The Secret Weapon of Storytelling… Right Under Your Nose

It’s good to find an edge.  Something extracted from the vast wealth of storytelling tips, techniques, principles and strategies already on your radar.  Something that is rarely talked about.  Yet when you know what it is, you see it everywhere. 

Once recognized and understood, you begin to see how it elevates a story into print, onto bestseller lists, and into theaters.

Any genre.  Any writer.  Any story. 

The nice thing about this little kernel of literary gold is that makes virtually any story better.  Even stories in which setting, in a more obvious context, isn’t all that critical.  Sometimes in these stories this little tactic is precisely what makes such a story a winner. 

All the writer has to do is recognize its power, then choose to build their story around it.  To optimize this ingredient.

I wrote about it earlier this week.  I call it vicarious experience, one of the major underlying story forces – essences – that impart power, weight and impact to novels and screenplays.

Vicarious experience is delivered through setting, or though social, cultural or relational dynamics. 

By definition, it means transporting the reader to a place, time or into a situation that:

a) they can’t or probably won’t ever experience in real life…

b) is inherently exciting, curious, dangerous, titillating or rewarding…

c) is forbidden and/or impossible, or…

d) is inherently compelling for some other reason.  Like, it really happened.

Using those letter denotations, this translates to: a) afterlife stories, historical stories, supernatural stories… b) arena stories (The Vatican, a corrupt law firm, a crack den, a major league baseball office), adventure stories, mob stories, stories about storms and mountains and sinking ships, dark love stories, prison stories… c) ghost stories, meth lab stories, corrupt cop stories, speculative fiction… d) issue-driven stories (like “The Help”), true stories, war stories, historical event stories, etc.

This is so common that it is often taken for granted. 

Every story unfolds upon a dramatic stage.  What we’re talking about is recognizing the opportunity to make that stage – both in support of your story, and as an independent source of focus and fascination – more compelling.  This is the forgotten step-child of both story planning and story “pantsing,” when in fact it can empower either process.

A love story set in rural Idaho?  This relies almost entirely on the character dynamic, nobody out there  is really wondering about the experience of being inTwin Falls.  But a love story set in, say… the White House… a nunnery… a pro sports team… the space shuttle… another planet… the afterlife… a big-timeHollywoodtalent agency or studio…

… you get the idea.  Same love story, better setting.  It’s vicariously rewarding just to be there.  The setting itself (as defined above, in this context)  has inherent appeal and reward for the reader.

It is the nature of the experience of being in such a setting that delivers vicarious experience.  We can’t go back to 1962 Jackson, Mississippi (nor would we choose to), but we can go there in The Help, which empowers its thematic intentions with the vivid landscape of its setting. 

When you add your story to a setting that delivers vicarious experience – when you set your story within this time, place or context that is, when regarded alone, inherently interesting – then you get a sum in excess of the parts.

Some stories are almost entirely about the vicarious experience.  Remember Top Gun?  A pretty pedestrian story.  And yet, it put us in the cockpit of a jet fighter, resulting in a billion dollar box office.

You’ve seen this executed over and over, but perhaps haven’t recognized what it has contributed to the reader (or viewing) experience.

Never again.

Let me show you how this exists out there right now.

One of the hot new novels these days is The Darlings, by Cristina Alger.  It’s a coming of age story set during the 2008 financial collapse in a family of billionaires living in the Upper East Side inManhattan.  The reviews almost entirely focused on this contextual setting – how it takes us into this forbidden realm – made all the juicer by the fact that the author is the daughter of a real-life hedge fund Big Cheese. 

Pure vicarious experience.  Same story, set on a cattle farm inKansas… it wouldn’t fly, wouldn’t get the buzz. 

Occupying the #6 position on the bestseller list is Anne Rice’s The Wolf Gift, about – wait for it – werewolves.  It’s fantasy, but like all of Rice’s novels, it’s vicarious in that it allows us to live inside a world in which such creatures exist.  Not only exist, but love.

Harry Potter and Twilight and The Hunger Games all rely on pure vicarious experience.  We get to go to Hogwarts, we get to make love to the living and gorgeous dead, we get to live in a post-apocalyptic world in which moral sensibilities have melted down.  All of these stories have characters and plots and sub-plots – the author could have set them virtually anywhere and in any time — but they are all rendered special and defined by the vicarious experience they deliver.

When Stephanie Meyer decided to write about vampires (and largely reinvent the mythology), she was opting to deliver a vicarious experience.

Same with James Cameron when he made Titanic.  The vicarious experience of being on that ship as it went down was the central appeal of the whole thing.

I lived this firsthand, with my 2004 novel Bait and Switch.  Virtually every review (including the starred review from Publishers Weekly) mentioned “the world into which” I took the reader, that of Silicon Valley high tech billionaires and their trophy wives – a place where none of us can go, many of us wonder about, and where intrigue, danger and private jets await. 

You already understand the importance of setting. 

But vicarious experience, as a goal, can be more than simple time and place.  You can be delivered through social and character dynamics, as well.  What would it be like to be married to a serial killer?  To discover your child has supernatural abilities?  To be suddenly possessed of supernatural abilities yourself?  To live in a world in which aliens have taken over?

The answer to each of these is pure vicarious experience.  These are contextual story landscapes that could unfold in any place, at any time, and within any social system.

So there is it, a secret weapon just waiting for you.

Take a look at your story and ask yourself what kind of vicarious experience you are delivering to your reader.  All stories take us out of our own lives and into another existence, but does your setting – either time, place, contextual or relational –contribute to the reading experience in an exciting, compelling, even frightening way?  One that is vicarious?  One that readers will be drawn to – drawn into – by virtue of this alone?

Like everything else about your story, you get to choose. 

When you understand the power of your choices, not to mention the consequences, more than ever you begin to comprehend that the future upside of your story is yours to craft.

What stories can you think of that leverage the power of vicarious experience to make the story elements even more compelling?


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

16 Responses to The Secret Weapon of Storytelling… Right Under Your Nose

  1. You have clarified and classified Vicarious Experience in a way that jumps off the page for me. I’m also glad my WIP has a B flavor. I will now enhance that more as I complete edits on the final chapters.
    I’m looking forward to attending your workshops in two weeks!

  2. Yes, right under our nose. Some things are so obvious, and yet we don’t see them until someone points them out. You did it clearly.

  3. Did anyone ever tell you that you’re inspiring? Just thought I’d mention it. 🙂 I love posts that I can make my brain gears move.

  4. Hi Larry. I am so happy that you elaborated on this because quite frankly, I didn’t really understand it the first time. You are not just inspiring, as Evelyn pointed out, but your advice might just change the course of my second novel which is at its beginning stages. I would love to tell you what I’m doing so that you could confirm that its enough of a vicarious experience for the reader or if I should try to find a way to amp it up even further. I will check around on your site to see if you have an email address listed. Thanks again!

  5. I could see things going kind of slow with a romance in Twin Falls. But, not in Nampa, Idaho. No sir, bull riden is a smash face high risk business. Nampa, Idaho sees the best out of the shoot more than once a year.

    A 2000 lb. angry bull is the kind of stage that puts life and death and love on edgy footing. Love a man who thinks the office is straddling the back of that ton of hell unleashed and we might come up with a vicarious experience.

    Course, I’m from TX. But, it’d all be the same. Wichita Falls would need to be the setting.

    Ain’t about where you are. It’s about what your doing there. 🙂

  6. @ Curtis — you SO get this. Perfect idea for an arena story that could deliver one heck of a vicarious experience. Sometime it IS the where (Avatar), sometimes it’s what what you’re doing there (Serpico), and when they’re really great stories, it’s both (Shawshank Redemption). L.

  7. Todd Hudson

    Hey Larry,
    I cut my teeth as a young teen on Tolkien’s Middle Earth and then a book I bought for 25 cents, if I remember correctly, which was Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara (best yard sale purchase, ever).
    At any rate, as I’ve gotten older I’ve become more drawn to ‘real world’ writing, but this article has been a great reminder that a ‘real world’ setting can still have the magic and mystery of those fantasy lands, with this wonderful tool you’ve described. Thanks again!

  8. Paula Zahniser

    So, now you’ve got me wondering if I should change the setting of my novel. Yes, the setting is Idaho, however Boise, not Twin Falls. Hmm… still boring.
    Seriously, how do you take a “normal” storyline and come up with a vicarious experience if the story is about an addict coming home to face the past. Are there times when you don’t want the setting to be competing with the story? If so, when?

    BTW: just got done reading Story Engineering. Booty Hah!!! Thanks a million! WOW! Love it. 😀

  9. Art Holcomb

    The setting is only one part of making a vicarious reading experience. Your goal here is to PUT the reader in the skin of the character – to make them feel as you do, sense all that you sense.

    In screenwriting, we have the extra tools of the visuals and auditories laid out before you that help you enter these scenes. A novelist must work to use words that trigger the images that the writer wanted in the mind of the reader. It’s about making a bridge between the writer’s experiences and the readers.

    Try to find thing in common: recently I had to place a chase scene in a windy forest, and all I had to go on experience-wise was a single trip to Central Park in New York City in the Fall of 1997. But that was a great day and I concentrated on the colors of the blowing leaves, the sting of the wind on my face, and cold fingertips trying to open an umbrella in the wind. I used the sensations of those experiences and gave them to the hero as he was chasing the villain and got lost near the dark of evening.

    All of the great scenes from movies and books that give you these vicarious thrills are about the recreation of feelings and sensations, That’s what will put people solidly on the deck of a TITANIC, a burning skyscraper . . . or beautiful downtown Boise.

  10. Paula Zahniser

    Thanks, Art. What you wrote makes a lot of sense. I’ll definitely keep that in mind!

  11. You named most of the stories that I would have said that leveraged the power of vicarious experience. Oh wait! What about “The Lord of the Rings?” I’m anxiously awaiting “The Hobbit” that comes out near the end of the year.

    I saw “The Hunger Games” movie and thought the book moved faster (after page 58, for me) than the movie. I found myself getting bored in the movie theater as did my 15-year-old nephew. He said there wasn’t enough action. Anyway … This brought up the following question for me: If a story has the power to leverage a vicarious experience, how will it translate to a movie? Can it?

  12. Amandah — good question. Just as an author bears the weight of delivering a vicarious experience in print, so do the screenwriter and the director when it comes to film. I don’t think there’s an inherent difference in the mediums in this regard — one could argue that film has the advantage, given entre into the visual world — so shame on those folks if they didn’t match the book in that regard.

    \My wife had the same reaction to the book — a bit slow until page 58ish or so, then much better. I’m reading now, then the movie. I’ll write about it soon. Thanks! L.

  13. Wonderful advice, thank you for the words of wisdom.

  14. Melissa

    Oh, my! I just have to mention one of the most greatest vicarious experiences of all times (and say you are right!)… Jurassic Park!

    Thanks so much for a wonderful post!

  15. I’m so pleased to have discovered your site. It’s exciting to find a blog on writing that has such thought-provoking, meaty articles, rather than a series of quickie sound-bites that might be clever but don’t have much depth. A very thought provoking post–thank you!

  16. Hans Erbraut

    Good article! But… Isn’t this the essence of fiction? I mean, there is good fiction and bad fiction – but all of it is fiction. Did I already understand this or am I missing the point? (I apologize if I seem bumptious!)