose examples and make generalizations in order to analyze ‘how writing works,’ but someone else might analyze them very differently. I also tend to make up my own terms, oblivious to how they might actually be used or whether or not there is already a better term out there. “Crossover,” for example, is usually used to indicate a story concerning more than one established works combining (a Doctor Who/Sherlock crossover, for example). I use it to indicate a normal unaware human character “crossing over” into another world—either through knowledge of that world, or through a physical transportation. I think I had a professor in college who used the term “liminal” for something like this, but “crossover” is more immediate, self-explanatory, and understandable to me. Feel free to disagree.

The story “set-up” is, in general terms, the experience of the world through the protagonist’s eyes, and how they encounter the “supernatural” element (includes sci-fi elements such as aliens, advanced technology, superpowers, mutation, etc.). When the story begins, what does the character know, and what do they encounter as the story gets going? This will affect how you frame exposition, as well as how you structure the opening of the plot to accommodate the set-up. I’ll write more later on what to do with each type of set-up, but for now I’m just showing and explaining each one.

So here are the four types of set-ups that a sci-fi/fantasy story can have:

Story Set-Ups Table(I’ve used some abbreviations/blanket terms for series; they should generally be
recognizable to those familiar with the work; if not, please ask)

For very long explanations, clarifications, and confusions, see under the cut:

The Crossover is by far the most common in contemporary fantasy, which is pretty much the only place it applies. In “alternate world” fantasy, which takes place in a different world, the characters are almost always aware of the supernatural elements of their world (though perhaps not all of them, or all the details, which would make it a Semi-crossover or Internal Transition; more on that later). If this is not the case, then you could have a Crossover in an alternate world, where a character thinking they live in one reality learns of another. The key mark of a Crossover is that the fundamental reality of the character’s world is changed—not just a new character, not just a new organization, but the very nature of their world. Usually, this is the existence of the supernatural, of magic, of aliens, etc. Again, the existence, not just a specific kind or individual.

And so the key difference between a Crossover and a Semi-crossover is awareness—but not knowledge, power, or familiarity. If the character is aware that the supernatural element exists, but knows little or nothing about it, then you have a Semi-crossover. The mark of the Semi-crossover is that the character still undergoes a transition of sorts, and usually still has to have the “info dump” conversations with characters in the know, but they aren’t shocked or unaware that this supernatural being/place/object/society exists. Another mark may be that the character is still considered an “outsider,” not part of the supernatural element but accessing it through the story.

This is probably the one I “made up” the most, so a few examples/clarifications. In True Blood, Sookie knows that vampires exist (the entire world was “crossed over” a few years before), so she is fully aware of vampires and even recognizes one when she sees him. But she doesn’t know much about them or their society, and so as she interacts more and more with them, she is an outsider learning about their world. Likewise, in Avatar, Jake knows that Pandora exists, and he may even know the basics of the planet’s particulars, but overall he knows little of the details and has to learn everything from the other scientists and the Na’vi. In fact, his ‘ignorance’ is probably the reason the writers set the whole twin thing up, in order to have a character who they can explain things to for the audience; but the difference between this and a Crossover is that he wasn’t sucked from another dimension to Pandora, blown away by the fact that aliens exist at all—everyone on Earth knows it exists, they just don’t all get to go there.

The difference between a Semi-Crossover and an Internal Transition is slight, focused mainly on whether or not the character is an “outsider”— Internal Transition characters can still feel like outsiders, but no one questions their presence in the world (and though there may be doubts about their ability to handle their new role/world, there is rarely intense conflict around their presence). For an Internal Transition, the character is aware of the world, and the new role is generally known to them, but the story is about how they get that role, adjust to that role, and then perform that new role. Or, alternatively, how they enter a new part of the world, adjust to that part, and then, um, survive it? Escape it? Conquer it? Etc. They will learn new things along the way, and new details about the world, but they are a part of that world from the beginning.

This one is tricky to differentiate from a Semi-Crossover in many examples, and it might seem arbitrary (and in some sense, it is). For example, take Lord of the Rings; Frodo’s doing his hobbit thing in the Shire, when Gandalf shows up and sends him on a journey into the rest of Middle Earth—definitely a transition from one part of the world to another. But while hobbits are an unusual presence in the rest of the world, and Frodo’s never encountered much of other species and none of other places, there isn’t really an emphasis on his outsider status or his “discovery” of the rest of the world. Hobbits are a part of Middle Earth, just a sort of weird, hermit-y part, but while Frodo’s journey is partly about discovery, it’s more about courage, heroism, perseverance, and the fight against evil. (I’m sure we could go back and look at something like Avatar and say the same thing, though I would argue that more is made of Jake’s outsider status as a focal point of the conflict, but… let’s not).

A very tricky one is A Discovery of Witches, about a woman who knows she’s a witch (so not a Crossover), but never uses her powers and doesn’t know too much about the rest of her “world.” She does know vampires and daemons exist, and at least enough about them to recognize them, but she does have “info dump” conversations with Matthew about the details of vampire biology (a classic staple of the vampire romance). But I placed it here instead of as a Semi-Crossover because Diana is a part of the magic world, and knows it, and the story is more about her learning to use her powers (a new role) and taking her place in the world—not as much about her “crossing” into it as an outsider.

But The Bone Season is probably the trickiest example, and I’m still not confident of where I put it. Paige knows that psychics exist, since she is one, and so it isn’t exactly a Crossover. But she isn’t aware of (sort-of-beginning-spoiler?) the existence of the Rephaim in Oxford, so in that sense it could be a Crossover. However, because of the “pre-awareness” that her psychic abilities gives her, she isn’t necessarily shocked and fundamentally changed by the knowledge of the Rephaim; consider the difference if she had been just an “ordinary citizen” in a future London with no psychics who got taken to Oxford and then told she was psychic and the Rephaim exist… that would be a Crossover, no doubt. So it’s sort of a Semi-crossover, except that she isn’t treated like an outsider; her presence in Oxford, while somewhat unique, is not really questioned as being unusual (she is one of the psychics they harvest every Bone Season). Because of that, I ultimately decided on Internal Transition despite the large amount of new information Paige receives. But this is a perfect example of why these categories are full of nuances that, if examined, render the entire category system useless and defunct and so I’m conveniently ignoring it.

The best clarification I can give is that Semi-Crossovers are all about the outsider status—take a look at how the others in the world treat the protagonist, at least at the beginning. If the story marks the protagonist as an outsider, not just as a newbie or a recruit or a discovered farm boy, but as somebody who (while aware of the world) is different from everyone else—well, I think you probably have a Semi-Crossover. For an Internal Transition, look at two things: First, the fundamentals of the world don’t change (so, not a Crossover). Second, the character’s role or placement in the world may change but they are not an outsider (so, not a Semi-Crossover). Hence, an Internal Transition.

I placed the superheroes here—Batman, Ironman, X-Men—because their worlds don’t change (mutants know they’re mutants, although perhaps some receive a ‘crossover’ moment when their powers activate, but then society has acknowledged them publicly even if with prejudice, so…; and the technology in Batman and Ironman, while advanced, is not treated as impossible or shocking) and they remain a part of the same world, even though their role within it has changed.

Probably, there are a lot more arguments to be made, but I need to go on to the final argument—the “In Media Res” grouping. In a general sense, this is any story where there is no transition, no new information, no new role. Captain Mal Reynolds (of Firefly, for the sadly uninitiated) begins the story as a captain in space and continues that way; his goals, his experience, his story has nothing to do with a change and everything to do with continuing on with the way things have been (as much as possible). The characters in these stories have things happen to them; their lives change; they meet new people, move new places, discover new things—but the story treats these as events in their lives, conflicts to be resolved, not fundamental transitions which the story is shaped around.

The difference is in how the transition is treated—if exaggerated and focused on, you are dealing with a transition; if just a part of the story glossed over in favor of focusing on conflict and events, you are dealing with a catalyst. While, as usual, it’s a debate, look at how the transition is treated, how and where it occurs, and how the character (and everyone else) reacts to it.

For example, in Game of Thrones, Ned Stark opens the story by becoming the Hand of the King (I think?), but the story is more about the mystery of the previous Hand’s death, and Ned’s relationship with the King (and with his family). As far as I can recall (from the TV series), there’s no lavish ceremony making him the Hand, no conflict around it, in the sense that the transition itself becomes a major point—I think in some way becoming the Hand was sort of expected. Also, because of all the other characters’ storylines, the transition isn’t focused on.

In Fullmetal Alchemist, the Elric brothers did undergo a transition to become state alchemists (and to learn alchemy in the first place), but that all takes place in the backstory. The story focuses on their journey to find the philosopher’s stone, and so the story opens with them as state alchemists and continues forward from there—physical journeys and changes in their status are a part of their goal, not a part of any transition.

So, how to place your story?

–          First: Is your character unaware of the existence of the supernatural element at the beginning of the story? Is their discovery of that element, their new awareness, part of the story—a fundamental part of the story within the story itself?

  • If yes, you have a Crossover

–          Second: Is your character aware of the existence of the supernatural element (world, beings, society, etc.) but not a part of it? Is her transition into that part of the world and discovery of the details of that element a part of the story? Is their conflict related to her outsider status or otherness within the supernatural element?

  • If yes, you have a Semi-Crossover

–          Third: Is your character fully aware of their world and already in it—but undergoing, within the story itself, a transition to a new role or part of the world? Does the goal/conflict originate from the transition (or in direct relation to it)? Does the transition make the story possible? Is the story about the transition—its conflicts, challenges, related goals?

  • If yes, you have an Internal Transition

–          Fourth: Is your character fully aware of their world, already in it (has probably always been in it, though not necessarily), and already settled in their role? Does the conflict originate from a new character, event, or problem entering the protagonist’s life, which otherwise stays the same?

  • If yes, you have an In Media Res

If I haven’t managed to completely confuse anyone who made it all the way through this, hooray. These are the story set-ups as I see them. Mostly, this is useful in thinking about exposition—how much, when, what methods to use in delivering it—as well as for character development and motivation (for example, it can be extremely hard to find proper motivation for a Crossover character who has no reason to want anything in this new world). More on what these set-ups might possibly be good for… later. Or never. No one cares.

You may disagree with where I’ve put the various examples, or how I’ve explained them. You may disagree (and rightly so) with the existence of these categories at all. But this is the crap I think about instead of actually writing.

So… here you go. 🙂



About J. Sevick

Just write.
This entry was posted in Worldbuilding, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Story Set-Ups

  1. Pingback: How to Use the Story Set-Up–Part One | J. Sevick

  2. Pingback: How to Use the Story Set-Ups–Part Two | J. Sevick

  3. Pingback: Managing Complexity in Worldbuilding: Rankings | J. Sevick

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