This is not another post on how writers craft stories. I'd apologize, but my best estimate is that there are sixty-three hojillion posts about that on the internet right now, and a half-assed search engine is capable of turning every one of them up for you, listed however you please. What I wanted to write about this Monday morning is more "meta" than that. I want to talk about handling overall direction, and "arc" in layered, complex narratives, and how anyone can possibly keep all of that in mind while writing serialized fiction.
Everything Starts Somewhere
An arc, as most of you probably know, is a line that starts at one point and reaches another via a curve. That curve can be long, short, steep, or shallow, but it's usually describing a smooth line that, if not straight and direct, eventually does end some distance away from the first. Every story has an arc; it's a way of fitting more narrative in between two points which would be short and relatively uninteresting, otherwise. The goal of a writer is to start at the beginning point, then describe that arc so that it's so interesting and appealing to the reader that they can't put the story down.
But, what happens when there are multiple narratives going in the same story? What if there's more than one writer working on more than one arc at a time, yet they're all in the same time line, or time span? Even with spread sheets and mind maps, it can be terribly difficult to keep the information for more than one arc in one's head at a time, and impossible if there's more than one writer. That's where the "zen" part enters, but it's not quite as mysterious as it sounds.
Becoming the World
One of the keys we've found, as we've been working on Menelon as a fictional and gaming setting for fantasy tales, is setting the overall direction, or a "meta arc", if you will, for our stories. Our first story begins in the city of Fernwall, in the kingdom of Cascadia, and never leaves the city boundaries. Fernwall is, by design, the most familiar and recognizable environment in the setting. We draw heavily from Victorian influences, particularly the cities of London and New York, where we can provide readers things they recognize -- horse-drawn carriages, top hats, sailing ships in the harbor, cops, street gangs of orphaned children, fancy dresses, brownstones, street lights -- and add to them a touch of the outre: street lighting via magical crystals, wizards as out-of-work war veterans, dragon sightings, an elven wood in the middle of the city, a pantheon of gods with priests who perform miracles, orcs nesting in the sewers under the streets. It's a little strange, but still a city the reader can feel comfortable in, for the most part. It's relateable.
So, the first point of our meta arc is "familiarity." Michael and I planted the reader someplace where they might recognize their setting, and then forget it until it pertains to the story itself. Once readers begin the arc of exploration and move into tales told beyond Fernwall/Cascadia, however, the stranger and more fantastical everything gets.
- Far from Cascadia, on the northern end of the same continent (Korak), up near the polar circle lives a sea-going, war-like nation of people who figured out how to thrive in their icy environment much as earth's Norse populations did. On Menelon, Balkland's roots are Viking-esque, but the result looks more Spartan, perhaps, or even Klingon-like. B'nach is a god who values honor in battle above all things, and his people share a distrust of magic, and a culture of adoration for miracle-working Heroes whom the god favors. Within its borders, however, is a vast stretch of forest that is autonomously elven, with a faeling circle at its center that functions as a portal to other such circles on the planet, and to those on other planets, as well.
- To the south, the peace-loving nation of Sudaan conquered its neighboring statelets on the continent of Menekhal hundreds of years before the start of Raven's Tears to become an empire, not through war and conquest, but through trade and cultural exchange. The emperor or empress is regarded nearly as a religious figure, a parent to the people, one who cares for them and their needs, often in a very parental way. There is no religious or political liberty in Sudaan; to live there is to worship the god Valïa, pay ones taxes, and always to speak well of the emperor and the empire, at least in public. Magic use proliferates, but in all cases must be licensed by the official imperial office. In the heart of the capital thrives the best-known college of magical alchemy in the world.
- The island of Bizhan, or what is left of it, is largely a "no-go" zone for anyone beyond the two sparsely settled ports that service ships on the route from Fernwall to Püran-Khir in Vin-Nôrë. The interior is a land of myth and legend, left in ruins, roamed by monsters born from the nightmares of sorcerers, and by a species of proto-people who rabidly resist any and all signs of settlement and civilization. The tales of ruins and lost treasures continues to draw the adventurous, and the foolish, who penetrate the interior and are never seen again.
By the time any reader reaches Rhtaan, the "lost world" upon the world of Menelon, the familiar markers are more difficult to spot. It's still a recognizably human civilization, but the cultural underpinnings make it a strange, dangerous, and beautiful place to be.
That's where Michael and I planted the "end point" of our arcs, as storytellers. From the haunting familiarity of stuffy Victorian morals all the way to the barbaric splendor of Rhtaan, we're hope we're presenting a set of stories in these settings that remain relateable, even when they're challenging ideas about what it is to be human.
The second definition of an "arc" from the screenshot above also applies to the storytelling process, especially on Menelon -- but how stories affect other stories and even generate them is a tale for another day. <3