The Warm House Of Childhood Stories

How I Live Now Sitting Room
Sitting room from the film adaptation of How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
The warm but ramshackle kitchen of Gilly’s good-Christian foster mother, film adaptation of The Great Gilly Hopkins

Of all the stories you loved in childhood, which of the houses would you most like to live in? Was it, by chance, a ‘bustling’ environment? Was it quirky or intriguing or very large?

John Truby writes about the warm, bustling house in his book The Anatomy Of Story:

The warm house in storytelling is big (though usually not a mansion), with enough rooms, corners and cubbyholes for each inhabitant’s uniqueness to thrive. Notice that the warm house has within it two additional opposing elements: the safety and coziness of the shell and the diversity that is only possible within the large.

Writers often intensity the warmth of the big, diverse house by using the technique known as the “buzzing household”. This is the Pieter Brueghel technique (especially in paintings like The Hunters In The Snow and Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap) applied to the house.

In the buzzing household, all the different individuals of an extended family are busy in their own pocket of activity. Individuals and small groups may combine for a special moment and then go on their merry way. This is the perfect community at the level of the household. Each person is both an individual and a part of a nurturing family, and even when everyone is in different parts of the house, the audience can sense a gentle spirit that connects them.

Mary Poppins Banisters
Mary Poppins

Truby continues, happening to put into words why children’s books are so often enjoyed by adults even after we are long since grown:

Part of the power of the warm house is that it appeals to the audience’s sense of their own childhood, either real or imagined. Everyone’s house was big and cozy when they were young, and if they soon discovered that they lived in a hovel, they can still look at the big, warm house and see what they wished their childhood had been. That’s why the warm house is so often used in connection with memory stories, like Jean Shepherd’s Christmas Story, and why American storytellers so often use ramshackle Victorian places, with their many snug gables and corners from a bygone era.

Leçons de choses
Leçons de choses

Who Lives In This House

Writing: Creating Your Storyworld

creating a storyworld

When writing a story, the setting — or storyworld — should be an expression of the hero.

  • If the main character is enslaved, the story world should be enslaving.
  • If the character is freed, the storyworld should be freeing.

The storyworld should also exacerbate the main character’s weakness.

What Is A Fictional Storyworld Made Of?

No matter what kind of story you’re writing, spend time creating a rich and detailed story world.

  1. PERIOD – a story’s place in time
  2. DURATION – a story’s length through time. Maybe it takes place over a year, cycling through each season. Maybe it takes place over 24 hours.
  3. LOCATION – a story’s place in space — On a scale: a real place, fictional but based on a real place, completely made up, otherworldly.
  4. ARENA – inside that location, there will be an ‘edge’ to your story, kind of like a computer game.
  5. MANMADE SPACES – buildings, roads, bridges, cities, villages, houses, etc
  6. NATURAL SETTINGS – deserts, rivers, mountainsislands, forests, beaches, etc
  7. WEATHER – This might rely on pathetic fallacy, e.g. the character is sad so it is raining. Or sunny weather might make a sad character feel even worse.
  8. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY – There may or may not be some technology which your plot will rely on. In some genres (especially science fiction) this technology will be central.
  9. LEVEL OF CONFLICT – the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles. If ‘time and place’ refers to temporal and physical location, this refers to the social one. What’s going on in the wider world of the story, politically, socially, environmentally…? A ten dollar word to use here is ‘milieu’.

A Big Misconception About Setting

John Truby has said that some writers think that storyworld is only important in myth and fantasy stories. Not anymore. In the past storytelling didn’t care about storyworld that much. That’s because it slows down narrative drive. For a while, dwelling on setting was one of the worst sins you could commit. Whereas describing storyworld offers a 360 degree view, narrative drive is going in one direction at top speed. In this way, the two are direct opposites.

But an interesting storyworld is a vital basis for a successful story. In the last decade, storyworld has become hugely important in every medium. The viewer immerses themselves in the world you have created for them. The audience must want to visit this world again and again.

How do you describe your storyworld without slowing down the story?

  1. Hang the world on the desire line of the hero.
  2. Don’t stop and explain the entire world at the beginning of the story. At each step the hero takes to get the goal stop and explain another chunk of the story world.

How To Make A Storyworld Come Alive

The Chocolate War is set in a run-down Catholic boys’ school, an inhospitable place to anyone at the bottom of the pecking order. Cormier personifies the school, turning it into an inhospitable desert landscape, though it’s only a sports field.

The wind rose, kicking puffs of dust from the football field.  The field needed seeding. The bleachers also needed attention — they sagged, peeling paint like leprosy on the benches. The shadows of the goalposts sprawled on the field like grotesque crosses.

The Chocolate War, description of a boys’ Catholic school, Robert Cormier

Cormier makes the school setting come alive by using verbs usually reserved for people (kicking), and by giving the benches a disease only humans can get (leprosy). The word ‘sprawling’ is interesting because it’s so commonly used for things as well as people that we’re used to its metaphorical use by now. Suburbs can now ‘sprawl’ and we don’t consider this an example of personification. Yet ‘sprawl’ suggests the goalposts themselves mean to seem imposing. The goalposts have zero motivation of their own — this is obviously how the character feels about the goalposts. Verbs like sprawl are really useful to writers because of their status as ‘almost metaphors’. Use these and avoid heavy-handedness.

One beautiful thing we can do with any setting is to “seed” it with emotional triggers. These triggers are symbols which are important to the protagonist in some way, influencing what he thinks, feels, and does. … These setting triggers lead to emotional decision-making and the actions that result will change the story’s trajectory.

Angela Ackerman

 Fantasy Storyworlds

Create the world that serves your story and make no apologies or justifications for how that world came to be.

– Audrey Vernick

John Truby explains that in any fantasy, we have two tracks:

  1. the fantasy track
  2. the reality track it represents

Other stories tend to use the institution to represent the city, but fantasy stories tend to invert that and instead find a metaphor for the city. Instead of locking the city down to a regulated organisation, fantasy opens the city up by imagining it as a kind of natural setting, like a mountain or a jungle. One advantage of this technique is that it makes the overwhelming city a single unit, with special traits the audience can recognise. But more important, it hints at the tremendous potential of the city, for both good and bad.

Sometimes the city as ocean metaphor is used. In fantasy stories, the main way to do this is to make the city dwellers literally float. Not only does this give them the power to fly, but also, when characters float, ceilings become floors, nothing is locked down, and people can experience the ultimate freedom that comes from imagining things together. This floating is a metaphor for the potential that is hidden within the mundane city; when you approach the predictable world in a new way, suddenly everything becomes possible.  (Non-fantasy movies instead rely on the eye of the camera to convey the city as an ocean, with the camera gliding along gabled rooftops then dipping down below the “ocean’s surface” and into an open window.