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The Reason to Build a Box

I’ll admit, that’s a strange post title for a site called Writer UN-Boxed.  But stick with me.  In certain circumstances, you may want to write inside a box.

By that, I do not mean a box of expectations, as in slavishly following storytelling “rules”.  Strict adherence to genre rules, for instance, might seem to please genre fans, but actually only results in cookie cutter novels.  Universal story templates such as the Hero’s Journey or three-act structure are meant to inspire but, treated too rigidly, can also constrain.  Really, any kind of imitation results only in  routine novels.

To be effective, fiction must to some degree be original.  Thinking outside the box is helpful, no question.  That said, I sometimes meet writers who are overwhelmed by their choices.  They have a buffet of possible projects and a plethora of intentions.  They agonize over what to write and swim in a sea of directions in which to take their stories.

For such writers, there are too many possibilities.  They are paralyzed, unable to choose.  They have fallen prey to a phenomenon that social scientists call maximization.  It’s a kind of fear: the fear that there are better options.  Examining every last possibility might seem to be a virtue, a smart sifting, but while agonizers do tend to make better decisions they also are less satisfied with what they ultimately select.  They are haunted by the possibilities still lingering.  What if they missed out on a better choice?

(If you’re interested in the science behind the common sense, you can find it here.)

In daily life, the solution to drowning in possibilities lies in determining what is the minimum positive outcome of a given decision.  More simply, instead of wondering what would be perfect, instead decide what would be good enough? 

However, in the realm of storytelling there’s another solution: narrow down the story parameters.  Simplify.  Set a story framework.  Let a small snapshot imply a vast landscape.  Fire a bullet instead of building a bomb.  The Great American Novel cannot possibly be about everyone and everything.  It can only be a slice of the whole cake.  (And, really, who needs to eat a whole cake?  Ingest one slice and you’ve got the idea.)

What kind of story parameters do we mean?  One is the framework of a known story type: a murder mystery, a romance, horror or others.  The search for a killer is an easy way to explore many aspects of a story world.  A romance lends lots of narrative scope while always giving us one big thing to hope for.   Slaying a monster shines a torch light on the monsters inside us.  Think microcosm, for that is what a story can be.

Tight timeframes or fenced in settings also create a potent focus.  A story set in a single room, or all on one day, or spanning a single calendar year, or set against a deadline all have the effect of compacting great meaning into a container.  Think metaphor.  Isolated on lifeboat with a live tiger.  Trapped in a maze.  The most dangerous game.  Big Brother is watching.  Marry by the end of the tax year, or else.  The universe is too vast to capture, but luckily there are an infinite number of snow globes to shake and set swirling.

In workshops, I find that deeply developing only one aspect of a story can be the catalyzing agent in the necessary chemical reaction.  Sometimes it is delving into backstory and finding the single episode that shaped a protagonist into the character whom we meet on page one.  At other times, the balm for an author is pinning down a protagonist’s dark moment and discovering what he or she has lost—and needs to gain.

In other cases, it is detailing the story world that helps.  You wouldn’t think that exploring “setting” would be the thing that gets anxious authors to settle down but, magically, that seems to be so.  Visualizing a place makes it real.  In addition, understanding the conflicts inherent in a place makes it okay to bedevil a character with one particular problem since, after all, everyone has crap to deal with.

With that in mind, consider some ways to box your story:

What mythic role must your protagonist fulfill?

What family legacy rules your protagonist?

What childhood enemy lives on?

What grudge is not forgotten?

What lost love lingers, unresolved and forever haunting your protagonist?

What past achievement can never be equaled?

What past failure can never be lived down?

What past terror returns?

What single human quality does your protagonist most embody?

Who in the story represents the opposite human quality?

What is your protagonist’s singular desire?

What person, object or unique experience embodies that desire?

Who can force an impossible deadline on your protagonist?

What genre rule must you absolutely obey?

What genre trope will you reverse?

How short can you make the story’s timeframe?

How tightly can you set the story’s physical boundary lines?

What is the largest social conflict in this story world?

What’s this story world’s most glaring irony?

How is your protagonist thrust in the middle of that?

What is the one visible thing that could be done to fix things?

Why is your protagonist the one and only person who can do that one thing?

If you build a box you can only fit a limited number of things in it.  However, storytellers don’t fill their boxes with junk.  A storyteller’s box is a repository of treasures, memories, wisdom and more.  It’s Pandora’s Box.  It’s a Hope Chest.  It’s a magician’s top hat with a rabbit inside.  It’s a wardrobe, the back of which is a portal into a fantastic realm.

Tell a story with tight focus and your telling a story as huge as all of history and as deep as the human heart.  You can’t help but do that.  You will by default, because your intention in the first place is so vast and urgent.  None of that energy is lost when you tell a story inside a box.  If anything, when we open that box we hear an echo and experience a sense of wonder bigger than the container built to hold it.

Are you telling a story inside a box?  (Or could you?)  Tell us about that.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.