Paul P. Mealing

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Saturday, 14 August 2010

How to create an imaginary, believable world.

Earlier this week (last Tuesday, in fact) I was invited to take a U3A class as a 'guest speaker', with the title of this post as the topic. I was invited by Shirley Randles, whom I already knew (see below). In preparation, I wrote out the following, even though I had no intention of reading it out; just an exercise to collect my thoughts. As it turned out, Shirley wasn't able to attend due to a family illness, and the 'talk' became a free-form discussion that made the 1+3/4 hrs go very quickly. In the last 15-20 minutes, I gave them a short writing exercise, which everyone seemed to enjoy and perform admirably.

Some of you may have read a post I wrote last year on Storytelling (Jul.09), so there is some repetition, though a different emphasis, in this post.

Firstly, I want to thank Shirley for inviting me to come and talk. I just want to say that I’m not a bestselling author, or even a prolific writer. But I have given courses in creative writing and Shirley interviewed me a few years back and liked what I write and liked what I had to say as well.

Science fiction and fantasy are my genres, but what I have to say applies to all genres, because all fiction involves immersing your reader in an imaginary world. And if that world is not believable then you won’t engage them. We call it suspension of disbelief. It’s very similar to being in a dream, because, whilst we are in a dream, we believe it totally, even though, when we awake and analyse it, it defies our common sense view of the world. And I will come back to the dream analogy later, because I think it’s more than a coincidence; I think that stories are the language of dreams.

There are 3 components to all stories: character, plot and world. I don’t know if any of you saw the PIXAR exhibition a couple of years ago at ACMI, but it was broken down into those 3 areas, only they called plot ‘story’. Now, everyone knows about plot and character, but most people don’t pay much attention to world. It is largely seen as a sub-component of plot. But I make the distinction, if for no other reason, than they all require different skills as a writer.

But I’m going to talk about plot and character first, because the world only makes sense in the context of the other two. And also, character and plot are very important components in making a story believable.

It is through character that a reader is engaged. The character, especially the protagonist, is your window into a story. In fact, I think character is the most important component of all. When I think of an idea for a story, it always comes with the character foremost. I can’t speak for other writers, but, for me, the character invariably comes with the initial idea.

All stories are an interaction between plot and character, and I have a particular philosophical view on this. The character and plot are the inner and outer world of the story, and this has a direct parallel in real life. We all, individually, have an inner and outer world, and, in life, the outer world is fate and the inner world is free will. So, to me, fate and free will are not contradictory but complementary. Fate represents everything we have no control over and free will represents our own actions. So, in a story, the plot is synonymous to fate and character is synonymous to free will. Just like in real life, a character is challenged, shaped and changed by fate: the events that directly impact on him or her. And this is the fundamental secret to storytelling. The character in the story reacts to events, and, as a result, changes and, hopefully, grows.

Now, I’m going to take this analogy one step further, because, ideally, as a writer, I believe you should give your characters free will. As Colleen McCullough once said, you play God in that you create all the obstacles and hurdles for your characters to deal with, but, for me, the creative process only works when the characters take on a life of their own.

To explain what I mean, I will quote the famous artist, M.C. Escher: "While drawing I sometimes feel as if I were a spiritualist medium, controlled by the creatures I am conjuring up." Now, I think most artists have experienced this at some point, but especially writers. When you are in the zone (to use a sporting reference) you can feel like you are channeling a character. I call it a Zen experience. Richard Tognetti, the virtuoso violinist with the ACO (Australian Chamber Orchestra) once made the comment that it’s like ‘you’re not there’, which I thought summed it up perfectly. Strange as it may sound, the best writing you will ever do is when your ego is not involved – you are just a medium, as Escher so eloquently put it.

There is a philosophical debate amongst writers about whether to outline or not to outline. Most of the writers I’ve met, argue that you shouldn’t, whereas most books you read on the topic argue that you should. Both Peter Temple and Peter Corris argue that you shouldn’t. Stephen King is contemptuous of anyone who does an outline, whereas J.K. Rowling famously plotted out all 7 novels of Harry Potter. My advice: you have to find what works for you.

Personally, I do an outline but it’s very broad brush – it’s like scaffolding that I follow. I found this technique through trial and error, and I suggest that anyone else should do the same. It’s what works for me and you have to find what works for you.

Now, I’m finally going to talk about world. After all, it’s what this talk is meant to be about, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. To create a believable world actually starts with character in my opinion. The more real your characters are, the more likely you are to engage your readers. This is why books like Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series are so successful, even though the worlds and the plots they describe are so fantastical.

All works of fiction are a combination of reality and fantasy, and how you mix them varies according to genre. But grounding a story in a believable character is not only the easiest method, it’s also the most successful. The quickest way to break the spell in a story, for me, is to make the character do something completely out of character. So-called reversals, where the hero suddenly turns out to be the villain are the cheapest of plot devices as far as I am concerned. There are exceptions, and to give one example: Snape in Harry Potter is actually a ‘double-agent’ so his reversal is totally believable, and when we learn about it, a lot of things suddenly make sense. Also, having a character who is not what they appear to be is not what I am talking about here. Ideally, a character reveals themselves gradually over the story, and can even change and grow, as I described above, but a complete reversal is a lot harder to swallow, especially when it’s done as a final ‘twist’ to dupe the reader.

The first thing to know about world is to understand what it is not. It is not just background or setting; it’s an interactive component of the story. One of the things that distinguishes fiction from non-fiction is the message, because the message is always emotive in fiction. You have to engage the reader emotionally and that includes the world. There are 5 narrative styles that I am aware of, though some people may contend that there are less or more. Basically, they are description, exposition, dialogue, action and introspection. By introspection I mean what’s going on inside the character’s head. Most books on writing will tell you that exposition is the most boring, but I disagree. I think that description is the most boring – it’s the part of the text that readers will skip over to get on with the story.

If you read the classics from the 19th century and even early, or not-so-early, 20th century you will find that writers would describe scenes in great detail. TV and movies changed all that, for 2 reasons. One, we became more impatient, and two, cinema and video eliminated completely the need for description. So novels started to develop a shorthand whereby scenes are more like impressionists' paintings. But what’s more important, when you set up a scene, is to create atmosphere and mood, because that’s what engages the reader emotionally.

And here I return to my earlier reference to dreams, because I believe that dreams are our primal language. The language of dreams is imagery and emotion, and that’s also the language of story. The reason I believe that written stories (as opposed to cinema) facilitate imagery in our minds is because we do it in our dreams. The medium for a novel is not the words on the page but the reader’s imagination. You have to engage the reader’s imagination, otherwise the story is lifeless, just words on a page.

One final point, which brings me back to character. If you tell the story from a character’s point of view, then you engage that character’s emotions and senses. So if you relate a scene through the character’s eyes, ears, nose and touch, then you overcome the boredom of description more readily.