• Shop Indie Bookstores
  • Recent Posts

  • Archives

  • Categories

  • Advertisements

Balancing Breadth and Depth, or: What Good Research Has to Do With Star Wars

I always knew you needed words to tell a story. But I’ve only recently realized that to tell a really strong story, you also need numbers.

I’m teaching sociological research methods this semester, and like most teachers, I have a few points that serve as the base of my overall argument for the course. One of the biggest — the one I mention just about every class — is that the most solidly constructed social science research projects have at least one toe on either side of the big methodological divide: quantitative methods (surveys, stats, numbers) vs. qualitative methods (ethnography, interviews, words). The quantitative stuff provides the breadth for what you’re studying; the qualitative stuff provides the depth. And, in my view, the strongest projects are those where researchers are able to present a bit of both. I did this in my own research on American baby names, drawing both on “big data” from the Social Security Administration and the state of California and on interviews with local parents. The big picture of trends in contemporary naming, and why individual families are choosing more distinctive names. Breadth and depth.

I’m in Week 13 of my semester: that means I’ve probably said a version of those words at least a dozen times. But it wasn’t until a recent conversationĀ  that I realized they apply just as well to fiction and storytelling, and especially to genre fiction.

It happened this weekend, when one of my friends explained why she likes reading and watching historical fiction: that although she already knew the cold facts of historical events like those depicted in Twelve Years a Slave, watching them applied to individuals — characters she’d come to care about over the course of the film — really hammered the point home. I thought about this, and about how I enjoy historical fiction for the same reason — and that led me to thinking about why I don’t tend to like alternate history.

By all the rules of nerd-dom, I should be an alternate history fan. I like world history: I’m one of those nerds who has about a dozen of The Teaching Company’s Great Courses on my iPod, and I read history for fun on a fairly regular basis (recent books I’ve liked are at the bottom of the post). But alternate history has never worked for me — because, I’m coming to realize, I usually lack the necessary broad knowledge to appreciate it. In most cases, in my experience, the small historical changes the author’s glorying in don’t work all that well for a lay audience who don’t have a good understanding of the setting. If you’re not an American Civil War/Reconstruction buff, Harry Turtledove’s alternate history where the South wins the war won’t mean as much to you, because you won’t appreciate the small changes.

The situation in “mainstream genre fiction” (does that even work as a concept) is a little different — you’re looking to convey a whole new setting instead of just a changed one — but the outcome is the same. If you don’t convey the big picture well enough, don’t provide your readers with the necessary context in which the story’s happening, they’ll get lost. This, I think, is why some readers don’t like the “immersive”-style worlds that throw you in without any explanations (the thing that usually turns me off in anime).

So your genre stories need a sense of breadth. You need enough history that your readers don’t feel like your characters are floating in a void, or like they’re the only thing that matters in the universe. Stuff like this, in fact:

It is a period of civil war. Rebel
spaceships, striking from a hidden
base, have won their first victory
against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed
to steal secret plans to the Empire’s
ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an
armored space station with enough
power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents,
Princess Leia races home aboard her
starship, custodian of the stolen plans
that can save her people and restore
freedom to the galaxy…

Star Wars: A New Hope gives us some big-picture history right at the start, some context: some basic numbers. We may not know how many rebels there are, or how many systems the Empire rules over, but we’ve got the gist — respectively, few and many. In short order, the movie also gives us texture: womp rats, and the Kessel Run, and that scene in the Mos Eisley cantina. The sense that the world is bigger than the events the main characters are involved in, even as those characters become more important and more central to The Big Stuff.

A genre story needs that breadth, but it also needs depth. It needs good characters, someone you can root for, someone who’ll stop to explain to you why all this matters to them. One of the best reviews I’ve encountered of the Star Wars prequels makes a pretty powerful argument that among the (many) reasons Phantom Menace didn’t do well was because it had no clear protagonist and no clearly defined characters.

In social science research, the odds are probably at least 50/50 that someone’s done half the work for you; that your work will be in conversation with someone’s existing qualitative or quantitative research. In writing, though, you’ve got to manage it all. You need to work out the history, and the demographics, and the other pieces of worldbuilding that’ll hold up your setting — and then you need some individual voices and stories to situate in that bigger piece.

I’m a qualitative researcher, a micro-level researcher, by inclination. And the last three months of world-building (that’ll be another post) have demonstrated pretty convincingly to me that I’m a micro-level author by inclination, too. But I’m increasingly convinced that the best stories have both. Solid, broad worlds, and solid, deep characters and plots.

So I’ve figured it out. Now all I have to do is finish broadening my world so I can get back to the deep stuff.


Histories that (in my view) balance breadth and depth reasonably well:

Leave a comment

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: