writing

News of the World

“In a brief statement Friday night, Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge confirmed that He-Who-Must-Not-Be Named has returned to this country and is active once more. “It is with great regret that I must confirm that the wizard styling himself Lord – well, you know who I mean – is alive and among us again,” said Fudge, looking tired and flustered as he addressed reporters.

Here is the beginning of an article in the Daily Prophet, pulled from the opening chapters of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter: The Half Blood Prince. The Harry Potter books, incredible on so many levels, also happen to be a master class on how to tie in media from a fictional world to help build out connection and context for the reader. The use of articles like this one throughout the Harry Potter series do not only give the world that J.K. Rowling created an immense sense of realism and weight, but they also serve as an effective and palatable form of exposition.

There are always going to be pieces of world that need to be explained to the reader. This is done through exposition. It is often long and tedious. The corn husk you have to peel away before you get to the real fruit of the story. One way to do it smoothly is to introduce a character or a protagonist who is completely new to the world. She needs everything explained, and in explaining to her, the other characters in the story also explain to us the readers. Harry Potter, of course, is a perfect example of this. But also think Percy in the Percy Jackson series, Buzz in Toy Story or Elliot Page’s character in Inception – the talented new architect.

This introduction of information through the use a media that the characters themselves would experience in the world we are reading about (or watching) offers a seamless and engaging way of delivering information. Radio, newspapers, social media, TV, etc.

A fictional newspaper featured in Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel

The most recent example I’ve found is in Disney’s new Falcon and Winter Soldier TV mini series on Disney+ (I really enjoyed it). At the beginning of one episode, before anything else, they show a TV commercial that we understand exists in the world we are watching. We don’t see the commercial over the shoulder or through the eyes of one of our characters. We simply see the commercial full screen, then it cuts to the opening credits. The specific commercial is never mentioned in the story or by the characters, it simply serves as a more entertaining way of giving important context and expositional information than having two people explain to each other while walking through a hallway (no hate at The West Wing, I love the walk-and-talk). It worked perfectly in the show.

Wes Anderson gives us menus and newspapers. J.K. Rowling gives a radio network and a gossip column. And now, Marvel has given us a slew of fictional TV commercials.

Deepen your worldbuilding and cut your exposition time in half. Give context via the media your characters would actually experience within your world. Explain it with an article, not just a monologue from your mind. I’m the official sales rep for the fictional news outlet.

A still from Wes Anderson’s upcoming film “The French Dispatch”

Finding the Purpose

Upon reading a recent post where I discussed pens and an old friend from high school, my sister Lauren pointed out her wish for a broader why? in the writing.

“As it stands,” she said, “it’s warm and innocent and beautiful.” Stop it, I’m blushing.

“But if I had a wish,” she went went on, “I’d love to read this with a little more about the why’s, the lessons, or a parallel into some other life truth or something weaved in.”

Well. Yes, she’s right. In writing, I so often find myself stopping at my original thought. But this often leaves my writing feeling unfinished, without depth. When I finish my original thought, I need to stop and think how does this connect to broader life? Why does this matter?

This is something that Hank and John Green do beautifully in the weekly videos on their Vlogbrothers YouTube channel.

Hank even describes this phenomenon at 2:55 in this lovely video about arbitrary human design.

And just for fun, here is another Vlogbrothers video, made by John this time. It’s one of my favorites.

I think the thoughts bouncing around in my head at present can be summed up in the words purpose and meaning. That’s what I feel I’m often missing in my work.

What is the purpose of this story? Of this drawing? The meaning of this video? What am I hoping for friends and folks to get out of this thing I’m making? If it is simply beauty, then great. But there is often more room than I think for deeper purpose and beauty to live side by side.

That’s something I’m trying to learn right now. How to infuse purpose and meaning.

Those are very abstract words that do not lend themselves to a very tangible goal, but I will work on reducing the thought down in the stew pot of my mind to a more understandable objective.

Margaret Atwood’s rule of conflict

Today is the 20th day of my 30-Minutes-of-Learning-Challenge. Gosh, it just rolls off the tongue.
Yesterday, I finished a fantastic course on storytelling by Neil Gaiman on Masterclass. Today, I started a course on creative writing (again on Masterclass) by Margaret Atwood.

One thing she said in this first lesson really stuck out to me.

“A story needs a break in the pattern.”

Her way of thinking about conflict is simply to frame it as a break in the pattern for the world or character you’re focusing on. For example…

“Susan gardens every day. She loves to garden – weeding and tending to her plants for hours upon hours. One day, Susan again grabbed her gloves and shovel, pulled on her crocs like always and clomped out to the backyard to find a severed hand sitting next to her tomato bushes.”

Susan gardens every day. Today, a hand was sitting in her garden. This is a clear break in the pattern, a clear break in the routine. It immediately creates conflict for our character, and it can immediately create intrigue for the reader.

I quite like this way of thinking about conflict in story.