Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Storyworld Level Design Tasks - Settings

A setting is the backdrop within which a narrative occurs, but it goes far beyond the physical characteristics of a place in which events happen. Setting includes the historical background, cultural attitudes, and mood of the time (Bickham, 1994, p. 1). Well developed settings can (Bickham, 1994, p. 3):
  • Make reader involvement more intense
  • Enhance story unity
  • Tighten plot structure
  • Make suspense more intensive
  • Provide character motivation
Settings occur on two levels – the storyworld and individual stories. At both levels, settings consist of mythos, topos, and ethos (Klastrup & Tosca, 2004) but are differentiated by scope and the level of detail. The elements within these hierarchical structures, however, are similar at both levels and should be consistent between individual stories and between stories and the storyworld.

Mythos is the established conflicts and battles of the world, the characters of that world, its stories and rumors, and its creatures (Klastrup & Tosca, 2004). The mythos should also include the “official” history of the happenings within the storyworld. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, the mythos includes the creation of the One Ring in the year 1600 of the Second Age, the battle in the year 3434 of the Second Age in which the Dark Lord Sauron has the ring taken from him, and other events that take place well before the beginning of the first novel’s story time. This history sets out the various factions and creatures – factions like Dark Lord Sauron’s forces and those of Men, Elves, and Dwarves; creatures like the Orcs and the Hobbits – and is closely linked to the events on the storyworld’s timeline.

The topos is the setting of the storyworld or world in a specific period and geography. In addition to the physical setting, the topos deals with the physical laws that exist in the storyworld – for example, laws that govern whether faster-than-light travel is possible, or whether magic exists. The topos should tell the audience whether the story is set in a futuristic technological world, the middle ages with magical elements, or a crime-ridden underworld in the present day. In addition to the physical setting, elements of the topos also include the social, technological, economic, political, and legal systems of the story or storyworld.

Typically the topos is somewhat broader at the storyworld level than at the story level. The physical setting at the storyworld level might consist of a broad description like that used in the first of the Star Wars films with begins with the introduction “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” and continues with the now iconic crawling text that says
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…. (ALL Star Wars Crawls Episodes I-VI , 2008)

The use of the text crawl was continued at the beginning of each of the subsequent Star Wars films, providing audiences with a brief overview of the setting for each story. These introductions are excellent examples of how a short piece of text can provide a great deal of information about a story’s mythos and topos.

The third element of setting is the ethos, which consists of the social values and laws, implicit and explicit ethics, and codes of behavior within the storyworld. The ethos provides the knowledge needed to “know how to behave in the world” and defines what is acceptable or inappropriate behavior (Klastrup & Tosca, 2004).

Setting can provide numerous opportunities for expansion across multiple media. These transmedia opportunities can range from relatively simple encyclopedia-style entries about particular aspects of the storyworld’s setting – articles on its flora, fauna, geography, and so on – to more detailed “travelogues” that highlight some aspect of a particular setting for the storyworld’s equivalent of the Travel Channel to “ethnographic” studies of cultures within the storyworld.

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