A matter of scale…

An aspect of writing that very rarely appears to get mentioned is what I call the ‘scale’ of a story. Eh? you may well ask. Simply put, it’s how ‘large’ or ‘small’  the story is eg. horror tales tend to involve very few people, small groups at the most, whereas fantasy and sci-fi can involve whole worlds (or, in the case of the latter, sometimes whole star systems and galaxies). Why is this? (These are just my own interpretations and meditations on the subject, so just bear with me – feel free to debate, comment, discuss and disagree…)

I’ll take horror as my reference point here. Most stories in this genre take the plight of the individual (or a small group) as their starting points. Even in a situation when the entire globe is under threat from a plague or a zombie invasion, it still often comes down to how a group of people survive and fight against the odds. In the field of film, this is exemplified best by George A. Romero’s Dead trilogy (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead), in each of which small bands of uninfected humans hold out against the ravening hordes in an endeavour to keep civilisation going. Each one of the films focuses in on the interactions, reactions and tensions between the characters, brought about by being under siege by an enemy they don’t really understand. That’s where the horror lies.

Another great example, again taken from cinema, is Robert Wise’s The Haunting (adapted from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House). Once again, it involves a small number of people and the effects of unseen presences on the dynamics of the group. The horror here is more personal: the fracturing of both the psyche and interpersonal relationships, something that we, as gregarious humans, fear most. The whole ensemble works just because we never see what it is that causes the haunting. Zeroing in on the characters, people we can indentify with, and their reactions, helps us to latch on to the sheer terror of the situation.

As final exemplars, I’ll turn to literature, specifically a novel and a short story. Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, about a world’s population turned vampiric, concentrates on the last untouched man’s (Robert Neville) efforts to destroy the bloodthirsty ‘monsters’ (although, in the end, he becomes the ‘monster’ hinself). It’s just one man against an entire world, and although it’s considered to be an SF novel, it retains the horror element of how a single being responds to the despair and carnage around him. The short story, When the World Goes Quiet by Simon Kurt Unsworth (from his excellent Lost Places collection), even though it’s about a worldwide zombie infestation, only features a single example of the shuffling undead: it concentrates instead on how one ordinary man copes with the terrifying situation, and the horror comes in what his predicament (and the knowledge he gains from it) ultimately drives him to.

I don’t think horror would necessarily work on a bigger scale, certainly not on the scale of Frank Herbert’s Dune or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of books, for instance. These are both star-system and galaxy (nay, universe) spanning stories, affecting billions of people. Although the dramatis personae that the author concentrates on may not be that much larger than the cast of characters in your typical horror story, their influence, and their actions, have a greater reach, affecting more people as a result. Horror for the most part, possesses a more local authority: fantasy and sci-fi appear to spread that authority much more widely.

Boiling all this down, the point of what I am trying to formulate into words is simply this: it’s worth considering, when devising plotlines for your story/novel, regardless of genre, how best to tell it. Would it be more effective, for instance, if you brought it down into a more personal sphere, or to bring in a huge number of players instead? Just look at music, for example: songs are never set in stone, and can be reinterpreted in many ways. They can be sung to the accompaniment of a single guitar OR can be sung with the backing of a full orchestra. Same song, different effects. However, to many people, there will always be just ONE interpretation of the song, the original. Stories can be reinterpreted in this way, except that I think that there is an optimum way of saying what you want to say. Picking the right ‘scale’ (or not) can make the difference between a rotten, a merely good, or GREAT story.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, these are just my thoughts on the subject. Necessarily there are exceptions to these observations, but generally speaking, I think they hold true and are fairly watertight in their reasoning. What I want to do here is to generate some kind of discussion: as an aspiring writer, I (and by extension, others like me hopefully) would find it useful to get some feedback from those  who have already got both feet firmly through the door. Or maybe it could be that I am just fumbling clumsily in the dark (and not for the first time either). =)

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3 Responses to “A matter of scale…”

  1. Mick Curtis Says:

    Good stuff, Simon – and I definitely agree with how good SKU’s “When The World Goes Quiet” is. My favourite story from an excellent collection.

  2. Just a small point about The Haunting: there’s a degree of ambiguity about whether there even IS a haunting. Everything CAN be explained as hysterical hallucinatory effects, created by the participants’ reactions to their situation. (Robert Wise wasn’t sure himself, and asked Shirley Jackson for clarification; she wouldn’t be drawn, though.)

    I think this backs up your argument about our fear of losing control of the psyche!

  3. Nice point, Nev…. at least you got the gist of what I was trying to say…. =)

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