As most of you know, I watch bad movies. I’m kind of a fan of them. I also think you can learn a lot by reading and watching the not-as-great stuff and figuring out how and where it went wrong. Read the good stuff too, absolutely, but don’t avoid the bad stuff.
Anyway, I was watching one particularly bad movie a week or three back, and it hit a problem. It hit a bunch, really, but we’re just going to dwell on the one. And that problem involved a television psychic.
Y’see, we’d clearly established the supernatural existed in this world. I mean, I’m pretty sure we weren’t supposed to think demons and ghosts had never existed before this moment in time. And since we’re dealing with demons and ghosts, a psychic isn’t exactly out of the question.
So… problem. Was this a real psychic or not? I mean, the character existed, yeah, but were they supposed to be a real psychic who had a TV show? Or were they a fake psychic who performed in a world where the supernatural was real? The directing, acting, and special effects didn’t really help clarify this vagueness. As story choices went, it needed a lot more thought and attention than these filmmakers gave it.
It reminded me a bit of an essay I read a few years back. I wish I could give proper credit on this but I’ve never been able to find it again. I thought I’d read it in the introduction of a Lovecraft anthology, but I’ve gone over my library a couple of times trying to find it. Point is—this isn’t my clever observation.
To paraphrase, this essayist pointed out that we couldn’t really have supernatural stories until the late 18th or 19th century. According to them, it made sense this was when the first names of the genre began to appear. Why?
Well, until then we hadn’t really defined what “natural” was, and that knowledge hadn’t been widely distributed, either. Sure, we can look back at tales from the Middle Ages and label them as ghost stories, folklore, or what have you, but at the time most people took these as… well, historical record. These were non-fiction. You didn’t put a horseshoe over your door with seven nails because it was a quaint tradition—you did it to keep the damned witch out.
(…and. prithee, we all know of who I speak when I sayeth “the witch”– Goody Lesswing! We all knowest this, I am just the one who sayeth it! Her evil eye did make my beans and corn shrivel up!)
In a way, this is the context issue I mentioned a few months back. Y’see, Timmy, if I don’t know what’s natural in a setting—what’s normal—I can’t tell you what’s unnatural. I can’t define an equation without having at least some idea what both halves of the equation are. It’s like me asking “are you faster than Phoebe?” How can you answer that if you don’t know who Phoebe is? Maybe she uses a cane. Maybe she’s my two-month old niece. Maybe she’s an Olympic sprinter. Hell, maybe she’s a racing greyhound. Likewise, how can I tell you a not-real story if I don’t establish what’s real and possible in this setting?Now, I brought that up so I can mention this…
I can write an amazing world. It can be a world at peace where nobody wants for anything. It can be a world of constant conflict. It could be a secret, magical world or a widely-known sci-fi one. One of the joys of fiction is we can create worlds where absolutely anything is possible. Turing-tested artificial intelligence. Dragon scales as currency. Space elevators. Zombie plagues. Swamp witches who keep you up at night tapping on your window.
But no matter what kind of world it is, no matter how wild things seem, for the people living in it, it’s normal. If aliens have invaded and we’ve been at war for the past six months and a third of the human race is dead… this is just the way things are. This is an average day. And no matter what kind of world they’re set in, average days are boring. Because they’re, well… average. They’re just part of the daily grind. Even if the daily grind is mashing moonberries into juice that we use to keep the gorgons calm while we milk them for antivenin.
Y’see, Timmy—yep, a double y’see Timmy. I know, it’s been awhile—this is why worldbuilding isn’t plot. It’s just setting. No matter how fantastic or dynamic the world might be, it’s still just the backdrop. That’s it. It’s the world my story’s going to happen in—not my story.
Plot is when something changes in my character’s world. It’s when the norm gets disrupted—no matter how amazing or horrible or routinely frustrating that norm might be. It’s the thing that stands out to them, that drives them into action, that makes today not an average day. When plot happens we should know it because our characters will know it.
When I’m planning my story, I need to be keenly aware of this. No matter how fantastic my world is, for the people living in it… its just the world. It’s just the way things are. We want to see people deal with the change, to rise to the challenge of situations that are new to them.
Not deal with an average day in their world.
I really need to get these edits done, and this weekend is the Writers Coffeehouse at Dark Delicacies, and the Dystopian Bookclub at the Last Bookstore, so getting something done for next time might be a bit of a challenge. But I’ll try to do something.
You do something, too.