New website is under construction.

Feb 29, 2012

What is Story Space?

Occasionally, I refer to "story space" and it occurred to me I ought to explain what I mean. I call it "space" for lack of a better term. It's not spatial, but I find it helpful to envision it as though it were to organize my creating process. (Insert Usual Caveat That Your Creating Process Will Differ).

A simple, although false, way to think about it is as word count. This is a good shortcut, as long as you understand it's a shortcut. Take a hypothetical novel from The Unfinished Song series. I'm weird in that I like to pre-determine how many chapters a book will have. Most authors don't do this. But I do, and in the case of this series, every book has seven "chapters." I'm aiming at 70,000 words for each book. That works out to 10,000 word chapters, which are on the long side--the length of a novelette. (Which works out for me, since I package them that way for the Serial.) However, it also means that there's a distinction between my Chapters and my Scenes. Each Chapter has ten to twelve scenes, often jumping around PoV from character to character. My word count is looser than my chapter count. If the book has only 50,000 words (like Initiate, the first book) then the chapters are shorter; if the book has 80,000 words (like Sacrifice, the third book), then the chapters are longer.

I think of the story spatially as a series of nested boxes into which I pour the story. (Again: weird. I know.) There are seven Chapter Boxes, and each is filled with 10-12 Scene Boxes in a neat little row. This doesn't mean the story itself is linear, since my stories are notoriously nonlinear, interweaving scenes from the past with scenes from the present. The story has to be read in linear order, however, and there are a limited number of chapters, scenes, and words that can "fit" into each story.

These boxes, these containers. This is story space.

But, Tara. Really. Neither chapter count nor even word count are set in stone. (Unless you're writing haiku or Category Romance.) True. And that's why I said that wordcount is only a shortcut to think about it. But one mustn't get hung up on wordcount. Wordcount exists only to serve the story. Wordcount is just another empty container.  It's an arbitrary limit, and it's important to keep in mind that it's arbitrary, but it's also important to acknowledge that stories need limits. No story can be everything to everyone one. Reluctantly, I've faced the cruel fact that I'm never going to have that Ultimate Blockbuster that all 6 billion people on the planet agree is the BESTEST NOVEL EVAH. Not until I perfect my mind control device. Until then, the next best thing is to made each story speak to it's own purpose.

Purpose, goals, themes. This is story space.

The story should include everything that move it toward its goal, unfolds its theme, deepens its purpose for being. It shouldn't have anything extraneous or irrelevant. Even if, pickles forbid, you are writing one of those meandering postmodern literary words that deliberately meanders, or worse, a satire with numerous inside jokes and snide asides, or worst of all, an epic fantasy that forces characters to traipse all over the map as a pretext to show off a variety of imagined nose-piercing ceremonies, each of those meanders is secretly on track to one's goal. There shouldn't be a sudden lurch into political rant in a sweet Amish Romance or a boring, dry-as-bone history of the Boxer Rebellion in a novel meant to be funny, or a long angst-filled chapter about middle-aged woman worried her husband is cheating on her in a thriller that is supposed to be moving at a faster pace than an Olympic sprinter. (And because we are writers we can all think of examples where, "Yes, if..." which is fine as long as you're not doing it just to be a smart alec.

Your story space is limited. You story space is precious. You only want to fill it with treasures worthy of your story. Whenever I start thinking about Character Based Fiction vs Plot Based Fiction or Idea Based Fiction, I begin to power-trip on overcoming all those bourgeois restrictions by writing a novel that will be superlative in every category. The BESTEST NOVEL EVAH. And I want to stuff that story space full of character building and world building and car race scenes even though my culture is neolithic.... and that's not the way to go. It's just not. I have to take a deep breath and remind myself that what I owe to each story is what makes that story grow, not what impresses me with my own cleverness. That seeming imperfection is actually what makes the story work. I can live with that.

At least until I finish my mind control device.


Jai Joshi said...

I'm a bit weird in that I like to sit around and count how many words I've managed to cut out of my longer pieces. I'm obssessed with cutting words because I like to have the most streamlined and sharp prose. (Whether it actually is streamlined and sharp is another matter but I like to think it is.)

Rather than story space, I think of story fat and work to cut it out.


Tara Maya said...

Trimming the fat is a worthy goal, but after you trim, what remains is the story space. You can't cut that because by definition, it's what needs to be there. The fat is exactly what is outside the story space, and that's what makes it unneccesary, why it must be trimmed, why we call it "fat" rather than the "meat" of the story.