How to Use the Story Set-Ups–Part Two

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 Semi-Crossover, Internal Transition, and In Media Res set-ups…

The Semi-Crossover

The Semi-Crossover is positioned between a Crossover and an Internal Transition, and so it may not merit as much discussion on its own. It can have the same amount of information to deliver as the Crossover, but without the burden of belief. The character is already aware, at least on some level, so they already believe. Sometimes this is all you have; the character knows they’re a telepath, but not that this makes them part of a secret underground society. In that, you still have a lot of Crossover elements.

The mark of the Semi-Crossover is a protagonist who knows about the supernatural element, but is not a part of it—and so must learn about it as they enter that realm. In The Host, Wanda must learn about the human society (sort of a reverse example); in True Blood, Sookie learns about the vampires. Sometimes they know a bit more about where they’re going (The Left Hand of Darkness), but they are still an outsider experiencing this world for the first time, so they will still be gathering a lot of details.

The key to the Semi-Crossover is the details—the protagonist knows the broad strokes, but not the details, not the immediate experiences. The same exposition techniques for the Crossover apply here; whenever you can show and not tell, you spare the reader from having to hear about it in the dry and boring “did you know…” dialogue. But some things you have to spell out for them, especially if they’re important to the story or the plot.

Because of the nature of the Semi-Crossover, you have a distinct advantage: you can balance what the character knows and what they need to learn. This way, boring but important details can be given in narration, while interesting or especially important information can be emphasized through dialogue. For example, your character can walk past a gremlin and know what the reader needs to know (so that later on when the gremlin bites your character and poisons them, it’s not too random) by just having the narration say: “The gremlin sat in the corner, chewing its nails. One bite could kill anything but itself.” But if the information needs to be emphasized, is interesting/funny/dramatic to deliver, or reveals something of a character (either the informer or the recipient), then you can use the character’s ignorance to reveal it: “Why are you freaking out? It’s just a gremlin bite.” “They’re incredibly poisonous!” “What!?”

Pros:

–          The Semi-Crossover character can still be a reader proxy, through their outsider status observing a world we don’t know with at least some of the same ignorance

–          This also makes exposition easier, as you have a variety of options for delivery

–          Their outsider status lays the groundwork for conflict that can be used throughout the story to prevent stagnation or keep things interesting

Cons:

–          You still have a lot of information to deliver to the character (and the reader), which can bog down the story if not handled lightly

–          The outsider status can prevent previously established relationships (only a con if this is something you want), and can occasionally create conflict that’s a little too tiring—or forced

Techniques:

Take some time at the beginning to establish the protagonist’s point of view and placement in the world. The Semi-Crossover can be a bit tricky because you are dropping the reader into the protagonist’s already-different world, and then pushing them into another different world. Depending on how complicated the protagonist’s initial surroundings are, allow time for the reader to understand where they’re standing before throwing them forward into the new world. This can be tricky when the story doesn’t start until the transition occurs, so if in doubt, at least try to make the transition a bit slower and less jarring. But it’s not always so complicated; in True Blood, Sookie’s telepathic powers are established in the first couple pages, so her encounter with the vampire and her subsequent entry into the vampire world can proceed quickly.

The “outsider” status and conflict can be treated in several different ways. In some, it’s the focal point of the story, an ‘official’ element that drives the entire conflict (Avatar, The Left Hand of Darkness). In others, it’s a complication to the central conflict, which could be a relationship, a threat, or some other plot (The Host, True Blood, Written in Red). In nearly all cases, the “overcoming” of the outsider status to form real bonds and even make a new home (becoming an insider) is central to the story, though it may develop at different paces. In some stories, the bond occurs early and the story deals with others questioning the bond; in other stories, the growth of the bond is slow and usually isn’t cemented until near the end.

Internal Transition

The Internal Transition is a lot like the Semi-Crossover; the primary difference is the lack of emphasis on the “outsider” status. What this means is that the protagonist not only already believes but is already a part of the same world, and so most of the world should not need to be explained. With Internal Transitions, the new exposition mostly concerns the new role or new part of the world, and how much the character already knows about it can vary (just like the Semi-Crossover, they can either already know about it but not have experienced it, or they can know very little).

Internal Transitions take several different forms. You could make the argument that the Semi-Crossover is just one form—the “outsider” form (but I won’t because I already posted the four-category system). The first general division I’m going to make is between Role and Experience transitions.

A Role transition is all about the character taking on a new identity, job, or placement in society. Most of the time the character is already aware about the existence of this Role; sometimes they desire and even go after it, sometimes it’s random, and sometimes it’s inflicted upon them. The new Role can be a form of wish fulfillment, or it can be a nightmare (in this case, the motivation is usually to survive/escape it). In the case of wish fulfillment, the motivation comes either from attaining/keeping the new Role, or from some other motivation that either results from the new Role or is made possible by it (such as catching a bad guy the protagonist is in the position to chase because of their new job). A simple though imperfect test to see if it’s a Role transition is to ask if a group undergoes the transition, even if the protagonist’s transition is somewhat unique. Examples include: The Hunger Games, Divergent, Shadow and Bone, Star Trek (2009), and The Bone Season.

An Experience transition is a looser transition, disguised more as a plot, but still concerning a character’s life changing in a drastic way. Most often, the transition is a unique circumstance rather than something other people might encounter; it could only happen to this character in this way. Sometimes, it’s a bit of a fine line, in that it happens to this specific character but it could theoretically happen to others or is happening to others but not in the same way (the “special case” with the angels in Angel’s Blood [Guild Hunter] or the inheritance “competition” in Hundred Thousand Kingdoms). If the character basically stays in the same role or place in society, but experiences new parts of the world through the events of the plot, then it’s more likely an Experience. Examples include: LOTR/Hobbit, Star Wars, His Dark Materials, Guild Hunter, 100K Kingdoms, Ironman, X-Men, Batman, and A Discovery of Witches.

Pros:

–          The transition is an excellent catalyst, a way to include some wish fulfillment if applicable, and a great way to show off your world without having to introduce an outsider (especially useful if an outsider isn’t really possible in your world)

–          The protagonist can be this world’s version of an “everyman” character who rises to the occasion

Cons:

–          Just like the Semi-Crossover, exposition can become overwhelming, especially when piling a large transition with an already complicated opening scenario

–          This type of story set-up has seen a large boom of popularity recently, and so you’re entering a crowded marketplace—especially if your protagonist is extra special in some way, possibly earning her the title of “Mary Sue”

Techniques:

The same style of exposition applies from the Semi-Crossover—you can decide how much your character knows, and how much they need explained to them. Also, you have to be clear in establishing your protagonist’s original placement in the world in order to get your reader settled and comfortable, as well as to emphasize the transition itself.

The trick with the Internal Transition is finding the proper motivation for your character. Sometimes, you are in danger of making your protagonist passive if the transition just happens to them. Usually, the Experience transition is a little less likely to fall prey to this, since the Experience itself involves a plot and thus in theory a motivation. See above for ways to handle motivation in a Role transition. Ultimately, just keep in mind that the character must want something and be denied or challenged in that, and you’ll have conflict and thus a story.

In Media Res

This set-up is different from the others in that your character is not undergoing any major changes in their world. The story opens with them already aware and settled into their world and role; usually, the catalyst of the story interrupts their established life and they spend the story trying to return to it. Alternatively, the catalyst involves them going after something they want (and have wanted in their established life, perhaps for some time) and they want something in their life to change, but their world will not. Sometimes, the world does change as a result of the story, but it’s not focused upon in the same way that a Transition story is. Don’t look at it too closely. 🙂

As mentioned above, the In Media Res story requires a catalyst to get going, since in theory the character’s life is just rolling along. The catalyst can be an Interruption or an Opportunity. With an Interruption, something disturbs the character’s life in such a way that they must now resolve it to get back to their life (Firefly, Mercy Thompson, Good Omens, Dreamblood, Embassytown, Game of Thrones?). With an Opportunity, the character wants something and the story begins with some new character or event presenting them with a chance to get it (Fullmetal Alchemist, Cowboy Bebop, Vorkosigan). In some cases, particularly in series, there may be a larger goal that rests in the background, but the immediate catalyst is a “case” which the character is going after as their current goal. Often, in series, the catalyst settles into a status quo which then requires new catalysts for each series; in Firefly, taking on Simon and River changes things and the crew has to deal with that, but subsequent episodes have their own Opportunities for money or Interruptions threatening them.

Pros:

–          There’s a much wider variety of story options here, as well as types of protagonists

–          It’s not necessarily used less but it’s a less noticeable story type, and so less likely to be called out as unoriginal unless it too closely resembles something already out there

–          The protagonist can be competent, already masterful, and much more interesting within their world and role

Cons:

–          You potentially lose a good deal of wish fulfillment, as the protagonist doesn’t necessarily fit an “everyman” role; you can also distance the protagonist from the reader, making identification more difficult (which does NOT make it a worse story, just perhaps not what you want)

–          You have to drop the reader into a whole new world all at once, which can be disorienting

Techniques:

The challenge with the In Media Res story is exposition. Except for some details or experiences the protagonist has not yet had, for the most part they will already be adjusted to their world and the character will seem stupid if they don’t know pretty much everything already. This can lead to the dreaded “As you know …” info dump dialogue, which is not only clunky and tacky but also just illogical. If the characters already know things, they’re not going to waste time explaining it to each other. This means you have to use narration for everything (that you can’t show or casually address).

In some ways, it’s a cleaner method, less noticeable and less likely to stall the story to a crawl. However, readers can easily be overwhelmed by having to absorb not just the characters and plot events but also the details of this world while the character just strolls along with the story since they already know everything. Readers who don’t normally read genre works are most likely to give up on a book that throws them into another world without a transition, so the story and characters will have to be extra compelling to keep them interested—which can be challenging since, in alien worlds, you have to give the context for everything. You might know that the conflict between the Harlows and the Imperial Greybloods is fascinating, but the reader won’t have any context for that and so a loaded dialogue or action scene will be insensible to them until they understand.

One method is to have at least one character who doesn’t know everything—and has a reason not to. If it’s not your protagonist, you can still have an In Media Res on your hands, since they’re not undergoing a transition even while the other character is. Or pick the most important things your reader has to understand, and then find a character who doesn’t know about it. The key is just to be clever about making it natural for a character to need something explained, and for another character to explain it; if in doubt, use conflict to at least keep the conversation interesting.

And, if you can’t manage it, just move forward. Sometimes it takes a while to get used to a new world, but that doesn’t make the story any less rewarding. If it won’t slow down the story too much, take a couple paragraphs to just tell the reader straight what facts they need to know (or use a flashback or prologue), and suggest, show, and sneak in the rest. Or have the reader learn everything through context, repetition, and suggestion. This technique is not for the faint of heart, and may keep a story from going mainstream; I say that not to discourage anyone but to be complete in my assessment. There are plenty of complex fantasy and science fiction worlds that are not only worth reading but are incredibly popular (Lord of the Rings, anyone?), so when you love something, go for it. In fact, sometimes the “Immersion” exposition technique creates a deeper, more interesting, and more involving story.

If nothing else, perhaps these categories can help you figure out what you love, and maybe give you some ideas for how to execute it. But if your story demands something else, or goes against any of my “suggestions,” always, always follow your muse.

I’ve used a lot of the cons here to doubt my stories, and even give up on them, and I shouldn’t. The cons aren’t there to stop you from writing something, just to prepare you for challenges you might face. But you should definitely write it anyway, because the pros always outweigh the cons.

So, in the end, just write. 🙂

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About J. Sevick

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

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