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The Extraordinary World: How Soon and How Little?

Two months ago here on WU, I examined the concept of the “ordinary world”, familiar from the plot template of the Hero’s Journey, the early story phase in which the normal state of things is established, the platform from which a protagonist will depart for adventures and to which a protagonist will return when all is accomplished and the world is again set right.  We found that the seemingly-humdrum world is, in fact, shot full of tension that presages the story to come.

On the other hand, what about story settings that are far from our own time and/or place?  Different cultures, different countries, different periods of history and even made-up times and places, as in fantasy fiction, present another kind of challenge.  Such settings need to convey to readers what is dissimilar to our familiar world, while simultaneously making the exotic world understandable and relatable, meaning in some way perfectly ordinary.   How can that be accomplished smoothly, without infodump or a deep-end dive into what is bewilderingly new?

In some cases, a straightforward introduction to a different world is a good approach.  Jenny Han’s P.S. I Still Love You (2015), is a sequel to her charming YA romance To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2014), the story of sixteen-year-old Korean-American girl Lara Jean Song, who writes secret love letters to the boys she’s crushing on, letters which she naturally keeps hidden.  When the letters are mistakenly (?) posted to their unaware subjects, complications, as they say, ensue.

In P.S. I Still Love You, Lara Jean’s crush on hunky Peter is now widely known, as is a notorious interlude with him in a hot tub on a lightly-supervised school trip.  As the novel opens, though, it is New Year’s Day, which entails special traditions in Lara Jean’s Korean culture.  Dressed in a hanbok, she participates in one of them:

We get the bowing out of the way first.  In Korean culture, you bow to your elders on New Year’s Day and wish them luck in the new year, and in return they give you money.  The order goes oldest to youngest, so as the oldest adult, Grandma sits down on the couch first, and Aunt Carrie and Uncle Victor bow first, then Daddy, all the way down the line to Kitty, who is youngest.  When it’s Daddy’s turn to sit on the couch and receive his bows, there’s an empty couch cushion next to him as there has been every New Year’s Day since Mommy died.  It gives me an achy feeling in my chest to see him sitting there alone, smiling gamely, handing out ten-dollar bills.  Grandma catches my eye pointedly and I know she’s thinking the same thing.  When it’s my turn to bow, I kneel, hands folded in front of my forehead, and I vow that I will not see Daddy alone on that couch again next year.

Were you caught by surprise?  Did the lonely couch cushion next to Lara Jean’s widowed father, and her kneeling before him, hands folded in front of her forehead, tug at your heart strings?  Jenny Han knows how to slay us.  Lara Jean’s compassionate ache for her father, and the absence of her mother, is something we can instantly relate to.  Furthermore, Han is not coy about culture.  She presumes that her readers are mostly not Korean-American.  Why should she?  Why presumptively limit the novel’s appeal?  Han just goes for it: “In Korean culture…”  What might have been self-conscious instead becomes a winning cultural pride.

What if a novel’s culture is not as charming or easy to like as that?  What if a culture is actually a problem and a source of conflict?  Angie Thomas’s YA best seller The Hate U Give (2017) is exactly that: a novel about a world of trouble, specifically the world of Black Lives Matter, in which unarmed young African-American men can be gunned down by police without consequence.  Thomas cannily situates a sixteen-year-old African-American girl, Starr Carter, between two cultures.  On the one hand, Starr lives in the crime-ridden neighborhood of Garden Heights; on the other hand, she attends a luxe private school for the privileged, Williamson Prep.

As the novel opens, Thomas must portray the world of this caught-between-cultures girl, as so we find her at an out-of-control party in Garden Heights with her friend Kenya:

We break out the crowd.  Big D’s house is packed wall-to-wall.  I’ve always heard that everybody and their momma comes to his spring break parties—well, everybody except me—but damn, I didn’t know it would be this many people.  Girls wear their hair colored, curled, laid and slayed.  Got me feeling basic as hell with my ponytail.  Guys in their freshest kicks and sagging pants grind so close to girls they just about need condoms.  My nana likes to say that spring brings love.  Spring in Garden Heights doesn’t always bring love, but it promises babies in the winter.  I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of them are conceived the night of Big D’s party.  He always has it on the Friday of spring break because you need Saturday to recover and Sunday to repent.

This is Starr’s world, yet she doesn’t belong.  She’s an outsider, shy, maybe now a little too prep for the ‘hood.  Sex is thick in the air.  So is danger, of pregnancy at first but quickly also of violence.  Notice he sprinkling of ‘hood slang: “Freshest kicks”.  “Hair colored, curled, laid and slayed.”  Contrast that with Starr’s prim ponytail.  Anyone who has ever felt like an outsider—and I will venture that one or two writers reading this post know that feeling—can identify.  We have a familiar feeling to hold onto even as we plunge into a party probably unlike most we attend—and which ends in an experience no one should ever have.

What if the world of your story is actually familiar to us, but at the same time is unique to your novel’s characters?  What if the different element is, say, a family?  John Freeman Gill’s The Gargoyle Hunters (2017) is set in New York City.  Pretty standard.  However, the novel’s protagonist, thirteen-year-old Griffin Watts, does not come from any old family.  His family’s business is architectural salvage.  In the novel, this business–saving a disappearing New York carved by nameless immigrants—becomes his father’s obsession.  Griffin is recruited to find, salvage, and sometimes steal decorative architectural elements like gargoyles from tenements and skyscrapers alike.

But hold on…New York City isn’t terribly unfamiliar to us.  It’s the setting of countless novels, movies, TV shows, comic books and songs.  There’s really no way to make it strange, so Gill tackles that challenge not by making the city different, but by making its longtime denizens eccentric:

Why do we stay?  Why do we members of this oddball tribe known as native New Yorkers stick around, decade upon decade, as so much of the city we love, the city that shaped us in all of our wiseacre, top-of-the-heap eccentricity, is razed and made unrecognizable around us?

We are inured to so much bedlam here, so many exotic daily distractions, yet are somehow inexplicably surprised and pained every time a new wound opens up in the streetscape.  We barely notice the shrieking ambulance whizzing past or the man in the octopus suit struggling to get all his arms through the turnstile, but let them tear down the Times Square Howard Johnson’s or the Cedar Tavern or Rizzoli, let them shutter H&H Bagels or CBGB or the Ziegfeld, and we wince as if our own limb has been severed.

“Every block, it’s just one goddamn ghost after another,” he big sister, Quigley, told me last year when she’d finally had enough and decided to move away for good.  “I’m tired of being homesick in my own hometown.”

What are we given to hang onto here?  It’s this: the feeling of a city transforming around us in ways that we don’t like.  Familiar places vanishing.  Institutions going extinct.  Do you remember the Rizzoli bookstore on 57th Street?  (I do.)  H&H Bagels?  (If you remember that shabby, iconic Upper West Side bagel emporium, I’m impressed.)  Well, you may not remember those places but I’m sure you can identify with the dissatisfaction born of change.  Here that feeling it is elevated and heightened to New York level.  It’s a grumbling lament like no other, because no other place is quite like the Big Apple.

(BTW, the inspiration for Gill’s amazingly researched novel was one of the most astonishing crimes in the annals of New York: the theft of an entire building, the first cast-iron building built in 1849, a style you will know if you’ve ever walked through the neighborhood called SoHo.)

Okay, so what about future and dystopian settings?  When the recognizable world is gone, but remnants and reminders remain, how can you bring readers into such a setting in a way which allows them to relate?  By now you may be seeing a pattern.  Margaret Atwood’s iconic The Handmaiden’s Tale (1986) has a premise with which you probably are familiar: America has been replaced by a religious theocracy called Gilead.  Because birth rates are disastrously low in this time, the few fertile women (handmaidens) are enslaved and made to bear the leaders’ children.  The novel’s heroine, Offred, is one such.

As the novel opens, we find Offred in the place of her training and preparation for her new life:

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.  The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair.  Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, and undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light.

There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation, of something without a shape or name.  I remember that yearning, for something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back, or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.

We yearned for the future.

I imagine you have spent time in a high school gymnasium.  The painted lines of the basketball court are familiar.  The sounds and smells and atmosphere of sex at school dances, too.  Rich and pungent, Atwood makes use of our sense memories to locate us in a recognizable place.  She also captures the inchoate longing of our adolescent, hormone-drugged teenaged selves, yearning for…what?  We hardly knew what, but in the oppressive world of Gilead—where Offred will undergo a grotesquely prim monthly rape—the long-ago fumbling and confusion of teenage sex now seems like an impossible freedom.  Gilead is different.  Offred’s feelings, on the other hand, are familiar.  Offred—or rather Atwood—captures for us both.

Phillip Pullman in his His Dark Materials trilogy took us to a magical alternate Earth, one eventually interconnected with ours.  In 2017, he delivered the first of a prequel trilogy: The Book of Dust, Volume One: La Belle Savage.  It concerns Malcolm Polstead, a spy, but who as we meet him is the son of an innkeeper whose establishment, the Trout, is on the bank of the Thames:

Like every child of an innkeeper, Malcolm had to work around the tavern, washing dishes and glasses, carrying plates of food or tankards of beer, retrieving them when they were empty.  He took the work for granted.  The only annoyance in his life was a girl called Alice, who helped with washing the dishes.  She was about sixteen, tall and skinny, with lank dark hair that she scraped back into an unflattering ponytail.  Lines of self-discontent were already fathering on her forehead and around her mouth.  She teased Malcolm from the day she arrived: “Who’s your girlfriend, Malcolm?  En’t you got a girlfriend?  Who was you out with last night?  Did you kiss her?  En’t you ever been kissed?”

He ignored that for a long time, but finally rat-formed Asta leapt at Alice’s scrawny jackdaw daemon, knocking him into the washing-up water and then biting and biting the sodden creature till Alice screamed for pity.  She complained bitterly to Malcolm’s mother, who said, “Serves you right.  I got no sympathy for you.  Keep your nasty mind to yourself.”

Wait…what?  Daemon?  Rat-formed?  Well, if you are familiar with His Dark Materials, then you know that in Pullman’s world human beings are accompanied lifelong by animal familiars, daemons, who represent a human’s animating spirit.  (Rat…spy…get it?)  Here, though, Malcolm’s daemon is given no explanation.  No context is set.  Asta, the daemon, is just there, quietly unobserved until there’s a reason.  What gets a lot more attention is the bullying that Malcolm receives at the hands of dirty-minded Alice.  His humiliation, grudgingly borne, is entirely familiar.  It’s easy to identify with Malcolm.

And that’s the point: When the world of a story is in any way unfamiliar, the trick is to pair it with human emotions that are easy to relate to.  We may not recognize where we are, but we will know how we feel.

Notice the balance, as well: What is new is minimal, the feelings that are familiar are explored in detail.  That element that grounds us is…us.  Handled that way, the crazy place in which we find ourselves, be it far future or among an eccentric family, will always, and quickly, be a place that we feel that we know.

Are you working with an unfamiliar setting?  What feelings are you using to draw us in and make us at home?


About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].