fiction as the character’s liminal space

A liminal space is a time or space required to make a transition. The video points out better than I could that they exist as physical spaces, such as hallways and staircases, linear like a gap year between high school and college, or not physically possible but exists anyway, like the backroom scene in the Truman show or the door to John Malkovich’s brain.

But fiction itself is the length of time in a character’s life the story encapsulates. Whether it is a moment captured in flashfic, a significant experience caught in short work or the entire movement of the change shown in a much longer work, the work captures what happens from the moment their reality alters in some way. What the character does about the new reality is the conventional story.

The unconventional story of a character who does not (or cannot) change any element of their world, problem or self requires an unconventional writer using unconventional tools. And “conventional” in this case means “using the conventions of the foundational structure of genre fiction” which has always included literary work.

Any culture with a storytelling tradition has its own conventions and artists that do unconventional things with them. It’s how art has always evolved.

I still think about one of the works we read in class. It had no conflict or tension at all. It was about a character who had been given the process of asking for help when they needed to learn how to ask for support as a concept first. The outcome of the protagonist depended entirely on who the reader imagined was reading it. The ending of the work continued beyond the liminal space on the page, depending on what the reader imagined the imaginary reader would have done after reading the work beyond the liminal space captured.

It was absolutely stunning as a work of fiction.

But thinking of fiction as a finite amount of “time” the reader spends with the protagonist on their journey answers the age-old “how long should my work be” question. Fiction is as long as it takes to show the reader everything they need to know so that when the character is on their precipice of change — whether the work is a drabble, flash fic, short story or novel — at least the reader understands the consequences of leaping or staying where they are.

The ideal work creates events that test the character’s belief in who they really are. This allows the reader to understand the cost of changing or staying the same better than the character could at that moment. Stick around any writing forum eventually, and a newbie will ask, “how do I write a ______ character?”

The answer is simple but takes years to do. The ______ character has to be shown to be _______ in a moment of their life where being _______ is easy. Then, the story begins and being _______ becomes more complex as (plot progresses). If the character chooses to be _______ despite the cost, the character is shown to be a _______ character.

If the character realizes that they can be _______ in their everyday life but it costs too much to be _______ in times of __________, they’ve shown to the reader that they were a ________ character when it was easy to be so.

If the character continues to believe they’re a ____________ character despite their proven actions, the reader is left to question whether not being ___________ in a difficult moment was justified or hypocrisy.

This is a particular type of story’s recipe, not its formula. This one is a smaller recipe that’s just part of a much more complex desired outcome, like a roux. A formula limits the answer from an infinite number line — and all the irrational concepts that don’t have a place on it — to a finite set of “correct” solutions. Following the ratios and directions required for a desired cake texture still creates infinite versions of what that particular cake might look and taste like. “A fluffy cake” is a specific type of cake in baking and science-fantasy is a sub-subgenre of fiction.

Using the conventions of storytelling doesn’t make creating a meaningful work of fiction any easier. They are the tools the artist uses to show the interactions necessary so that the reader’s understanding of the situation may separate from what the character sees, knows, or learns.

“There are no rules” is the best example of what happens when writing jargon is taught as plain English. The fact exceptional work doesn’t require the use of conventional story structure doesn’t mean learning conventional story structures won’t help writers who want to produce exceptional work.

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