Storyville: From Baseline to Variation—How to Set and Expand Expectations
In the past I’ve spoken in this column about setting up horror stories before tearing it all down, how to use Freytag to create your structure, and the balance between terror (suspense, clues, hints, foreshadowing) and horror (the reveal, the violence, the truth, the monstrous). Today we are going to talk about how in your story (or novel) you need to establish a baseline and then create variation—in story, character, theme, and more.
Show the Mundane, Show the Daily Events
Whatever your story, one way that you can start it is to wrap the mundane around the inciting event. It’s showing the family sitting around a breakfast table before the father goes off on a job interview, driving high up into the mountains (The Shining). It’s showing how a man lives, making his daily bowl of ramen noodles, living in a small apartment, alone and deep in thought (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). It’s daily life in a cell or job—such as in Gattaca or Fight Club. Set a baseline, show us how things normally work, and then slowly build up to the first variation—things getting weird, something different happening, a break in the pattern. Create a standard of living, the daily rituals, and then loop back around to let that all play out again and again—as you slowly increase the tension, and turn this life upside down. What you are doing here is building the world, showing us the rules, helping us to see the state of mind of your protagonist, as you slowly drop clues and hints about what might be coming.
The Rule of Threes
I’ve talked about The Rule of Threes before—but don’t think it’s limited to colors or sensory details or a singular sentence. Take this quote from one of my favorite novels, Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer:
“As I adjusted to the light, the Crawler kept changing at a lightning pace, as if to mock my ability to comprehend it. It was a figure within a series of refracted panes of glass. It was a series of layers in the shape of an archway. It was a great sluglike monster ringed by satellites of even odder creatures. It was a glistening star. My eyes kept glancing off of it as if an optic nerve was not enough.”
You can see three examples of the Crawler in this moment. But beyond that, you can use The Rule of Threes to give us the baseline and then the variation in your story or novel. Let me elaborate.
In my novel, Incarnate, the book is divided into three acts. So that’s the first example of the rule of threes—three characters, three plots, one arc that covers it all. They have similar themes and emotions, but different outcomes.
Beyond that, there is the fact that I knew in the first act that my sin-eater was going to have to do his ritual at least three times—set in an arctic wasteland, a horror story filled with death, nature, and creatures birthed from sin. I don’t want to give the whole book away, but it’s not surprising that the first time he shows us the sin eating, this is establishing a baseline—here is what it is supposed to look like, here is an example of how that might play out. The second time, I had to not only raise the stakes, but create the first variation on the theme. What was given birth to in the first scene, how can we be different, how can I make this more intense, and what might that look like? This is of course building to a climactic scene, with sin-eating at the core of the issue, and that has to blow the roof off. I had to really think about how far this needed to go, whether he would survive or not, how the community might be involved, and how the consequences of those actions might ripple out across the second and third acts, across two other characters and their stories as well. It’s repeating SOME of the baseline (the sin-eating ritual) but then figuring out ways for this to either go horribly wrong or transcend into something entirely different. It’s using different senses, different flavors, different monsters while staying rooted in the world you have built.
All Things Serve the Beam
In my classes I talk about Stephen King’s Dark Tower series and how it’s important for “all things to serve the beam.” What I mean by that is no matter what the tangent, or secondary story, or expanding cast of characters, or variety of monsters, we need to make sure we are serving the heart of our story. Remember the genre you are writing, and fulfill that expectation. Look at your plot and ask if you are staying on track. Is your character acting as he should, or if there is something weird going on, and he is acting out of character, what does that mean? You build up the framework and then hang the meat on it, creating something monstrous, and then expand enough for variety, entertainment, depth, and emotion—all while honoring the promise that you made when you first started telling this story.
You don’t want to be redundant, but you also want to make sure that you go deep enough, wide enough, high enough, and get strange enough. It’s showing us how things look on an ordinary day here on Mars, or in this particular circle of hell, or in this back alleyway as we smoke a cigarette, and wonder how things got so bad. The baseline helps us to understand what things look like when they are normal, before it all goes to hell, before it gets weird. How does a father act on a Monday before the downward spiral (Falling Down), how does Isaac go about his scientific studies before a strange Garuda enters his life (Perdido Street Station), how does this odd chameleon talk and speak before he’s thrust into an adventure (Rango)? Set the baseline, and then take us somewhere else, raising the stakes, increasing the tension, leading to a climax of biblical proportions.
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