Theme-Character Integration Part 4 - Selecting a Setting
Below you will find 8 steps to Selecting a Setting.
From the Amazon Vine program, I got a pre-publication proof copy of QUEEN OF THE AIR, a True Story of Love & Tragedy at the Circus, by Dean Jensen, published by Crown.
I chose it partially because I remembered the posts we've had here on Setting:
I selected this nonfiction book from the books offered by Amazon for review because I've long been a circus fan. One of my first ambitions (like maybe 5 years old?) was to be a circus flyer, but I was told that you could only be that if your parents were and you were born into it.
That was not exactly untrue. There is a genetic disposition that underlies acrobatic talent, and the Circus was and still is a difficult society to break into.
So many years later, when Marion Zimmer Bradley took me on as a writing student, and I mentioned CIRCUS as a passion, and my (as yet un-realized) ambition to create a brand new circus act which could only be appreciated by interstellar audiences, she revealed a project to me that she had been working on for about 20 years.
I've talked about MZB a great deal here, and I've mentioned this book many times, so I'm going to assume most of you have read it by now.
MZB used the various drafts of her circus novel (working title Flyers -- ultimately the publisher required the title change) to teach me many, many craft tricks that I'm passing on to you here. But I had not thought of the connection between this discussion of Theme-Character integration and Catchtrap until I was more than half way through Queen of the Air.
Reading this new non-fiction circus history that covers the same time-period that Catchtrap does, and summarizes and presents the exact same source material that Marion used (and which I dug into as I was studying her drafts), I suddenly realized that put together the non-fiction and the novel, illustrate exactly what I've been talking about in the Theme-Character Integration series.
I pointed out that I've been using an analysis of novel structure that distinguishes sharply between Story and Plot.
All professional writers that I know use this distinction habitually, and exactly as I do, exactly as I was taught by writers and editors. It's just that everyone calls the working parts of a novel by different terms, so new writers are always confused.
A finished work has these parts blended and integrated so deeply that the reader can not tease them apart to see how the parts were put together in the first place. A finished novel is an iPhone -- you can't get the case open, but it makes pretty pictures on the front!
So when a new writer gets "an idea for a novel" and just can see the whole finished product in their mind, they don't know what to do to achieve that exact novel. They know what they want to write will be exactly like the other books on the market, maybe like some best sellers, yet different, distinctively better! But now, looking at a blank screen, what WORDS DO YOU PUT DOWN to make people see your story the way you do?
This is a difficult and discouraging moment for beginning writers.
The answer is to take those marvelous novels that you've reread so often, that you want to write a book that will be better than, and analyze them for the component parts. You have to destroy the novel, take the cover off, take a microscope and pick the parts out with micro-tweezers and find out where the parts came from.
In these advanced craft posts titled Theme-something-integration, I've been showing you how to RIP A THEME FROM THE HEADLINES, to grab some epic story that exemplifies the issues and angst of the current times and cast it into a NOVEL.
And as I've been showing you this process, I have not once thought that I learned it from Marion Zimmer Bradley while studying her early drafts of FLYERS.
FLYERS became CATCHTRAP and burst on the scene, became a best seller, and opened many amazing doors to MZB's other non-SF, somewhat fantasy, writing. MISTS OF AVALON followed, "the women of King Arthur) and became a made-for-TV movie and spawned sequels. MZB's struggle with Catchtrap paid off big time. She got the idea for Catchtrap from "The Headlines" I've been telling you to mine for theme. And those headlines are delineated and summarized in the new non-fiction book Queen of the Air.
Watching MZB struggle to turn FLYERS into CATCHTRAP is probably not the first place I learned to mine the headlines, but it is where the techniques finally came to vibrant life inside my own mind.
MZB did not set out to teach me this. Not on purpose. Mostly because she didn't know she knew.
She was a supremely talented writer. She was born able to just do these things. She was writing and even started selling in her twenties. She just jumped in and started producing words -- lots and lots of words, most of which didn't say anything, but painted a picture.
Her assault on the project of creating this circus novel was the same.
She wrote lots of character sketches and scenes where people just talk to each other but nothing happens. Then she extracted, cut and tightened, focused and re-focused the theme without consciously thinking about it. She often didn't know the theme of a novel she had written until she reread it years later. Most of her books were written in a few months, sent in, published and that was that. CATCHTRAP as I said was written and rewritten over 20 years (as were a couple other projects that weren't SF or Fantasy).
Remember that I've pointed out in this Theme-Character integration series that Character is about the story -- and the plot is external, about the events that happen TO the character.
Because the events that happen to the character are caused by the character's actions which come from the character's decisions, which are often based on emotions triggered or focused (but not caused) by something another character did -- because the events are "integrated" into the character like that, it is very difficult to tease apart a finished work and say "this belongs to the story" and "this belongs to the plot."
Story and Plot when you're finished have to be almost the same thing.
But when you're trying to sort out what you want to write in your own mind, when you're facing that blank screen, you may need to know the difference between story, plot and theme, in order to figure out where to start.
Before you can figure out where in your character's life his story starts, you sometimes need to have an idea of where (in the world or out of it) the character IS. (i.e. you need a SETTING.)
Now previously, I pointed out that a novel ends where the Main Character (Point of View character) is finally and definitively impacted by the LESSON stated by the THEME.
When the PLOT EVENTS drive the THEME home into the character's inner-mind and ram their way into the STORY, you have come to THE END (and should stop writing; many new writers miss that point because the opening is in the wrong point in the character's life).
To create such an explosive ending, clarify the theme in your own mind. State it as a lesson the characters are presented with, reject, run from, flee at all costs, bankrupt themselves trying to avoid, and finally - finally-finally -- have to stand there and absorb the impact of THE TRUTH.
OK, so now read QUEEN OF THE AIR.
Now re-read CATCHTRAP. (you can skim real fast if you've read it before).
And here's what I saw reprising the historical facts I'd learned while studying FLYERS being transformed into CATCHTRAP.
MZB was as taken by "Circus" as an artform as I was, probably at a similar age. She dug up the history from before she was born and from when she was a little girl, and just absorbed the HEADLINES.
She zeroed in on what makes a circus STAR -- what captures audience imagination -- and focused on the history of the flying trapeze (which actually isn't all that long!)
She distilled out of the headlines and the gossip-stories about flying stars (Cordona in particular) a THEME -- a thesis, a lesson, a reality that her characters would deny and then finally have to accept.
That theme was embodied by the idea that the fueling essence of what makes A STAR -- (in any type of stagecraft, but particularly exemplified in FLYING) -- is sexuality. Not especially sex-appeal, but the driving force of ART IN GENERAL is sexuality.
That's the theme ript from the headlines. (read QUEEN OF THE AIR, really!)
The non-fiction book does not dig that deep into the material, but all the clues MZB discovered prying this stuff out of newspaper accounts and magazine articles are just laying there on the surface of the events described in this historical summary of Cordona's making the Triple the eye-popping feature of RINGLING BROTHERS BARNUM AND BAILEY CIRCUS.
MZB's corollary to this is that there are those who invent tricks, and those who perfect tricks.
I've found that to be true throughout all the Arts!
It's not "sex sells" -- in fact, I would argue that sex doesn't sell, and publishing and TV/movies are about to discover that.
It's not sex that appeals to audiences. It's ART that appeals to audiences.
Raw life-force of sexuality fuels the ART that appeals to audiences. That fuel source is what distinguishes some art from other art. The type of art fueled by sexuality's life-force is the type that rockets to the top of the charts.
ART SELLS -- sexuality is the rocket fuel that causes art to be created.
The trick that has been "invented" is to rip the veneer off the Art and reveal the underlying raw sexuality. But how much fun is an iPhone you've busted the cover off of?
The next step, the next big blockbuster (and it could be a Science Fiction Romance Novel!) will perfect that trick -- will make it repeatable and explosively popular. Sexual-power will become more sellable when the audience can't see how the trick is performed.
How much fun is it to read a plot-outline? To read a story-outline? A Beat Sheet?
There are peculiar people like you and me who get their jollies out of playing with these component pieces, but most people like their entertainment integrated, that is, they like their iPhone to have a cover and a pretty picture on the screen, with nice clear sound, rather than have all the components laid out across a desk top one tiny, nearly invisible piece after another.
To stick with the iPhone analogy, consider that the electricity stored inside the battery is the sex, the picture on the screen is what we buy the device for. Without the well charged battery connected to all the components, the device is pretty useless. But when fully charged, that device is sexy as hell. (OK, there are other brands perfecting that trick, and like tantric sex, they have longer lasting batteries.)
So in the creation of a Best Selling Novel, you start with something that catches your attention in today's HEADLINES. (for MZB that was circus flying, but any topic that intrigues you will do).
1) rip your topic from the headlines (separate it from reality)
2) research it's history in depth in reality
3) figure out WHY IT INTRIGUES YOU -- why is theme, theme is lesson
4) figure out what lesson you, as an ARTIST, see that others don't see
5) clarify a statement of the lesson you see ( Sexuality is driving force of Art was MZB's)
6) Take those real people (as MZB took Codona) and re-imagine them as Characters who can and must learn this lesson you have discovered (separate your Character from the reality of the people).
7) Find the setting that makes it necessary and inevitable for that Character to learn This Lesson.
8) TEACH YOUR CHARACTER HIS LESSON
To achieve step 8, use the SETTING to generate the EVENTS of the PLOT that will ram the lesson home into the character's story.
That's why choice of SETTING is important, and it is not arbitrary or random. Setting is not an independent variable. Change the setting, and you change the genre, which can change the theme.
MZB chose CIRCUS as the backdrop for a story that had to do with explaining to non-artist readers what it is about ART that drives individuals to take risks, to live cheap and poor, to refuse to give up doing what they do just because others reject them.
When separated from his Art, the Artist whithers away to dust as a character, becoming directionless, and making choices that are obviously disastrous but just not caring about the results of those choices.
The only thing that matters in life is that Art, and that Art (and thus life) can't exist without that sexual fuel.
If you compare QUEEN OF THE AIR with CATCHTRAP you will see, almost point for point (including the relationship between circus flying and movies, stunt doubling, etc etc) exactly where MZB got her best seller material, and how she changed that material to be unrecognizable yet identical.
Very possibly, the most important thing you can learn by a close comparison of these two books is how to make a thematic point off the nose, how to say it without saying it, how to show-don't-tell, and still be abundantly clear about what you are saying.
Characters, like people, learn their lessons best when they have no clue what they've learned.
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