Friday, April 2, 2010

Combining the Elements

Happy Easter! Although by rights the Saturday is not really celebrated, I’m excited because this is the beginning of a three week holiday. Next Friday I’ll be on Flinders Island visiting a certain Monkey person.

Pondering over things as I did my last post, I realized that you cannot really have one element that makes a story work.

I have always liked the rule of three with story construction – Setting, Character, Conflict. I know there are so many more elements, but if I had to pick three, these are always a great guide. If you are trying to give a few guidelines to someone new to writing, it is also a very easy framework to hang onto, something that is really quite powerful.

The idea, as this concept was taught to me, was that these three elements should interrelate. The setting should be so integral to the story that if you took it away, you would have a different story – or would not be able to tell the story. The character also has to be unique to that story, formed by that setting, primed for that conflict.

What is it about that character that will drive that story? How is that character unique to that setting? The conflict also has to be something unique to that world or setting and something that intimately involves that character.

Try telling Lord of the Rings without the backdrop of Middle Earth. In some ways I respond the world as a character in LoR, or series of characters. You can really see JRRs love of nature in the way he paints the backdrops in the early part of Frodo’s journey.

Can you think of any stories that combine and weave these multiple elements? Can you think of any good examples of book that have used settling as a particularly integral part of the storytelling – or to the extent that it becomes a character in its own right?


Dave Freer said...

The shadow of the torturer -Gene Wolfe. (yes, I battled to read it. But yes, setting is a driver in the story)

Stephen Simmons said...

Spider Robinson's "Callahan's Cross-Time Saloon" series. Callahan's Bar itself is as much a character as any of the patrons.

"Dream Park", by Niven and Barnes. The overlapping layers of reality created by the game plot/ game character interactions/ player interactions/ espionage mystery wouldn't have been possible without the Park itself.

"Oath of Fealty", by Niven and Pournelle. Without the city-within-a-city of the mega-building, there's no story to tell.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Dave. Yet another one for the reading list! Cheers,

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Stephen. These sound like interesting reads. Having asked the question myself, I would not really think of too many answers myself, but then again my mind usually goes blank when I try to remember things I have read. These sound interesting.

I have not read those Niven&Pournelle ones, but it did remind me of Oath of Heriot (I think that's the title), which is one of theirs. Now that one would not have been possible without that particular setting:)

Mike said...

Janet Kagan, Hellspark? Or Dune? What about Clement's Mission of Gravity? McCaffrey's Pern? White's Hospital Station? There's almost an SF subgenre where people make up a wild and wooly setting -- desert planets, giant planets, planets with Thread, intergalactic hospitals, etc. then put stories into them. Oh, what about Harry Harrison's Deathworld? Or almost any of Chalker's books, but especially the Well of Souls series?

Huh... MICE? That's Card's four kinds of stories, Milieu, Idea, Character... is the E Event? Anyway, I think when we're talking about setting as a major part of the story, we're talking about his milieu type.

Interesting question. Can setting ever be safely considered just part of the background?

Stephen Simmons said...


"Dream Park" is an older book (I first read it in either 1981 or 1982, before I joined the Navy), but I'm pretty sure it's been reprinted regularly. I know the copy I re-read not long ago has a different cover than the one I remember donating to the ship's library years back ...

Take LARP, Disney World, and genuine projective-holographic technology. Mix thoroughly. Voila! You have the setting. Now throw in a brilliant game-plot, and a murder/industrial espionage subplot. Did you happen to see the episode of Star Trek TNG with Professor Moriarty, the one that took place almost entirely inside a phony Enterprise Moriarty had programmed inside the holodeck? The whole book has that overlapping-layers-of-reality feeling to it.

Dave Freer said...

Chris - a curious aside here. The term horse-opera was basically coined for cowboy books that essentially used the Wild West as a set of props which were really intechanable as a backdrop any dramatic story. If you'd taken the 'western'elements out and substituted a Parisian setting, it would essentially have had no real effect on the story. From whence of course, 'Space-opera'. It's meaning has nowadays shifted a bit as something with a large cast (ergo - opera) and melodrama - Starwars for eg.(which of course pretty much fits the old definition - therefore the confusion). So books in which setting plays a large part cannot be space-opera by the old definition - which always struck me as being more valuable than the new one.

Mike said...

Dave -- which reminds me of the old spaghetti westerns (made in Italy), and of course, there's Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and the Magnificent Seven. Some stories seem to translate well across settings, while others are much more intimately tied to a particular time and place.