A World of Speculation

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about stories about crossing over into other worlds. It’s a staple of the fantasy genre — if the character is not born in this alternative universe, he has to get there somehow, whether it’s by falling down a rabbit hole, stepping through a magical post in the train station, finding an opening in the back of a wardrobe or an invisible door into the London Underground. In fact, there are too many such stories to mention, and I’d like to try to understand what they mean.

But I think one thing that is true about these doors into elsewhere is that they’re a metaphor for the story itself. What every storyteller does, when we do our task, is draw the reader/viewer/listener into this other world — whether past or future, a locale exotic or mundane, set among the glittering wealthy or the seamy underside. The story reader is in a sort of dream state. He doesn’t see what’s around him but instead sees Hogwarts or Middle Earth or a space odyssey or Edwardian England, sees them so clearly, in fact, that he remembers them as if they happened to him, as if they are happening to him.

It’s why overwhelmed and overworked agents and publishers can tell in a page or two — or even a sentence or two — whether they’re going to be interested.

The author has to drag the reader, kicking and screaming if necessary, into the story. He does that by creating a world and giving the reader a reason to stay and see what’s going to happen next.

The world is created by the texture of sensory details and the incantation of language. The world is the basis, but the question holds a reader in an ill-drawn world better than a well-drawn world with no story.

The question comes from characters — who want something, need something, face trouble of some kind; and the magic world promises that the answer waits around the next corner. But behind that answer waits an even bigger question, and so on and so on until the questions are answered.

When the dream breaks, when the reader wakes and thinks, “Ah, it’s only a dream,” and the story, the world, is imperiled. When the reader observes, “Oh, yes. I’m reading a book,” it may bring about the end of the unwinding of the story in that person’s universe.

Of course readers “know” they’re reading a book, and I’m not literally asking them to lose touch with reality (although I’ve missed an occasional bus stop because I forgot about the world I was supposed to be navigating). But back to the practical implications for the author.

Every word, every detail from the beginning of page 1 should conspire to envelop the reader in the story. The text has to be real, sensory, emotionally evocative. The characters must be there from the beginning, with their fears, their danger, their terrible trouble.

The following are some items of advice I’ve gleaned from years of unsuccessful noveling. If they can be of help to anyone else, that’s great. At worst, they will be a reminder to me of what to look for on the next draft.

Don’t start with the character’s name. The reader has no reference for it, no emotional content, so it’s just squiggles on the page. Let us be curious about the person’s name before we get it.

That’s why it works so much better to start with a flyover concept: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Pride and Prejudice). “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (Anna Karenina). “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” (One Hundred Years of Solitude). Not only is it broadly true — or at least debatable — but it hits at the depth of our own experience (OK, most people haven’t faced a firing squad or remembered the day we discovered ice, but we can identify with our childhood memories coming back to us at the hour of our death — a nice twofer by Marquez). Not everybody can write one of the greatest sentences in literary history, but we all can aim high.

Marquez’s twofer above captures a character in trouble. It’s been a while since I read One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I don’t thing he got back to Col. Aureliano Buendia’s facing the firing squad for another hundred or more pages. I didn’t care. I was hooked into the world that I can still see when I remember it.

The character needs a goal or a problem or a goal and then a problem or a problem added to a goal complicated by another problem. If everything’s OK, why do you need me along? the reader thinks, and goes back to the television — or real life.

Not an exhaustive list, but it’s all I know right now. Maybe I’ll get back to it later, when I learn some more.

Powered by ScribeFire.