Friday, February 19, 2010

Big Story and Little Story

I don't know whether anyone else works like this. When I'm conceiving a novel there are two entirely separate components (although they should be seamless in the final version). I call these the Big Story and the Little Story.

The Big Story is the background, the epic sweep of events that affects the world for everyone. If you're writing a story set in a present day familiar to you and your readers, the Big Story is implicit: who is the Prime Minister? who are we at war with? which soap operas are people watching? In fantasy or historical fiction, the Big Story has to be teased out, both for the reader and the writer. It includes, but is not limited to, research. Tell the story of World War I in a thousand words; that's Big Story.

The Little Story will be complementary to this. It tells the story of individuals within the Big Story; it's likely to be more intimate in scope and is almost certainly where you'll find the protagonist. When I'm writing a novel I can't engage with the Little Story until the Big Story is clear in my head, but once I start to write it's the Little Story which drives the plot. If the First World War is the Big Story, then the experiences of the 16-year old who lied about his age to have a crack at the Bosch is the Little Story.

This is relevant at the moment because yesterday I cracked open a fresh Word file and wrote, in a single sitting, the Big Story for a possible new Mondia novel. It's the story of King Alazian and his struggle to subdue an overmighty vassal, Duke Varrel of the Five Cantrefs. In 1,200 words, I've set down the broad sweep of what happens to Alazian, Varrel and half a dozen other characters (one of whom will be familar to readers of The Dog of the North). This doesn't give us a novel, or even an outline. Alazian and Varrel will be characters in the novel but neither is a viewpoint character.

I have a sense of what the Little Story to complement this looks like, including the protagonist. I don't have in any meaningful sense a plot, but the Big Story gives me some parameters to work within.

I'd be interested to know if other writers--particularly fantasists or hist-ficcers--adopt a similar approach.

6 comments:

Matt Curran said...

I don’t usually write like that, but for the current book, The Black Hours, there has definitely been a “Big Book” “Little Book” feel due to the political/worldly shenanigans inherent in the setting.

In this case the Big Book follows the release of the Black Death on Victorian London and the race against time to find a cure before Europe tries to “cure” the situation herself. 

The Little Book concerns the character interplay – the will-they/won’t-they relationship between protector and charge (Silas Eldritch and Emily Grange), the history with Catherine Boyd (brothel keeper), and the underhand professionalism of Eldritch’s boss, John Reynolds.  Then there’s the poor student doctor, Harold Hodgkins, left alone to help the afflicted plague victims in a quarantined Whitechapel and his relationship with one of the families slowing dying from the Black Death.

I think this kind of approach favours character driven, rather than plot-centric story-lines; The Secret War books, for instance, are very plot-centric, episodic swash-bucklers and are “Big Books” all the way to the end…

Matt Curran said...

PS Whats going on with the comments btw?

Bit confused to know which comments go with what...

Tim Stretton said...

Matt - no idea on the comments! Last week the layout just changed - I assume the template rather than anything I'd done.

Confuses the hell out of me too!

Aliya Whiteley said...

I'm the other way round. All little story, and the big forms while I'm writing, and if I'm lucky it turns out okay. If not, much tweakage is required at the end.

Although, saying that, I actually drew a map for my latest effort. Me. A map. Much hilarity has ensued for the few people who have seen it so far.

Tim Stretton said...

Welcome to the Confraternity of the Blessed Map, Aliya.

Frances Garrood said...

I like this idea, Tim. I've never given it a lot of thought, but my first novel was partly set in the Second World War, and I much enjoyed the research I had to do for that. The second was largely set in the sixties, and of course there was a big story, although not nearly so big (mini skirts, The Sound of Music - that kind of thing). But 'big story, little story' - that's a neat way of looking at it.