Monday 16 January 2017

Notes from the Critique Group - Fictional Worlds

Investigating the SMALL WORLD/BIG WORLD in fiction.

Em Lynas

As 2017 begins I've been doing a lot of pondering on the real issues of the Small World/Big World I live in.

In 2016 my Small World was a very successful year both personally and professionally with my mam surviving a life threatening illness at the same time as I signed a three book deal with Nosy Crow. Woo hoo for us!

In contrast the Big World turned upside down and I am in a political and social reality that is uncomfortable for me. The human behaviour that's led to this move to TospyTurvy Land is puzzling and I, along with millions of others, feel powerless to influence any change as an individual. Perhaps we're waiting, hoping that someone will step forward to put the world the right way up again. As if one person could.

Of course, that would be the next step in fiction so maybe we're primed to hope for that.

Anyway, it got me thinking. How inciting does an Inciting Incident have to be before it incites action from a protagonist? Does it have to get personal i.e. invade the protagonist's Small World before a protagonist engages? And does it always propel the protagonist out of their comfort zone and into an uncomfortable zone. And how many zones away from the original comfort zone does the protagonist end up?

I kept thinking and now have many more questions.

What do I mean by the Big World?

Perhaps this could be defined as a situation outside the protagonist's normal life. Sometimes this will be BIG physically as in Star Wars and sometimes this will be BIG emotionally as in A Monster Calls. Both stories deal with death. One on a galactic level and one on a personal level.

Obviously not all stories deal with death. Perhaps the Big World of your story involves an issue faced and resolved. I once ran a picture book course where we sorted a pile of picture books by theme. The biggest pile dealt with death. The others were fear, love, friendship, kindness, growing up etc An interesting exercise!

Let's do another.

Stand in front of your bookshelves. Pick a book. Any book. Fiction. That you have read! Then ask.

What is the Small World the protagonist lives in?

e.g. Lord of the Rings - Hobbiton. Character secure in - The known. Geographically small, safe, friendly folk (mostly friendly, not dangerous), normal behaviours, predictable life and seasonal patterns, etc.

What is the Big World of the story?

e.g. Lord of the Rings - Middle Earth. Character insecure in - The unknown. Geographically big, dangerous, scary people, unpredictable behaviours,  difficult terrain, etc.
Is the Big World the same (e.g. physically, politically, or culturally) as the Small World?

Who inhabits the story in the Big World and is there an echo of this character dynamic in the Small World?

e.g. Lord of the Rings - Having defeated Sauron the hobbits return to their ordinary world they must battle on their own to save Hobbiton from Sharkey (Sauruman in disguise).
Harry Potter must battle the Dursleys in his Small World and Voldemort in the Big World.
In The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy Arthur Dent's house is about to be bulldozed (Small World) but then discovers the whole world is about to be bulldozed (Big World, obviously!)

At what point does the protagonist become aware of the Big World?

They may be unaware the Big World exists until the inciting incident. e.g. Harry Potter - the Hogwarts letters arrive by owl.
They may already be aware e.g. Pride and Prejudice - the Bennett daughters are well aware they must have husbands. 

At what point does the reader become aware of the Big World?

Have hints been given as we're led to the reveal? e.g. Harry Potter.
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. The implication being not everything in the book would be normal.

At what moment does the protagonist engage with the Big World?

e.g. Star Wars - Luke leaves his home planet.
Lord of the Rings - Frodo sets off to deliver the ring to the elves.

Why do they engage?

Is this a moment when the Big World impacts on the protagonist's Small World i.e. the Big World becomes personal? Must there always be a personal catalyst to prompt the protagonist to engage with the Big World? I'm ignoring the detective genre here. It's their job to engage with the problem.

Do they chose to engage or are they forced by circumstances?

e.g. Harry Potter has a moment of choice. He can go with Hagrid or stay with the Dursleys.
Arthur Dent has no choice. If he stays on the earth he will die.

If they have a choice then what will they lose if they don't engage with the Big World?

e.g. Harry will lose any chance of finding out who he is.
Arthur Dent will lose his life.
There's nothing left on the planet for Luke.

Is there a mentor involved in this decision/circumstance?

e.g. Hagrid for Harry, Ford Prefect for Arthur, gandalf for Frodo, Princess Leia for Luke? She gives information but does not offer him advice.

Refusal of the Call:

Is it normal human behaviour to accept that we live in a world that has a lot of injustice in it and is it normal in those circumstances for the protagonist to wish to continue to focus on the Small World?

e.g. Hunger Games book 1 - In the ordinary world Katniss focusses on feeding her family prior to the Inciting Incident of the selection for the Hunger Games. She has no ambition or desire to be heroic. She's doing what everyone else is doing, keeping her head down and trying not to be noticed.

How and why is the protagonist affected by this Big World moment more than the other characters? Why is he/she the hero?

e.g. Why isn't Sam the main protagonist in Lord of the Rings? Why is Frodo the only one who can carry the ring?

Last question.

At what point does the Big World become a problem the protagonist thinks they can solve?

e.g Why did Frodo volunteer to carry the ring to Mount Doom? Why was he the ONLY ONE.

I've focussed mainly on fantasy but I'm sure these questions can be applied to any genre, except those where the main character doesn't change. I'm about to re-read A Monster Calls which obviously moves from the Small World of having to the Big World of loss so I'll soon find out.

Now, time to go back to the real Small World/Big World TopsyTurvy Land scenario where values are being tested and the challenges seem overwhelming and confusing. Good luck to us all.

Best wishes for the future and I hope 2017 is a good year in your own Small World.

The first book in the Toadspit Towers series will be published in Sep 2017 by Nosy Crow. 


  1. Fascinating. Sorry for coming to this so late but my small world of asthma interrupted my progress in the big world of getting on with my life. I have not thoroughly appreciated that world building involves both intimate reality and universalities.

    1. Hope you're feeling better x I'm feeling a lot more hopeful about the real big world after seeing all of the marches. All of those people joing their small worlds together! Who knows what positive change will come from the inciting incident of Trump's presidency.The Iinciting incident is a fascinating study in reality and fiction.


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