Rethinking Your Story: The Power of “Arena”

The Second in a Series on What Elevates a Story to Greatness

In the last post I suggested that the great ones — in writing and in any other avocation — think differently than the rest of us. 

With writers, this doesn’t necessarily translate to more compelling prose.  Writing voice isn’t as much a function of thinking as it is something that eludes definition and therefore assimilation.  The more artful flavors of prose are more often a function of intuition and imitation fused with heart and wit and delivered with a strong does of lyric sensibility.

It isn’t something you think about as much as you simply do it.  Writing is like street fighting — when you think about writing stylistically, you usually get the crap beat out of you by an editor.

No, the thinking part has to do with storytelling. 

It’s about infusing our stories with something that compels us beyond the mechanics of structure. a certain essence that is at once inspired and hypnotic and fascinating, if not simply downright funny, sexy or horrific.

That, too, seems to defy assimilation, as it’s precisely what we’re all shooting for when we begin a novel or a screenplay.   And if learning and practicing the basics could get us there, we’d all be the next Stephanie Meyer.

But when you break it down, when you try to isolate how successful authors stand out, you begin to see patterns.  And the closer you look, the more those patterns begin to look like opportunities.

Here’s one of the things these successful authors think about when they’re planning and/or rewriting a story:

They tell their stories from within an arena.

Every story has a setting.  A place where it all happens.  If it involves people, the story also unfolds within a culture, a demographic, an ethnicity or a tradition.  It also has a timeframe, either now, in the past, or in the future.

These are givens.  They are the stage upon which your story unfolds.

They also present a huge opportunity to imbue your story with something that transcends character and plot and theme.  And if you think about them long and hard, chances are you can find a way to give the reader a place, a time, a culture and a tradition that is either unfamiliar to them, or intrinsically interesting.

When you do that, when you elevate these factors beyond the everyday norm, when you make the setting — in all these contexts — almost a character in its own right, when you make it fascinating and detailed and sensual and mysterious… this is called an arena.

Some stories are as much about their arena as they are anything else. 

If you’re looking for an example, just check the marquee at your nearest cineplex — the movie Avatar is nothing if not an arena story.  The setting, both in terms of place and time, as well as the culture and its traditions, meets all of these criteria and then some.  We part with fifteen bucks to this movie to experience these things, this arena, rather than our passsionate interest in Jake Scully and the plight of the Na’vi.

Ditto for Star Wars, Star Trek and just about every historical story you’ve ever read.  The plot is almost an accessory that appears in support of the setting.

Vampire stories?  Pure arena.  A love story with teeth.  If those characters were dentists instead of bloodsuckers nobody would care.

The Lovely Bones is an arena story.  We get to see what heaven looks like.

The DaVinci Code was an arena story, in that is isolated a slice of history and the culture it created and continues to inspire, and took us deep within its darkest corners in a way that easily outweighed plot and character. 

And let us not forget Top Gun, which gave us an arena rich in both location and culture.  We may have have quickly forgotten the story, but the image of those F-14s launching from that carrier deck… priceless.

The novels of Michael Connelly are arena stories — they show us not only the inner sanctum of big city police operations, but the raw and uncut viscera of Los Angeles itself, a place and a culture that fascinates as it seduces and terrifies.

John Grisham and a bunch of other successful writers give us legal thrillers that take us inside the legal system.  These are arena stories pure and simple.

Even stories that aren’t commonly thought of as arena-driven sometimes make the most of their settings.  Like stories that have heroes that are surgeons or professional athletes or that man a research station at the North Pole.  There’s more going on, appeal-wise, than an unfolding plot. 

There’s an immersion into a time and place other than that which the reader is used to.  

The Cider House Rules, both in its #1 bestseller and Oscar-winning screenplay forms, is a thematic story at its heart.  But it also fascinated in its depiction of a mid-century orphanage and abortion clinic that, again, compelled and terrified as it became the platform upon which John Irving’s characters were called to evolve.

Notice what they all have in common.  They are set in a place, in a time, in a culture or among a tradition, that stands alone, irregardless of plot and character, as intrinsically compelling.

Does your story do that?

It’s very possible that it can.  Too often we settle for everyday life situations and settings, we give our heros mundane jobs, we have them live in generic places, we don’t risk embellishing who they are and how they live with an edge or mystery of some kind.

We do this because of how we think.  Or too often, how we fail to think.

Today’s lesson: ask yourself if your story could suddenly become orders of magnitude more fascinating if you allowed it to unfold within a setting — physically, geographically, culturally, ethnically or by any other differentiating criteria — that adds a new dimension to the reading experience.

Ask yourself what world, what life experience, you are transporting your reader into the heart of.  (And may any English teachers reading that sentence forgive me.)

You may even find that exploring such options will lead you to new plotting and characterization opportunities, as well as allowing you to explore and expose issues that arouse not only your passions, but those of your readers, as well.

And that, above all else, it the point of every story we tell.

This series continues with more specific ways to elevate the greatness of your story by thinking about it differently as you write.  I invite you to subscribe now, or if you’re already on board, to tell your writer friends about this opportunity to go deeper into the more elusive aspects of successful storytelling.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

16 Responses to Rethinking Your Story: The Power of “Arena”

  1. Patrick Sullivan

    I wonder if this is the sort of thing that has always attracted me to the sci-fi and fantasy genres. They are inherently the epitome of the arena story. Exotic races/cultures, exotic settings (though many based on either somewhere modern if urban fantasy, or medieval Europe if not, with a few exceptions like steampunk fantasy).

    Of course, that makes me wonder if to be a true arena story in those genres, you have to reach BEYOND that? After all, the entire genre is technically one, so is it best to go outside the rest of your own genre to build a true arena? Part of me is saying yes, since I seem to vary which subsets I enjoy more by what I’ve read less of lately, unless it’s simply THAT good of a book.

  2. Ha ha, this post made me wonder how I’d create an arena story about dentistry.

  3. Martijn Groeneveld

    Hi Larry,

    How does a film like Dogville fit into this then? No arena at all, or so it seems.


  4. Great advice.

    BTW: “Arena” was the name of a terrific short story by Fredric Brown and it was used as the basis of the original series Star Trek episode of the same name.

  5. A great concept to explore, Larry. I used to live and work in Greece, and I’m fluent in Greek so my insights aren’t those of an average Scot. I recently read a beautiful book about a Cretan leper colony, and because of what I’ve learned at StoryFix, I realised that for years, my ‘arena’ has inspired natural born storytellerswho are more gifted at capturing the threads of powerful ideas and inspiration and weaving with them than I am. What this site has also taught me, though, is that my strength lies in shorter pieces – lyrics, poetry, shorter pieces – and someday, there may even be a screenplay. If that one great seed of an idea appears, one worthy of building a novel from, you’ll be the first to know.

  6. Monica Rodriguez

    Another great post, and great series, Larry. I’ve been creeping up on this idea of the arena, I think, in my current WIP. I set the story in a real town in upstate NY, about 1.5 hr north of me. I recently decided to incorporate an important fixture of the town into the setting & plot. But this post has shown me that I can go much further and bring that town to life within the story.

    It’s encouraging to hear that, despite the great writers thinking differently than we mere mortal, ordinary writers, the distance between them and us is not so great after all.

    Thank you for that.

  7. Larry, I’ve noticed that through the function of time, some movies become (at least to me) arena type movies. Eighties movies like Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Pretty In Pink all capture the aura of this time period. Am I wrong?

    1. Establish a story idea
    2. Give it an arena
    3. Put it into your Story structure model
    4. Fill in the spaces with the awesome.

  8. I find it so ironic Larry that I would read this today. I just started writing fiction a little more than a year ago, (or taking it seriously I should say), and have stuck to flash and shorts since then – until about a month ago one of my all-time favorite authors read my work and practically demanded I write a novel and send her agent a synopsis and query. Yes, I was floored and freaked out, but that was all I needed to get started.
    I do action and dialogue fairly well, (or so I’ve been told), but never felt I had enough room to go into description of place and time, with the shorts. Yesterday I was reading over the two chapters of the novel I’ve started, (yes, I know, I know), and realized that I had done okay describing the characters, but there was virtually nothing about the place. One scene is of a burial under an old willow tree and I didn’t even mention the fact that the chairs would be wobbling about on the ancient roots of the tree.
    I believe, if I could just break myself of that habit of using little space, I could most certainly create a much better arena for these crazy characters.
    Thank you so much for this wonderful post, and I look forward to the rest of the series.

  9. Steve

    Mundane is the building across the street where Tim works as a low level stock broker just out of college.

    Arena is where the building is a battleship on a collision course with an old pirate ship, across a hundred yards of shark infested heat waves eating up the helpless, innocent cars and pedestrians below. Tim the parrot-less pirate, escaped the deadly streets and has no sympathy for those less fortunate ones. He’s got bigger fish to fry.

    Ok not entirely original (inspired by a Monty Python concept), but it can be the “here and now and ordinary” but seen in a new way.

    Am I right?

    By the way, I could only hope to have one tenth the courage of Pat Tillman. God bless him.
    (sorry for the double post)

  10. Monica Rodriguez

    I had to post again to say thanks to Steve for his comment. You really enhanced my understanding of this arena concept with your comparison. I see I’m hanging with a high caliber of talent here at Storyfix!

  11. Storyworld is always fascinating. It is definitely part of your design.

    Check out Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy for lots of excellent advice about creating a storyworld.

    Consistency is a key ingredient in a storyworld. Perhaps Grisham’s legal arena/storyworld would be a little, em, off if every once in a while a magician or mind reader popped up. If it isn’t used for something, don’t put it in your storyworld.

  12. Curtis

    Kelly…….. A Dentist office as arena story? Think horror in the dark save for that blazing light hanging in the patient’s face. Add one hand, gloved in green rubber with an ugly grip on that spear of a silver pic. Jab once. Twice. Go ahead. Jab one more time. Start the drill.

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