Nothing happened: The setting story

“Ralph Mellish, a file clerk at an insurance company, was on his way to work as usual when… (da dum!) Nothing happened!”(from Monty Python’s Adventures of Ralph Mellish)
Of Orson Scott Card’s four story types, I think setting-centric stories are the toughest.
A “setting” story focuses on the milieu, not the characters or the plot (though presumably it has both). The protagonist enters the setting, spends some time there as the writer shows off the world, then leaves. Gulliver’s Travels and Alice in Wonderland, police procedurals and “slice of life” stories are all examples.
It’s tough because sitting back and watching the world go by works against dramatic tension. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice tales, Alice has no personal dilemma to work through, and she’s not trying to achieve any goals. The story is about what weird thing Carroll’s crazy worlds will throw at her next.
Likewise, in police procedurals (John Creasey’s Gideon novels or Hill Street Blues and similar TV shows) the characters are usually juggling several plot threads at once. Some will have a happy ending. Some a downer. Some just trail off inconclusively. The purpose is to create a lifelike feel, but in return you lose some of the dramatic payoff.
For another example, my short story Learning Curve, which came out some years ago in Byzarium, is set in a world where maggots do generate spontaneously in rotten meat and the four humors control our emotions. My protagonist is a science teacher and we follow her through one week in school, coping with uninterested students and annoying bureaucrats.
Nothing’s really resolved. At the end of the week, the protagonist’s problems haven’t changed, she hasn’t changed either. The story just looks at what science and culture are like, given the underlying premise.
To pick a more famous example, there’s Lord Dunsany’s Idle Days on the Yann. The narrator enters the dreamworld and pays for a boat to take him down the river Yann to the sea. There’s no conflict, no opposition, no obstacles to overcome, just the world to explore. We pass a city where rituals have been unchanged for centuries in hopes of binding Time himself, and Perdondaris, where the city’s ivory gate is carved from the single tusk of an unknown behemoth. No conflict, no character development could add up to a dull story, but Dunsany makes it fascinating.
For an even more extreme example, there’s Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel, which hardly has any plot at all. The story consists of the librarian protagonist describing the seemingly infinite library in which he works and the significance of the endless shelves of apparently meaningless books. We don’t even get an underlying rationale (who built this place? Where does the food come from? Where do new librarians come from?), let alone a narrative thread.
But it works, wonderfully, because Borges’ little world is so fascinating. Which is why he’s a Nobel-prize winning author and most of us aren’t.
I know Learning Curve isn’t in the same league though it was interesting enough to sell. But coming up with a world that’s interesting enough to focus on, then writing it interestingly enough to work is a tough challenge indeed.


Filed under Writing

6 responses to “Nothing happened: The setting story

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