Setting, Characters, Plot, Style, and The Big 4 + 3
by Jack Mangan
Storyteller job 1: Transport Your Audience
Ensure that some element or elements of your work takes them to another place, where they can feel something poignant, something that will impact their experience of the real world. Whether you’re looking to write the next media juggernaut bestseller or the next critically-celebrated award-winner; whether you’re peddling spoon-shallow adventures or deep journeys through your characters’ souls; whether it’s High Fantasy, High Art, or Highlander fanfic; you must draw the audience out, in, and onward. A non-compelling read can still be enjoyable, but if the readers aren’t sucked in, then the story won’t resonate with them, and they won’t recommend or remember it in a month. Compare a generic Kung Fu Theater flick to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.
What basic story components ensure that the reader’s real world vanishes, replaced temporarily by the ones on your pages? There are 4: Setting, Characters, Plot and Style. Every book, film, and sporting event has these elements, but if yours is rich enough in any one of them, then your transporter is sure to work its magic (or high-tech function) on the readers.
Yes, I’m aware that you know all this already, but it bears repeating. To prove our agreed point, and hopefully to illustrate the methods you can emulate when constructing your stories, let’s examine how Setting, Characters, Plot and Style have been applied in our culture’s greatest works. And by “greatest”, I mean “most far-reaching, widely-known, and influential”, i.e. “Lord of the Rings”, “Star Trek”, “Star Wars”, and “Harry Potter”, with nods to the big 3 Superheroes: “Superman”, Batman”, and “Spider-Man.” The Big 4 + 3. Some of these are primarily film and television and serialized comic stories, but their lessons can certainly be applied to the written word. (Yes, I also love “Dune”, “Hitchhiker’s Guide”, “Firefly”, “Neuromancer”, et cetera, ad infinitum. . . This is just my cultural observation. If my assessment overloads your geek outrage meter, then direct the angry comments at me. Don’t bother the fine folks at Parking Lot Confessional.)
In the interest of blog brevity, we’ll conduct a high level view, without getting overly detailed.I’ll present examples of what works; you’ll have to figure out on your own how these apply to your material.
How iconic and unforgettable is the Death Star, with all of its dread power and titanic scale? Who wouldn’t love a chance to explore the fully-realized wonders of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth? Spidey’s New York and Clark Kent’s Metropolis are adequate, but Batman’s gothic, decadent Gotham is a marvelously sinister playground for his dark acts to play out. When the protagonists inhabit a distinctive place, like the Starship Enterprise or Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the setting can often take on a personality of its own, becoming a minor character unto itself. Similarly, some low-or-one-dimensional side characters can serve well as setting. Yes, as long as a minor character is interesting, it’s perfectly allowable for them to be two-dimensional. Jabba the Hutt is possibly the perfect example. The Klingons as a species are another (hatemail to email@example.com).
Setting must also necessarily include the fantastical elements and possibilities. Who watched the Star Wars films and didn’t want a lightsaber of their own? How fascinating and rich is the concept of The Force? Yes please, I’d love to take the Batmobile — any of the Batmobiles — for a test drive. What Harry Potter generation kid didn’t want to have a wand and broom of their own and learn spells from Dumbledore and the Hogwarts teachers? I, for one, would love to give Quidditch a try – - or 3D chess vs. Mr. Spock.
I’ll be in the Batcave, testing out my web-shooters.
Of course we need to love and cheer and feel empathy for the central protagonist, but it’s possibly more important for the reader to fall for the people around them. As Luke ascends on his path to Jedi Knighthood and unlocks the secrets of his destiny, he also becomes something godlike and no longer attainable. We’re left on the bleachers (or with Ewoks on the Moon of Endor) with his friends to cheer on our hero in his final stages. Yes, we weep and cringe at his moments of agony, but he’s still stepped up to a plane above our own. If we weren’t gaga over the more relatable superstars Han Solo, Chewbacca, Leia, and everyone else by now, then we’d feel a bit left behind in their mundanely awesome company. The same goes for Harry Potter. Our heart breaks for him in his cupboard beneath the vile Dursley’s stairwell, but when his journey begins, we fall in love with Hagrid, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, Snape(!), etc., through his eyes, at the same time that he does. In each of these cases, it’s their flaws at least much as their admirable qualities that have won our hearts.
Character interaction should display variances in tone and civility, just like your real-life relationships. The Spock (cold logic), McCoy (red-face emotion), and Kirk (cool-headed strength) dynamic made us care and feel as though we were there with them in red shirts (gulp); this was also far more important to Star Trek’s success than any hokey aliens or bogus techie plot resolutions. Spider-Man and Batman’s special abilities and toys look like fun, but we also feel for their personal, private struggles.
Which leads to a final point about characters. . . Audiences are also pretty fascinated by Power, with a capital P. It’s what drew us instantly to Darth Vader in Episodes 4 and 5, before we knew he was a deadbeat dad; he was a f***ing force of nature. It’s what draws us most to Superman. We love Frodo and his Hobbit bromances, but we swoon for Gandalf, and to a lesser extent, Aragorn. Gandalf’s undisputed command of sorcery is his sexiest quality. OK, now I feel awkward. . .
Much has been made of Luke Skywalker’s Campbellian Hero’s Journey. It’s been a long time for most of us (cough), but let’s not forget how each of the revelations, victories, and defeats dropped our jaws wide during our first Star Wars viewings. Harry Potter’s world is marvelously, cleverly constructed and populated with wonderful friends, but the destiny planted on his brow as an infant has kept zillions of eyes glued to pages and movie screens, all feeding minds that need to know how everything turns out. The Lord of the Rings’ epic story never relents, never lets us or Frodo or the scattered pieces of the Fellowship relax; the edges of our seats are worn thin as we journey with them through their trials and dangers and enemy confrontations. We’re always interested and compelled to continue because fascinating new events are constantly unfolding, minor victories are being won, all while we’ve been teased with incredible excitement to come (Luke’s final confrontation with his Father and the Emperor, Harry’s final confrontation with Vol – - He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, Frodo’s final trek through Mordor to confront the Crack of Doom). We’re interested and compelled to continue because we care deeply about these characters, and might cry during Kirk’s sermon at Spock’s funeral.
The most neglected of the 4 elements, and also the most-criticized element of our 4 + 3 example franchises, if you listen to naysayers. In spite of the whines, J.K. Rowling’s style was light, comedic, and delivered her story in a way that kid readers found irresistible. Line up with the hipsters to bash George Lucas’s writing ability, but Yoda’s legitimately real-world applicable wisdom (from Episodes 4-6) and distinctive speech mannerisms have mesmerized generations. Stan Lee’s goofy conversational eloquence added fun and humanity to our Spider-Man experience. I find LOTR kind of dry at points, though not as desert-like as The Silmarillion – - but there’s still a lyricism and a grandiosity that works for the epic scale and scope of the story of the One Ring. Batman is coated in buckets of matte black style. Forget the movies, great and awful and campy; have you read “The Dark Knight Returns” graphic novel?
It’s often stated that the author’s first job is to tell the story, and I don’t disagree, but there’s no reason to tell the story in a dead or coldly descriptive way. A momentary departure from our usual examples: read William Gibson, read China Mieville, read Tom Wolfe, read John Steinbeck, watch a Quentin Tarantino film. Note the loving care they put into each sentence and scene and each description, where every paragraph is alive, and even non-smokers need a cigarette at the close of each. Their words never obstruct the Setting, Characters, or Plot, never bring the author too much to the forefront, but they help to convey the auteur’s “brand” and feel and style, which the audience will come to love and recognize even without seeing bylines. Don’t underestimate the power of The Force, and don’t underestimate the power of vibrant, distinctive prose to transport your reader.
Now, let’s be honest. . . You and I both love some artworks that are lacking in as many as three of these categories. It’s possible to succeed so well at one, that the others no longer matter. And hey, posit that certain stories can’t accommodate one or more of the four categories; I’ll back up your argument. An example of my own that had a formative effect on me as a writer: Christopher Reeve’s first Superman film did a masterful job of telling his story, of bringing depth, soul, and pathos to the cartoonish Superman and Lex Luthor, all within a fairly stock city setting. Let’s not even get started on the cherished, cheesy Godzilla films of yore.
As a sub-NYT Bestseller – - or even as a NYT Bestseller – - you need to master the art of the 4 elements: Setting, Characters, Plot and Style. If you’re too cool for Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, Harry Potter, or comic book heroes, then identify how these 4 elements have been utilized in your personal favorites and make them work for you.
Jack Mangan is an author, podcast pioneer, musician, father, etc., born in New Jersey, but now residing in Arizona. His “Jack Mangan’s Deadpan Podcast” features over 200 episodes of interviews, commentary, comedy skits, original music, and a great deal of community-contributed content. Jack’s “Spherical Tomi” was among the first wave of podcast novels, and was the first number one title at Podiobooks.com. His fiction and non-fiction writings have appeared in numerous online, print, and podcast venues, including such prestigious outlets as Michael Stackpole’s Chain Story project, Interzone Magazine, Podthology: The Pod Complex, Theme and Variations, 2020 Visions, Variant Frequencies, and Tales of the Talisman. He seeks to shake up perceptions and provoke independent thinking, through music, comedy, writing, and his outspoken, sometimes controversial views. More info about Jack Mangan and his work at: http://www.jackmangan.com.