Now look, I love Shakespeare. Like, a lot. In fact, I was actually a classically trained actor who did a fair bit of Shakespeare back in the day (mostly the comedies, although I still think I could have killed it as Richard III). And not only did I act in Shakespeare, but my first Young Adult novel was called Struts and Frets. As in:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
My book was mostly about a kid in high school who starts an indie rock band while dealing with his grandfather’s dementia. But throughout the story, he’s reading Macbeth for a school assignment, and passages from it keep coming up relevant to his life. Because for a play mostly about killing people, it’s remarkably thoughtful.
Anyway, I tell you all this not to impress you with my knowledge of Shakespeare, but so that you understand how hard it is for me to admit that, with the possible exception of The Tempest, I don’t particularly care for Shakespeare’s story structure. That is:
Order > Disruption of order > Return to order
It’s circular storytelling. When Hamlet and everybody else is lying on the ground dead, and Fortinbras is standing there going “WTF??”, I have to ask myself what did all this death and suffering accomplish? What, ultimately, was the point? I guess vengeance more or less eventually got served and Hamlet’s father can finally rest. But by that logic, there’s now a whole bunch of new folk who need their “foul and most unnatural murder” avenged. Otherwise, we’re just back to where we started before Claudius murdered Hamlet’s dad. We don’t even know what happens to the throne of Denmark after that, now that both Claudius and Hamlet are dead. Branagh’s film version of Hamlet suggests that Fortinbras takes over, and while I love that addition, it’s not directly supported in the text.
Shakespeare isn’t the only one who uses this format by any means. Most action/thriller/adventure movies rely heavily on the general structure of:
world/kingdom is good > villain threatens world/kingdom > hero saves existing world/kingdom from threat so it can return to being good again.
And I don’t mean to suggest that this particular story structure is bad in any way. As a reader or audience member, I find it pleasantly satisfying. But as a writer, I’m more interested in progressive storytelling. So rather than:
Order > Chaos > Order
Order > Chaos > New order
I like it when the push-pull of opposites creates something completely new. Something that feels transformative. Maybe it’s my desire to believe that true change within a society is possible. When you look at most societies, even fictional ones, they could stand some improvement. When I think of most “villains”, or tricksters, or chaos-makers, or whatever you want to call them, they see a need for improvement as well. Of course, most of the time their methods are selfish, or cruel, or just plain stupid. But that doesn’t necessarily invalidate the need for some kind of change within the society. And when the villain points that out, often the hero just shrugs and says oh well and gets on with restoring the status quo.
I am not interested in restoring the status quo. When I was creating the world of Hope and Red, I did so fully aware of its many imperfections regarding classism, sexism, and xenophobia. From the perspective of the status quo, the two heroes of this story, Hope and Red, are not the “good guys”. They are the chaos-makers. And by the end of the trilogy, the world they inhabit will look very different. Because those are the kind of stories I like best. I like to see real, irreversible progressive change.
There is of course some debate over what we might mean by “progressive” or progress. Some stories could in fact be closer to:
Order > Chaos > Entropy
It is change of sorts, but whether or not it’s actually progress is debatable. One could argue that Lord of the Rings is such a story. Sure, Frodo and pals save the day, but the cost is enormous. And really, is anything actually better at the end, or even as good, as it was at the beginning? The elves are leaving, the Ents are gone, the dwarves are hiding, and the hobbits are fading away. As Elrond says without a great deal of enthusiasm, the Age of Man is coming. For him, and for many of the magical folk, the “progress” of humanity isn’t necessarily a good thing.
When I begin world building, I’m always thinking not only of what it is, but where it’s come from and where it might go. The element of time is something to consider in your world. What was it like long before the story begins, what is it like at the beginning, and what will it be like at the end. Once you’ve begun to establish that timeline, it may help to examine the overall structure. Is yours a circle? A progressive line? A falling line? Perhaps it’s something else entirely, like a spiral. The Star Wars universe is often like that, where it seems to repeat things, but each time it comes around, it’s a little different (sometimes better, sometimes worse).
But as dour as that sort of story can be, I still prefer it to a world where drastic and permanent change to the status quo is simply not possible. Because a world that cannot change calcifies and grows stagnant.
Jon Skovron’s Hope and Red is out today, published by Orbit Books in the US and UK. The sequel, Bane and Shadow, is due out in February 2017. For more on Skovron’s novels and writing, be sure to check out his website, and follow him on Twitter and Goodreads.