NaNoWriMo #16: Consider an “Arena” Story

I’ve written about “arena” stories before (click HERE to go there).   Today’s tip is to consider incorporating the power of a compelling “arena” within your story concept, or as the centerpiece of it.

Imagine a story about the flight crew of Air Force One… about Navy Seal Team Six… about morticians (like HBO’s hit, “Six Feet Under”)… about Boeing test pilots… about the equipment guy for an NHL team… about pro wrestling (Mickey Rourke starred in that one a few years ago)… about the President’s personal valet… about wet work assassins for the CIA… about Las Vegas pit bosses… about the folks who operate cryogenics storage facilities… about any other career or event or obsession or strange place you can think of…

… all of which still require the same Six Core Competencies before they will work — that doesn’t change — but are that much more intriguing because of the setting within which it unfolds.

In short, an “arena” story is one in which the setting — time, place or culture — is the heart and soul of the story. The juice that makes it sizzle.  Apart from (or in addition to) the characters or the dramatic concept, the vicarious experience you are offering your readers by taking them into your arena is, in and of itself, one of the story’s most compelling elements.

Arena is the stage upon which the characters play, the landscape of the dramatic tension.  Legal thrillers are arena stories, set in courtrooms.  Historicals are arena stories, where the backdrop of an actual time and place becomes the most compelling aspect of the story.

All stories have a setting — time, place or culture — but when that time or place or culture is something unusual — when the reader gets a peek behind a curtain or a ride they’d never get to experience for real — it becomes, by definition, an arena story. 

Patricia Cornwell’s novels are arena stories — they take place in a morgue or autopsy room.  Chances are your readers haven’t hung out there, and in her novels they get a glimpse of that world.

Detective stories are a form of arena — we get to experience the world of private eyes and police investigators.  Which is most likely quite different — and more thrilling — than yours and mine.

Spy stories?  Pure arena.

Jackie Collins’ novels… they were about what happens in old school Hollywood behind closed doors.  Pure arena.

“The Help,” by Katherine Stockett?  Pure arena.  Chances are those readers weren’t there in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi.  That cultural setting is the heart and soul of that novel, easily as big a draw as the characters or plot.  In this case, the arena became the story’s theme.

“Grey’s Anatomy” on television?  A soap opera set in a sure-thing arena.  Ask yourself if those same character dynamics would be as compelling if set it, say, a downtown department store. 

Remember “Top Gun?”  A love story with fighter jets.  Arena, pure and simple.  You bought a ticket (or the DVD) for one of two reasons: you’re into Tom Cruise, or it was those jets. It wasn’t the compelling dramatic storyline, I can assure you.

Arena stories are everywhere. 

Pay attention… there’s a reason that’s true. They work.

Of course, it helps if you know your arena from the inside out.  It’s that behind-the-curtain aspect of an effective arena story, perhaps the dark side that never gets talked about, that appeals to readers.  If you have intimate knowledge of a little corner of modern life (or of historical life) not normally glimpsed, perhaps something glamorous, or dangerous, or frightening, or important, consider adding it to your story.

Of if you’re looking for a story, ask yourself what vicarious experience you might deliver to your readers through setting

A compelling arena can become the thing that makes an otherwise routine storyline work.

Bonus tip: give your hero an interesting, unusual profession, and then take us into that world.  It may take a little research, but a lab coat or a space suit can do wonders for your protagonist.

9 Comments

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9 Responses to NaNoWriMo #16: Consider an “Arena” Story

  1. Are you reading my mind, Larry? This is spooky. You just gave me a good description of one of the novels I’m preparing for. I get ideas and kick them around for a good long time before writing them. I know which one is ready – when it’s gone from Idea to Concept as you’d put it. I pick it up when it’s ready.

    You’re making it look tempting vs. the one I already have developed. That’s fine. We’ll see if I’ve got time for two of them this year, if not I’ll write up the arena story novel later on in the year. I need to get in the habit of writing novels in other seasons too.

  2. Now that I think of it, both of my novel concepts are arena stories. I’m just so familiar with the setting of the one i’ve got worked out that I forgot it wasn’t that familiar to readers yet. It will be. Thank you for that definition.

  3. Very tempting idea and the research bit is just an extra bonus. I love writing about stuff that requires encyclopedias, just to look up the basics in the ara. That feeling: “Let’ see what this might bee.”

    Sorry for nitpicking and I’m no expert at cooking (or English) but this confuses me: “The juice that makes it sizzle.”
    I’d rather have oil for sizzle or simmer for juice.

  4. “Be”, not “bee”, of course!

  5. Olga Oliver

    Good story juice sizzles – Larry, thanks a million for the arena info. I’ve been studying writing for years, have a fair size book writing library and your mention of an “arena story” is a first for me. Thanks so much and thanks for Sunday’s NaNoWriMo#16. On Sunday, no less – before the lame Cowboys and those yankees tear each other apart!

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  7. Great stuff as always, Larry. My first teen/YA novel did just that, only I didn’t know to call it an arena concept. The arena is inside a baseball clubhouse from the POV of the batboy/clubbie.

  8. Very interesting! I tend to think of the world being in conflict with the characters as a compelling way to tell the story, but I can see that’s really a version of this “arena” storytelling that you’re talking about. A lot of speculative fiction is like this too.

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