Inventing or reusing universes

I’m a few pages into the second book in a trilogy by Norwegian writer Jan Kjærstad.

The first book had a very clear and effective structure, which also echoed a major theme in the book: how seemingly unrelated events in a person’s life in a way relate to each other.

Beside the structure, it also was apparent how books can be inventions in terms of structure, language, techniques used, and so on. Or rather, how a book can be a unique universe in itself. (As in a constrained universe of expression.)

Now, I’m not far enough into the second book to judge whether it creates a different universe for itself, or if it simply reuses the one established by the first book.

The first book was a great example of how, if you succeed well in inventing and establishing such a universe, so that it’s obvious enough (to the reader) to allow pushing the limits of that universe, exploiting it.

If the second book invents its own universe—despite taking off where the first book ended, and doing lots of flashbacks to the childhood of its central character—it would be interesting to see what Kjærstad gains by doing so. Perhaps it allows for conveying other things.

As you’re beginning to read a new book, you’re familiarizing yourself with its universe. You’re getting to know it’s structure, it’s rhythm. Simply put, you’re learning what to expect from the book, and the writer establishes the constraints of his universe of expression.

The writer must stick to his constraints. He can surely push them to their limit, but he must stick to them or the book will be confusing. And there’s probably a limit to the number of pages he can use to establish this universe as a contract between himself and the reader.

I’m carrying a printout of a short article by a screenwriter named James Bonnet, titled Conquering The High Concept, something he defines like this:

Simply put, a high concept is an intriguing idea that can be stated in a few words and is easily understood by all [Emphasis mine.]. An asteroid the size of Texas is hurtling toward the earth. That’s a high concept. Everyone knows exactly what that means. It arouses an emotional response, and, in just eleven words, everyone knows what the movie is about.

I’ll get back to this article later, but I wanted to mention it in this context as it seems to run counter to the usage of unique universes—especially when paired with the strict dramaturgical format used by most movies. The larger part of a movie’s (or book’s) universe of expression is adopted from the realm of high concept and rigid dramaturgy.

This is saving yourself the pain of establishing the constraints of a universe of expression. It definitely has its merits, and now and again a movie comes along which manages to do something extraordinary within this prefab framework.

My intention with this post was to write about how the beginning of a book is about establishing its universe of expression (besides introducing the characters of the story, the environment, and so on).

When faced with new things, we immediately begin to make sense of their structure. I thought about this as I visited Rome some years ago.

I was standing on the curb at the train station, with my bag in my hand and intending to cross the street to walk to my hotel. But I could see no street crossings, and no car stopped to let me pass.

I stood there for a very long time, and the traffic never ceased. Then I saw what the others did: they just stepped out in the street, and the cars stopped.

It took a while to become friends with traffic in Rome, but when I finally did, it worked very well. Anytime you want to cross the street, you just do. Cars stop or turn to go by you. What first seemed frightening felt really safe.

One habit I made as I was walking around there was to step out in the street to pass people that walked more slowly than I. And it was a habit that took a while to get rid of.

After the week I spent there, I went up to London to meet a friend who came down from Stockholm to spend the weekend there as well. We left our stuff at the hotel and went out to get something to eat.

The traffic in Rome had left such an impression on me that I didn’t switch to the London mode until I stepped out in the street to pass some people and got hit by a double decker from behind.

Things seem like chaos until we grasp their structure (Rome). Also: a structure that makes sense of one context might be dangerous to use in another (London).

It’s about establishing and conveying the universe of expression. We might adopt familiar universes, which save us some pain but also impose unwanted constraints.

Of course, a universe never exists on its own; its elements are always familiar (intuitive), or else it wouldn’t work.

You can convey a lot of the universe in a simple sentence (high concept), but this requires high volumes of reuse. Not only reuse of elements, but of structure.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on August 9, 2003. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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