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Marginal Notes

The Story Beyond the Story

A commercial airline pilot recently described how his job gave him a sense of how large the world really is. He would leave his home for London and drive to the airport among hundreds of other motorists and pedestrians going about their daily business. At the end of the day, he would land in New York or Johannesburg or Ankara and drive to the hotel among hundreds more. Eventually, watching these people pass by and imagining their lives made him aware that the people he’d seen that morning in London were still going about their daily business, just like the people at his destinations. This simple imaginative exercise left him with a sense that the entire planet was full of individuals living out their daily lives.

It’s natural to see the world only in terms of the people you encounter every day. We all know theoretically that there are seven and a half billion more of us out there, going to school in Lagos or heading to work in Asuncion or shopping for groceries in Osaka. We’re just not aware of them. We don’t feel they’re out there the way the pilot did.

It’s also natural to see your characters only in terms of the events of your story, giving them enough background to convey their personalities, making minor characters distinctive enough to be remembered. But you can give your story more depth – make your imaginative world bigger – if you learn to pay attention to the lives that your other characters, especially minor characters, live when they’re offstage.

When you create a minor character, think about who they are when your readers aren’t watching them. What do they do for a living? What are their good and bad habits? Married? Kids? What were they doing just before they entered the scene? What will they keep doing after they exit, stage right? If you can give your readers hints of life taking place beyond the confines of your story, you’ll make your fictional world feel not only larger, but less artificial and more authentic.

I’m currently working on a mystery in which the detective, in trying to get a sense of who the main suspect is, interviews the couple who lives next door to her. This couple only appears once in the book, for a couple of pages, but in that time readers see them arguing over who the suspect was. There’s no real anger or animosity in the argument. They still love and respect one another. They just have different ways of looking at the world and are comfortable expressing them. It’s clear this argument has, in various forms, been going on for years and will continue for years to come – it’s woven into their marriage. This glimpse of their life together stretching on past that one scene makes the couple feel more real, and the writer’s world feel larger.

The need to give readers a glimpse of what’s happening offstage applies to your settings as well. Of course, you know to use telling details to quickly create a setting readers will be able to imagine clearly. Give thought to your setting’s history, as well. How has it developed over time? Are there hints of its past in its present – a bathroom cut out of a closet in an old mansion divided into apartments, painted-over but still visible graffiti on a bridge, or an old factory converted into work-sharing space? Think about your setting’s backstory, work it out in your mind. Even if you don’t write out that history on the page, bearing it in mind will give your settings depth and authenticity. Readers will feel they’ve been there for years before the story began and will still be there years after it ends.

Perhaps the greatest example of this kind of in-depth setting creation is Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Decades before he began to write The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien had worked out centuries of history of the battles between Mordor and Gondor. The Mines of Moria are full of ruined echoes of their glorious past. We never do find out what happened to the Entwives. Granted, he also had the advantage of characters who were eons old, which blurs the line between ancient history and living memory. But even so, one of the main draws of The Lord of the Rings is the sense that the world has been developing in all of its detail for millennia.

When the Fellowship of the Ring are about to enter the Mines of Moria, Aragorn reassures them that Gandalf “is surer of finding the way home in a blind night than the cats of Queen Berúthiel.” In the hands of nearly any other author, this would simply be a throwaway line, and Berúthiel a made up name. Not for Tolkien.

Berúthiel (from the Sindarin, meaning “angry queen”) was a Black Numenorean who married Tarannon Falastur, king of Godor. Despite hating cats, she had ten, nine black and one white, whom she trained to spy on the men of Godor. She despised both the king and the sound of the sea – they lived in the seaside town of Osgiliath – and, not surprisingly, produced no children. Eventually, Tarannon exiled her, putting her and her cats on a ship and launching them out to sea. She was never seen again, and her name was struck from the Book of Kings, though apparently not from Aragorn’s family memory – she was a great-to-the-several-dozenth aunt.

Tolkien had worked all of this out when he wrote that one, throwaway line. This is why, as one critic put it, if Middle Earth doesn’t exist, it ought to.

That is how you create a sense that your story is taking place in a larger world.