Thursday, July 9, 2015

What is going on off-screen?

As an author, one of the hardest and most frustrating things about writing is keeping track of what happens off-screen. Characters do not disappear into a void when they are not on-screen, and plot events do not cease when they are not the focus of attention. Keeping track of all of them is necessary to keep the story's integrity in tact. There are three reasons for this: 1.) the Real World Effect, 2.)Advantage and Disadvantages and 3.) Historical Continuity

1. Real World Effect
The story must be made to seem real. It has to have that illusion that the story world has the same effect and solid presence as the real world. Otherwise, the reader can lose respect for the world and its characters, like they don't matter. The immersion effect is ruined if anything that is not on the page disappears into ether. There are naturally exceptions to this.

I once read a book (Unreliable Histories) where this hermit said that anyone that was not "here" (i.e. on the page) did not exist and was therefore not important. This tied into the plot and the story's physics and so it acknowledged this Narrative Void while adding to the immersion. It was a great story and I have the sequel in my queue. 
Another example here would be Order of the Stick web comic; Roy once disregarded an NPC because his purpose had been fulfilled and he was no longer relevant. The NPC had a few choice words to say about this, but like Roy said, he was longer important to the story and disappeared from it (he might have had one more scene after this; it's been a while). However, both of these examples incorporate the Narrative Void into their status quo and thus uphold and maintain immersion. Thus they are not really exceptions after all.

2. Advantage and Disadvantages
In various situations and confrontations there may be factors that benefit or hinder characters that are not immediately apparent on their person or, in other words, permanent. These advantages or disadvantages can be people or environments or simple items.  In my fantasy author way of thinking, I see this as Geo Effects or monster statuses or conditions.

If, for instance, my character became friends with a sapient and wise owl in this certain forest, then if my character needs some sage advice then wouldn't it make sense for him to return to this forest? If my character picks up a curse at some point that only activates in certain conditions, then it should activate when those conditions come up, even if they are far apart.

There's also the question of what is going on outside the character's knowledge that can affect them in positive or negative ways. What are characters friendly to him doing outside of his view and off the page? What are his enemies doing? What are neutral characters doing? How do all of these events, occurring outside reader perception effect the main events If I could make a 4D book then I could portray all this these things colliding into the main-line stream of events. Otherwise, it all goes on in my head and many notes. 

There is a trope called The Hero of Another Story, which is all about this. A character that has adventures off-screen and could, if the author so chose, be the hero of the story that the reader is reading. They are not but they could be. That stuff is happening in the story's world, and can affect the main hero because they are in the same world.

3. Historical Continuity
You can only fit so much of the story’s history into the current page. Much of it will have to be in the background. This means that it exists in a latent form. Potential narrative energy, you could say. This energy has to go somewhere. Otherwise, you violate the Law of Conservation of Energy, and the universe could crash. By that I mean cease to make sense. If you ignore it, then your story will not make sense anymore but causality will have broken down.  It can also disappoint fans who now believe their favorite story arcs are no longer canon.

 I’ve read about comic book writers of long runners doing a lot of creative things with this narrative energy, including when they’re trying to get rid of it so they’re not tangled by it.  They incorporate that into the story in order to justify why it happened within the context of the story. Whether or not these stories themselves make sense or have value in and of themselves is a debate for fans (and fan haters).

I've written scenes for the books of my Journey to Chaos series that I felt were great scenes, but then I re-read the series or books and I find something that throws a wrench into that. While these things are annoying, by building on them, I can create a more coherent universe with a richer mythos.

Another example of "what is going on off-screen" is The Hero of Another Story. I explain the usefulness of this archetype based on an article from Tvtropes.  You can read the full article there, and you can also visit  the character sheet for Journey to Chaos.

If you like what you see, the series is available for purchase at Amazon.

Brian Wilkerson is a freelance book reviewer, writing advice blogger and independent novelist. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

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