What Makes a Good Story: Part 2

Believable (not necessarily realistic) settings

As a one-time technical theatre major, I probably have a heightened sense of setting, but it is important to make your settings believable, whether you set your story in a contemporary city, a farm that’s nowhere in particular, or a star kingdom far, far away. So how do we as writers do that?

Two things to keep in mind: Wherever or whenever your story is set, (1) the place and time have to make sense to the reader; and (2) everything must remain consistent.

Even the most far-fetched science fiction setting has to make sense to the reader. David Weber’s Honor Harrington series (Honor Harington: On Basilisk Station, Baen Publishing, 1993) is a great example of what it takes to get it right—and in a big way. The stories take place 1,800 years afterthe Diaspora of the human race into space. There are two main political entities: The Kingdom of Manticore and the Peoples Republic of Haven. These books take place light years from old Earth, but they make sense in every way to today’s reader, first because the two opposing political entities so closely match the free British Empire (Manticore) and communist USSR and China (Haven) that readers recognize the language, emotions, and behaviors connected to these two great cultures, and second, because Weber has created realistic interstellar space flight, with all the technical details and jargon needed to make it seem as though it could actually work.

Even stories set in the here and now, however, need these same rules. Whether your town or city is real or not, it has to make sense. Mary Beth Magee has written a series of stories that take place in the small fictional town of Cypress Point, Mississippi (BOTR Press, LLC. http://www.LOL4.net). Her town is as fictitious as the characters in her stories, but it is so much like a real southern Mississippi town, the reader is tempted to look at a highway map to see where it is.

However extreme your settings, you need to remain consistent. Nora Roberts’ book Northern Lights (Jove Books, 2004) is set in the fictitious village of Lunacy, Alaska. It is the story of a cop from Baltimore who is hired by the town as their new chief of police. What makes this story so effective is the setting, and it works, because Roberts is consistent in her storytelling. Nate arrives north of the Arctic Circle just after Christmas, and it is cold. Seriously cold. And it is dark, almost all the time. I’ve never been that far north, myself, but I know what it’s like, now, because I’ve read Northern Lights. Believe me, no one in the story ever forgets to put on their layers of outer wear before walking outside or forgets to plug in the heater on their car engine when it’s left for any length of time. Roberts’ consistency makes it completely real to the reader.

Fantasy has its own challenges in terms of setting, and like science fiction, it requires special attention to detail. Magic only works for readers if the rules stay the same throughout the story. Elves are not dwarfs and dwarfs are not gnomes, and they will all behave in certain ways. How, you ask? It depends upon you, the storyteller, of course! But you need to set up your rules about your various creatures—their physical, emotional, and magical strengths and weaknesses—early on, and be sure to stick with those rules as you write, or your readers will, at the very least, be left confused and, at the worst, put down your book without finishing it.

One tool many writers use to keep their story setting straight is a map, and though whether or not you decide to print your map for your readers is up to you, it is still an extremely useful tool for you as you write. J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Anne McCaffrey, and Elizabeth Moon—to name just a few—all provide maps for their readers, which help both the author and the reader clearly picture what’s going on where—and keeps characters from turning in a different direction every time they head to the same place.


Great Storytellers in History: Part 2

Good stories that last have come down to us throughout the ages from all corners of the world, but one man in particular really knew the power of story . . .

Jesus (1st Century)

Probably one of the most influential storytellers in history, Jesus did most of his teaching in what we today call parables. Knowing how the minds of men work, he knew better than anyone how to use story so effectively in his teaching that even today’s secular world would be influenced by it. Jesus knew that by framing his teachings within a story about ordinary people leading ordinary lives, he could help his audiences to grasp his previously unimaginable concepts, and while Jesus often had to explain the parables to his disciples, they were still enlightened by the stories he told.

the Good SamaritanOne of the best examples of this is found in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), a story Jesus tells when a young man asks him, “Who is my neighbor?” Here’s the basic story: Guy gets mugged. Two men pass by on the other side of the street. A third man stops to help.

Now, the easy answer to the young man’s question is, “The man who stops to help is his neighbor.” But Jesus doesn’t stop at this simple plot. No, he really makes his point in the details. You see, it wasn’t just any man who was mugged; it was a Jew. And the two guys who passed on the other side of the street? They were a priest and a Levite—both of whom either used the Law that forbade them to touch the unclean as an excuse to avoid the unpleasant task or were simply too afraid to help—who refused to stop. And who did stop? A much-despised-by-the-Jews, heretical Samaritan, who not only personally helped a Jew, but paid for his care at the next inn.

This is a huge plot twist to the story, because it means that for Jesus, the definition of “neighbor” is “whomever you encounter under any circumstances,” and Christians now have to notice and stop to help everyone in need, no matter who they are or what they look like.

But the influence of this story doesn’t stop with Jesus’ first-century followers or even with modern Christians. Today in the United States, all fifty states and the District of Columbia have what are known as “Good Samaritan Laws,” statutes that protect those willing to stop and help a stranger. That was one powerful story!

Everyman Theatre (15th Century)

In the Middle Ages, the Church had a problem in that most people could neither read nor understand Latin. As church leaders scrambled to figure out how they could bring Scripture to an illiterate people, they settled on taking a page out of Jesus’ book: storytelling. Thus began the Everyman Theatre, which consisted of repertory acting troops that traveled from town square to village green, performing a selection of Bible-based morality plays. These Everyman plays were allegories, stories in which the characters don’t represent human beings but rather abstract qualities—such as Beauty, Knowledge, Greed, Jealousy and other virtues or faults—and at the center of each there was the “Everyman” character, to whom the entire audience could relate.

At that’s the key to reaching your audience, isn’t it? Getting total strangers to relate to the central characters you’ve created so completely they can put themselves into the story. And when that happens? You become a storyteller.

Next week in Great Storytellers in History, Part 3, we’ll look at some of the great “standards” that linger on long after the original storyteller is gone . . .

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