Welcome to my worlds!

I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), the superhero novels Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collection, There is No Wheel. In 2017, I'll be releasing a new superhero series, The Butterfly Cage. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Four Categories of Stories

The other day, I was talking to someone about the types of books I wrote and I jokingly said my books were about interesting people doing interesting things. As if one would waste time writing about uninteresting people doing uninteresting things. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, actually, if you change the word 'uninteresting' to 'ordinary,' that second formula is also a perfectly valid approach to literature. One of my favorite books of all time, Winesburg, Ohio, is very much about ordinary people doing ordinary things. The same is true of the novel Things Fall Apart. While it's about an unfamiliar culture to most American's, most of the book documents a very average member of that culture immersed in an typical life.

This line of thought led me to envision the chart at the end of this essay. This is definitely evidence I've sat through too many corporate presentations! Still, I thought it might be useful for other writers. Basically, most stories are going to fit in four broad boxes. You can write about ordinary people doing ordinary things. You can write about ordinary people swept up in exceptional circumstances. (I've put 1984 and Grapes of Wrath in this category. In both cases, average people are faced with challenges most readers would consider extraordinary.) You can also write about extraordinary people doing exceptional things. I've placed Harry Potter and Ender's Game in this category. These are stories about characters who possess abilities beyond those of ordinary people, swept up in grand events where the fates of thousands of people are on the line. My own writing tends to fall into this box.

Finally, one could also write about extraordinary people doing mundane things. Watchmen has plenty of world-shaking action, but I put it in this category because so many of the memorable scenes involve superhuman characters doing ordinary things like eating, attending funerals, and sleeping together. Yeah, it's impressive when Dr. Manhattan teleports to Mars, but that sort of stuff happened all the time in comic books. On the other hand, there's a scene where Rorshach is eating beans directly from a can as he talks with another character. You've never seen Batman doing this. My novel Nobody Gets the Girl taps into this formula for some chapters, like when Nobody and the Thrill go to a shopping mall and eat in a food court. But, I wracked my brain trying to think of a book that stayed completely in this box and couldn't. On the other hand, it's a favorite formula for television sit coms. The Munsters is one extreme, but shows like Big Bang Theory also belong in this box, where genius physicists are seen eating at cheesecake factory, shopping for comic books, and doing laundry.

One huge flaw in trying to make the argument that all stories fall into one of these four categories is, of course, that different parts of different books fall into different areas. A book can meander through all four squares. And, it's hard to say what an "ordinary" character or an "average" life is. I've put 1984 in the category of being about an ordinary man in exceptional events, but one could argue that, from the perspective of the novel, the events were mundane, every day life, and that he was exceptional enough to try to rebel and change his world.

So, perhaps the grid is utter bullshit. But, I took ten minutes to draw it, and half an hour to write to this essat, so it would be a shame not to post it now:

Feel free to dispute! Or, if you can think of novels that fit in the exceptional characters/ordinary events box, let me know.


VCooper said...

Thanks for this post! Here's another way of looking at it -- Vonnegut plotting the shapes of stories on an x-y graph:



strat said...

Quite challenging but its helpful and can learn from it.
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