How to Use the Story Set-Ups–Part One

In this post, I described four set-ups for stories involving a “supernatural element” (includes everything from an entire fantasy world to a single object; also includes science fiction elements from alien planets to advanced technology). That post primarily dealt with classifying and differentiating the different set-ups, with many nuances and difficulties, of course. But presuming for the moment that every story can be given such a classification, the next question is: why?

Each set-up requires different things from the writer—and the reader. Understanding which type your story falls into and how you need to develop it can be vital for making your experience, as well as your reader’s, a better one.

Though I’m going to structure this post discussing pros, cons, and techniques for each set-up, I want to state clearly and firmly that there is no “good” or “bad” set-up. Each set-up can be used to good effect, or poor effect, depending on how it’s executed. And my pros and cons reflect my personal preferences in writing and reading, so obviously they may not apply for anyone else.

And, though it probably goes without saying, I’m about as much of an amateur as you can possibly be; so take any “advice” I dispel with a block of salt. 🙂

Beneath the cut–the Crossover:

The Crossover

The Crossover is the most common, the most popular, but in some ways the most difficult of the set-ups. You begin with a protagonist who is completely unaware of the supernatural element, and must transition them into awareness, usually as one of the first things that happens. Harry Potter is an iconic example.

– The protagonist is usually an “everyman” character, or at least somewhat identified as “normal,” “average,” and in that way, “familiar” to the reader—an easy character to drop them into, especially when that character’s initial world is the contemporary world
– Since the protagonist has to learn everything about the world, they and the reader can learn together, through delivered exposition that can be very straightforward and timely (this is also a con; more on that in a moment)
– There is inherent wish fulfillment in the idea that some supernatural element lurks just beyond our reality, and that we might access it; the Crossover is the only set-up that delivers this in full

– This is flooding the contemporary fantasy market, which makes it difficult to do something unique and different from what everyone else has done countless times and in largely visible works
– Since the protagonist has to learn everything about the world, exposition usually has to be delivered through huge “info dump” conversations that can be endless, annoying, clumsy, etc.
– Getting the protagonist to “believe” in a realistic way (and at the right pace) so that you can get on with the story can be surprisingly tricky, especially with adult characters
– Motivation for the protagonist can be complicated, since their entire world is changing (sometimes… see below) and so they have to develop completely new motivations and goals but in a believable way

There are many different types of Crossovers, depending upon the type of supernatural element as well as the specifics of the story. But as far as broad generalizations go, there are two types of Crossovers with different techniques and requirements, what I am going to call: the Journey and the Invasion.

The Journey is where the protagonist enters the “other world” somehow—their surroundings change in some definable way. Their literal surroundings may not actually change, but enough of their society, interactions, and most importantly daily life changes that their “world” following the Crossover itself is very different. Examples include Harry Potter; The Mortal Instruments; Neverwhere; Kraken; Doctor Who; Men In Black; the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Once Upon a Time; The Magicians.

The Invasion is where the protagonist’s daily life remains mostly the same, but the supernatural element invades that life. This can range from a large change in their routine to a very small presence of the supernatural. The key difference is that, more or less, the character’s daily life and their world remains the same; they can maintain the same goals, dreams, and motivations—usually, they have to, since not enough of the world has changed. They still have to worry about money, family, love, and life. The exception would be if the supernatural “invasion” presents enough of a conflict that a new goal is required; or if they come up with a new goal as a result on their own (superheroes are a great example of this). Examples include: Twilight, Fruits Basket, Oh! My Goddess, Charmed, Spiderman.

I’ll note that the Journey/Invasion paradigm can also apply to Internal Transitions, depending on how the transition impacts the character’s daily life (Batman can more or less continue with his daily life, while changing his nightly one; Katniss, thrown into the Hunger Games, cannot).

Motivation Techniques

For a Journey Crossover, the biggest challenge is motivation. The simplest, perhaps most natural motivation is to return to normal life, or “escape” this new world; however, it’s not always very fun. But if the entry into the supernatural involves a great crisis to be resolved for things to return to “normal,” this presents a natural motivation for the character—and returning to “normal” may not involve a complete rejection of their new world. Examples include Neverwhere, Kraken and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. You could make the argument for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—I’m not sure if they’re trying to get back home or just trying to rescue Edmund and then help Aslan… so they might get caught up in a secondary plot motivation once in the new world, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Another source of motivation for a Journey protagonist, though one that is difficult to do without flashing red lights crying “rip-off,” is to involve a secret personal backstory that will motivate the protagonist. Personal backstory gives them an instant motivator, whether it’s to rescue someone they already know and love, or to avenge the death of a loved one. It has to be “secret,” or at least obscured in some way, because otherwise they would already know about the supernatural element. Sometimes it’s the secret of someone else, usually the victim, and the protagonist gets involved through their pre-established relationship with that character. If it’s someone they meet during the course of the story, it doesn’t count as this; but then, by the time they get to the point where they’re motivated by their relationship to this person, a lot of the story has passed and you would still have the motivation issue for the earlier parts of the story. Examples include Harry Potter, The Mortal Instruments, and Once Upon a Time.

The only other type of motivation I can think of at the moment is, in my opinion, the hardest to pull off—it’s a resulting motivation from the Crossover itself, but not a response to it. Basically, the character is transported into this new reality, but they aren’t reacting to the transition itself—they’re reacting to their new role in this new world. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it means they have to adjust to this new world quickly enough to then gain motivation to do something within it. Sometimes they had the motivation previously, and the transition gives them the opportunity to pursue it (for example, a generic desire for adventure, and then here you go). The easiest goal to use is some form of saving the world, which we assume anyone would rise to (we like to think so, at least), or some direct threat against the protagonist. Examples of this include Doctor Who, Men in Black, and The Magicians.

The Invasion Crossover has similar motivation archetypes. If the invading element is something the character wants to get rid of or stop, you have your motivation. If the invading element brings with it something the character wants to get rid of or stop, same thing. But what if the invading element appears without any inherent conflict—it’s just there?

If the invading element is the new status quo, and in the examples I gave above it is, then it’s generally divided into two possibilities—continued daily life, or a new second life. In the “new second life” type, the invading element has enough of a presence that it creates a new goal for the character in addition to their daily life (if it completely replaces it, then you’re looking at more of a Journey story). Maybe they now have to (or want to) fight bad guys with their power, or maybe they want to form a relationship with a reluctant vampire—but they still have to go to school and answer to their aunt and run their business. Examples include Twilight, Charmed, and Spiderman.

In a “continued daily life” example, the character’s life continues on much the same, but with this new element in their life. It doesn’t change the fact that they need money, or that they want to fall in love, or that they have to go to school—it just complicates the life they were already living. Romantic subplots are par for the course here, but as contrasted to a “new second life” romance, it is a side effect of living with the invading element, rather than the primary motivation and storyline for the protagonist. While the invading element will generate goals of its own, in dealing with its complications, characters, and events, they don’t change enough of the character’s original life motivations to constitute a primary motivation. Examples include Fruits Basket and Oh! My Goddess.

To differentiate, look at the primary goal and the focus of the storyline—to live daily life but on the side deal with the invading element (“continued”), or to deal with the invading element but on the side live a normal life (“second life”).

Exposition Techniques

Exposition for both kinds of Crossover is generally the same, though Invasion is simpler. For the most part, Invasion Crossovers involve less overall explanation because the invading element is more limited. An invading element might be a single species, or a unique power. Even with more developed worlds, the specific element invading the protagonist’s life is the only one they initially interact with, so exposition of the entire world is more gradual. Also, because their daily life often remains mostly intact, the reader (and the character) only needs to adjust to that specific element, rather than an entirely new way of life.

Journey Crossovers are, for me at least, tough. You have to dump a large amount of information on the character often in a short span of time, because they’re thrown into a new world and have to keep moving to keep the story interesting. The latter part is by far the most important—keep the character moving, keep them active, keep them motivated, even if they have no idea where they are. If you want to recruit a character to a supernatural government agency, and you have to lay the groundwork of the world before you throw in the case that they’re going to solve, your story will die. Consider Men in Black—from what I can remember, J’s initial interaction with an alien is a part of the larger case he goes on to investigate, and so from his very first moment at the agency (and even before) he is working towards something.

But whether you’re dealing with a simple single element or a complex world, the Crossover exposition involves two primary forces—information and belief.

All of the story set-ups involve information. When you’re dealing with a supernatural element, you have to explain it to the reader, even if the character is already familiar with it. The Crossover is different in that the character is also clueless, but many of the techniques are the same as any other time you have to give information to a character (in a Semi-Crossover, for example).

First, information delivery techniques:

Off-screen exposition: this is a cheat to get out of the endless question-and-answer sessions that plague many an info dump scene (“What is that?” “It’s a schmorfga, a native of the planet Toodles” “Where’s Toodles?” and so on); this technique simply involves using a chapter or scene break to flash back with a “two weeks later, and I had almost gotten used to this new world” sort of thing; from then on, information can be dumped in the narration, since the character already knows it—it’s not suitable for the initial exposition, but subsequent exposition can be dealt with this way.

Show, not tell: this is the best technique to use when you can; it’s absolutely the best for the initial revelation of the supernatural element, in my opinion (though you’ll have to follow it up with a more detailed explanation); simply show whatever you can and let the reader surmise what they need to—instead of explaining that the square of chalk on the wall is a portal, have someone walk through it; this won’t work for more complicated stuff or information that isn’t easily visible (you can’t “see” a lifespan, for instance) but trust the reader to pick up little details this way, and it’s great for Chekhov’s gun situations.

Casual asides: similar to the “show, not tell” but with a little more verbosity; have the characters in the know let details drop without explanation or embellishment; for example, if walking by a really young character and your protagonist’s friend says, “Happy 1000th birthday,” you’ll see the lifespan (not the best example, I know); or someone says, “I just got this elvish lamp” and now the reader and the character knows that elves exist in this world, no need to have anyone remark upon it; the key to this technique is to avoid the temptation to have your protagonist ask for more information about something interesting—it seems like a natural thing to do, but it will lead down a dark hole of exposition where your story may die.

Sometimes, though, especially at the beginning, your character just needs someone to explain everything to her. In this case, dialogue is really the only way, short of having your character find a book that lists out everything in dry detail (approach with extreme caution). In the case of dialogue exposition, the key is conflict. Have the informer unwilling to speak; have the protagonist unwilling to hear it; or have a third party unwilling to let anyone say anything (the Dursleys in Harry Potter). You can use external conflict and action to make the imparting of the information more difficult, such as hovering bad guys or a dying informer. Or use emotion, such as a feeling of betrayal from the protagonist at the informer’s previous lies. The basic technique is to have a character want something in the scene (either in the giving or getting of the information), and to have some obstacle to that want.

Belief techniques:

Only the Crossover has to deal with belief, and as far as my experience, it’s a bitch. Harry Potter has a child protagonist, so his relatively easy belief in magic and wizards is understandable (as well as the use of some of the techniques I’ll list). But for adults in our world, it takes some work to make them believe in the supernatural—and then not dwell on it for pages on end. I’ve made the mistake of having my characters go on and on about how they must be crazy, hallucinating, dreaming… it’s not dramatic, it’s not interesting, and it stalls the story. But having them immediately go—“okay, aliens live among us, cool” doesn’t really work well either.

The best and fastest technique is to use action and conflict. If the character is under immediate threat, if they have to do something to survive or deal with some situation in a dramatic fashion, then they won’t have time to slow down and question everything. They can have a moment of disbelief, until the monster claws their sleeve off, and then they’ll run and treat the monster like it’s real before it kills them. Likewise, if they have a motivation, if they want something, then they’ll look past the insanity to go after it. In The Magicians, Quentin briefly questions the reality of this magic test, but then he’s too busy trying to pass the test. Action is ultimately a form of conflict, which is ultimately a form of wanting and being denied or challenged, and using this to infuse every scene will help push your character past their disbelief.

But there are a few other small techniques to try:

Narrative magic: have the narrative affirm in a matter-of-fact way that magic exists, so that the reader knows it even if the character doesn’t yet; if you have other POVs, this will happen automatically; you could do it if you have an omniscient narrator who can make an aside (“while X wasn’t looking, the cat disappeared”); this technique doesn’t affect the character at all, but it gets the reader on the side of the supernatural so they can nudge the character along; Harry Potter does this with its Dumbledore opening

Validation from other characters: this comes in two forms—semi-witness, and involved third party; a semi-witness is someone who doesn’t experience the supernatural, but experiences its effects in such a way that the character’s experience is confirmed (such as walking in after the character blew up the box with their mind, and noticing the damage); an involved third party is someone who knows, but for whatever reason won’t tell the character, and yet is able to confirm once the character knows (again, the Dursleys—they don’t react to the letter hurricane with disbelief but with anger and frustration, subtly confirming magic’s existence in a casual manner; they also quickly validate the Crossover in the scene with Hagrid, not denying his claims); generally, any character who comes in and confirms the supernatural’s existence but is not necessarily supernatural themselves, or is in some other way confirmed as existing beforehand, can nudge the character’s belief forward by using the conformity bias

Slow it down: this works best in the Invasion Crossover, and in stories where you can deal with the supernatural element slowly (often because it presents some other challenge besides just its supernatural aspect, such as being a jerky boss, or a suspected murderer, or something); in this technique, bits of the supernatural are doled out slowly and absorbed before the next level is attained; often, the character is invested in figuring things out, adding to the conflict; by the moment of belief, enough evidence has been acquired over time that to deny it seems foolish; at the very least, not everything is thrown at the character at once, reducing the amount of things they have to process

I can’t guarantee that these techniques will help, and a problem that always remains for me with the Crossover is the fact that everyone and their cousin seems to have written one. But it’s a classic of contemporary fantasy, and pretty fun besides, and hopefully some of these techniques will be helpful or make you think of your own. Just jumping into the Crossover set-up can work for others, but for me, I’ve always ended up stuck.

And that’s why thinking about your set-up before you start can be really helpful. But never, never let anything I say keep you from writing something you want–I’m working on a story now that I just realized goes against my own cautionary advice. Oh, well. 🙂

Next up—the other set-ups! (This turned out long).


About J. Sevick

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s