Monday, May 25, 2009

A Tiny Box

You have before you, a box. What is it?

One of the requirements of a story is that it must have a setting. In television, there are some very real limits. It can take thousands of dollars and hundreds of man hours to build a set, so you don’t go creating totally new sets very often. Also, different locations may require additional actors. They can be expensive too. To balance out the cost of some of the more expensive shows, a television series will do an elevator show. I’m not sure if that’s the proper name, but it is essentially an episode in which two or three of the characters, usually the ones that like each other the least, are locked in a room (a stuck elevator) and they do nothing but talk. It saves the show a ton of money and it lets the actors shine.

In novels, we don’t have to worry about how much it costs to put our characters into a particular box. Our box can be as large as the Universe or as small as an atom and it doesn’t cost us anything. We can write about billions of characters or we can write about a single character and we don’t have to pay them a dime. A novelist is then able to take a more philosophical approach to storytelling and ask, what size of box is the best size?

Since it costs us nothing, space in a novel isn’t defined by the physical dimensions of the space as much as it is defined by the number of characters involved and how confined the space is. We can handcuff two characters to a pole in an empty warehouse and it is essentially the same amount of space as if we put them together in a stuck elevator.

Stories that use a lot of space almost never work well and it turns out that those elevator shows are often some of the best episodes. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a well loved novel. It is essentially a road trip story about two guys on a raft. There are other characters that come into play, but these two guys are stuck on the raft, floating down the Mississippi by the social situation of their day.

In The Red Badge of Courage, the nation is at war, a potentially large stage, but the story isn’t about the name. The story is about one young man who goes from being a coward and a deserter to a being war hero. At it’s largest, the box is as large as the regiment, but even that we only see in part.

Setting our story in a small world—a small box—gives it strength.

1 comment :

Cindy said...

I remember loving The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when I was younger, particularly because it was all about the characters. Thanks for the interesting post.