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Scale: How to handle a personal story set in an epic war?

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In both my last writing project and my current one, I have found an unexpected problem. Both tales are focused on a single character and their personal journey, but both tales are also set in the middle of epic wars and battles. The characters are involved in the conflicts, but because the story is about them and not the epic setting in which they exist, by the end of the tale they could have been removed and things would have played out essentially the same.

My proofreader brought this up as a problem, and I agree. However, simply having the characters change the outcome of the wars or battles which they are in is neither the point of the story, nor even possible in most cases.

I need to find a way to tell the story focused on the characters, and not have the reader wondering about the wars or battles going on.

How can I do that?

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One of the most important aspects of writing both fiction and non-fiction is managing the reader's attention. Parts of a scene are for atmosphere. They are meant to flesh out the setting so that it feels real and engages the sense in the moment. They are not meant to be remembered, only to color the experience of the moment. Some parts of a scene, on the other hand, are key to the plot going forward. They are meant to be remembered because they will be important going forward.

The reader has only a limited capacity or willingness to remember details, so it is important for the writer to signal which details the reader is supposed to remember. (I find this a common problem in manuscripts I see in critique. There is all sorts of detail packed into them, but no indication which of it I am supposed to focus on.)

It sounds like in this story, the war is a background detail. It is part of the scene -- this takes place in wartime, and presumably could only take place in wartime -- but the story is not about the war.

So, you need to signal that the war is not something that the reader should focus on. There are various techniques you can use to signal what the reader is to focus on. I don't pretend to be able to catalogue them all. But here are some suggestions:

  1. The protagonist is the main guide to what is important. If they touch something, it is important. If they talk about something, it is important. If they think about something, it is important. (This is where first person narrative gets tricky, since it seems to make everything the narrator mentions important.)

  2. Things in tension are important. Things at rest are less important. One obvious way to make a war less important is to tell us who won up front. That takes the tension out of the war, leaving the tension of what happened to a particular person in that war.

  3. Things that recur are important. Things that are only mentioned once are unimportant. As soon as we meet some object, some character, some idea for a second time, we intuit that they are going to be important and we start tracking them. (And we will be frustrated if those characters don't pay off in the end. This is where loose ends come from in a story.)

  4. On the other hand, things that are pervasive are less important and thing that are particular are more important. If the war becomes the pervasive background to your story but with no particular features of events portrayed, we will likely conclude that is is unimportant to the story. There is more background than foreground in every painting, but we know it is the foreground that we should focus on.

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Thanks, Mark. While I've long since figured out how to handle this particular problem, your four points were still greatly helpful in identifying the cause behind certain things I still see in my writing. Especially loose ends - now I have an idea how to cut back on those. Thomas Myron about 1 month ago

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If removing the frame does not affect the story, then remove it.

If the story lacks, then harness the frame.


Case I. There is a disconnect between frame and story

The epic tale of wars is a frame to your story. In principle the frame set some basic constraints to your plot. In your case, during a war time there may be scarcity of food, there may be heightened social tension, and there may even be the ever lurking shadow of death hitting all the characters near and dear to the MC.

In other words, the frame serves a purpose, and the purpose is to give the reader a reference to sustain their immersion in your story. It gives them a world around your characters, and provides clues and cues as to the characters intentions, dreams, and choices.

If the frame has no impact on the characters whatsoever, then the reader will feel the presence of two distinct stories: your main story, and the background story. They will pick the more interesting of the two, and dedicate less attention to the other. I suspect this is what happened here.

A solution is to drop the frame. Another possibility is to rethink your plot to connect it to your frame.

Case II. There are two parallel stories

It is also possible that you have a very good connection between the frame and the story. However a frame is merely a background picture and as such it moves at a significantly lower speed and with a greater lack of details compared to the main story. If both stories move at the same speed and with equal amount of details, then again your have two parallel stories. If this is the issue, a simple solution is to blur the frame. Give some references, but skip intermediate steps, summarize events briefly, in a dismissive manner. Show the reader that things have happened but that you as author did not quite give them as much importance as your main plot.

Case III. There is no story

Finally, even with a well connected frame, which remains static in the background, you may still have a very stiff story. Imagine a minimal plot, full of long descriptions of irrelevant details, plodding through the narrative at a slug pace. Three pages in, and you may wonder what happened around that interesting set of epic wars that the author just mentioned in the passing.

In this case, the frame is there to help you. You have epic wars and the characters are involved in them. They may not change the course of wars, but they will have some intense experiences, deep inner conflicts, and even traumas. Enrich your plot with these elements at the intersection of the frame and the main story, and drag them into your story to create more tension.

For instance, send one character to the front, and keep the other in the safety of their home. Get one character to develop trench-trauma. Or make one into a heavy smoker after their have been on the battlefield as a way to hide the profound sense of guilt of having killed someone in cold-blood. The possibilities are endless.

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