The Corral

There’s a new chapter of Selene up today, and a short announcement: regular weekly posting will resume in December.

Here, have something different:

Writers that draw primarily on the imagination rather than on observation have to be careful. A string of strange events soon becomes meaningless, unconvincing and of no interest, however brilliant the individual beads on the string may be. The paradox is that the imaginative writer is more strictly confined than is the social observer. I call it the “What-if Corral”. I’m allowed to construct the corral out of any materials I see to be relevant; but, once they’re chosen, I’m penned within the corral by the logic of the corral, which must not be broken. (Alan Garner)

The whole thing is really worth a long, slow read. This one passage had particular resonance for me, however.

People ask me about worldbuilding and structure. I try to tell them that it’s more like world-excavating–you’re unearthing something that lives below, but that’s not quite the whole explanation. Every story carries in it the seeds of its ending, and the whole is reflected in the parts and vice versa.

Restated in less poetic fashion: you make choices all through a story. (Or the story makes the choices. Whatever. Choices get made.) Each one is a piece of the corral’s fencing, and breaking that fencing betrays the story and characters both.

The ways to break the fencing are myriad. Sometimes a writer just gets tired, or Marketing says “can’t they have a love interest” or something, or a writer starts serving someone’s ego (maybe even their own) instead of the story. A sudden shift from telling a story to creating a wish-fulfilling fantasy can tear your corral to shreds. Of course, some wish fulfillment stories that are terrible and yet very popular (*coughTwilightcough*) work because they are internally consistent all the way through–their logic may be mad, but it is unbroken, so it provides satisfaction. If you’re going to write out your fantasy, do it without apologizing. Imposing wish fulfillment halfway through jolts the reader out and away, and triggers dissatisfaction.

So when you’re excavating a book, taking a look at the internal logic of the world that has thrust up from your subconscious (the more I write, the more I think a lot of the job is done down there in the dark) will do you no end of good. It may even give you the strength to resist tacking on a wrong ending. (And we all know how I feel about that.)

Anyway, look for the logic corral you’ve built. Once you’re in the habit of doing it, you can even figure out how to expand, contract, and subvert the corral. You may even, in an exotic and odd situation, find that there’s a right way to break it–but be prepared for that to backfire horribly. Finding the shape of the corral and learning how to work within its confines is, in almost every case, the best way to serve the story, and its effect is to create a consistent, tight-woven world to keep your readers in so you can drain their soulsum, not jolt them out of the story. (Ahem.)

If you think you can break the corral, if you think you’re talented enough or the rules don’t apply to you, good luck. You might be right. 999 times out of a thousand, you have a chance of being right. The rest of the time…well, not so much.

Of course, first you have to start writing for any of this to become applicable. So…yeah. On with that, then.

Get started.