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.