As well as a moment by moment telling, story also moves us into a world becoming extraordinary. You are a flatmate, then, apparently, you are a flatmate from hell. People who are experiencing story find themselves in circumstances no longer safe. The real world is still present, but changed. The shift can be gradual or sudden, wondrous, sometimes deeply horrifying: love, loss, grief, illness, possible recovery, sudden news, travels and expeditions, things from the past erupting into the present. We sense that time is shaped differently from how we thought it was. Buried conflicts surface. Opposite forces face each other, struggle for domination. We ask, 'What's going on?'
In fiction, the extraordinary becomes real, the real extraordinary. But to make the shift from one to the other requires extraordinary skill on the part of the writer. Building up worlds we recognise as authentic helps to enact the shift and make it credible. Harry Potter begins in Privet Drive. The world of story—demons, goblins, witches, wizards, owls—waits to pounce on the normal and rip it apart, which is why the normal has to be there. 'Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense' (Rowling, 1997:1). Rowling's stories usually start with the ordinary, with characters representing its limitations. She makes us want to move forward into the strange, the eventful—to mystery.
'A certain man planted a vineyard, and let it forth to husbandmen, and went away into a far country.' The idea of parables was to speak in images people could understand. Jokes do it too. 'An Alsatian went into a post office. Can I send a telegram, please, he said.' Extreme disruption, yet against a background of the familiar. Even Harry Potter is unnerved at first by what he discovers, and this is so because his upbringing is still partly Dursley. Faced with Hogwarts, readers will recognise the experience of being inducted into a new school—a big one—where mysterious doors lead you astray, staircases go nowhere, as if the place itself had it in for you.
The American novelist Jean Hegland sees story occurring when characters find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. In her first novel, Into the Forest, there is a war somewhere; power stations fail for days and weeks, then months. The moveable point is circumstances. The characters—for the most part ordinary just like ourselves— will either cope or die. At first they resist this story-world, hoping it will end, longing for the familiar to return, and on occasions it seems it almost might. Other writers might be inclined to invent one or more extraordinary characters, so that they become the point of movement, circumstances shaped by their actions, thoughts and behaviour. But there must be some impact of strangeness—either the situation is strange or the characters are. Story will insist this is so. Into The Forest begins in one of these modes—it is circumstances—yet ends with the characters. Gradually it is they who become extraordinary, and the special quality of the extraordinary in this case is that instead of remaining dependent children in the face of disaster, together they decide to shape their future. In the following passage, the narrator, a girl of eighteen, writes her diary. Her younger sister Eva is heavily pregnant. Their parents are dead. They live on the edge of a forest in northern California, where only their resourcefulness allows them to survive.
Every moment of experience demands this constant effort of survival, yet with occasional rare times for reflection:
Again the moon grows full. There has been a break in the rain, but the weather is so cold and Eva so enormously big that we stay close to home, close to the stove and pantry and our warm mattresses. Eva dozes and drinks the tea I steep for her She knits odd little gowns from the silks our mother left, while I scan the encyclopedia for the dreams it contains, and write by the light of the round moon and the open stove, my pen scratching its tiny markings onto these last sheets of paper.
This afternoon I read: The oldest use of the word 'virgin' meant not the physiological condition of chastity, but the psychological state of belonging to no man, of belonging to oneself. To be virginal did not mean to be inviolate, but rather to be true to nature and instinct, just as the virgin forest is not barren or unfertilised, but instead is unexploited by man.
Children born out of wedlock were at one time referred to as 'virginborn '
This new state of being and action is their story and one they approach, as here, with increasing conviction and commitment. We might call it their story-world, one of danger, insecurity, but also determination, drive, anxiety and desire. Nothing is certain. To enter the forest, let go of the past, means to become virginal as defined by that encyclopedia: 'belonging to oneself'.
In sharp contrast with Hegland's gradual induction of her characters, Stephen King's novels move swiftly into their story-world. Yet he also prefers to make circumstances the driving point of a story. As he explains, too much focus on characters entangles him in a need for complicated plots, a feature of fiction King would rather avoid:
A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a what if question:
What if vampires invaded a small New England village (Salem's Lot) What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog (Cujo)
... In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.
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