The Exotic and the Mundane
The more I think about it, the more I believe that all storytelling is simply negotiating the narrative tension between the exotic and the mundane. Read a book on storytelling or writing or screenwriting, and odds are you’re going to hear something along the lines of “all stories start the day something changes”. What that means, essentially, is your main character is going along with their daily business when something knocks them out of their regular routine and forces them to adapt to new circumstances. Joseph Campbell outlines this famously as the “Hero’s Journey” – the hero begins in the normal or mundane world, the Call to Adventure is answered, they enter the Special or Magical World, and their adventure begins. I think there’s more to it than simply that, though. See, just because you run Campbell by the numbers doesn’t mean you have a good story. Furthermore, as important as the plot is to a story, there’s a lot more at play there, too – theme, setting, style, and so on. I think that all of these things are also caught up in that dichotomy, between the exotic and mundane.
If you are writing in the real, mundane world, that story won’t be interesting unless that normalcy is made somehow exotic. The exotic – another way of describing the new and novel – is what gives a story purchase. It’s what draws us in. We are not interested in a patent clerk. We are interested in the patent clerk who is the brilliant physicist. We are not interested in a high school, but we are interested in a high school Saturday detention session that changes the lives of several young people. Without some aspect of the novel or new or strange, we don’t actually have a story.
It works both ways, though. The exotic cannot maintain our interest without some element of the mundane. This comes up a lot in science fiction and fantasy, actually; the mundane is used as a way to allow the audience to identify or sympathize with characters in a bizarre environment. The further a story drifts from what is identifiable, the less potent the story becomes. Why? Well, the audience has no emotional hand-holds by which to come to grips with the action. If I write you an epic war among single-celled organisms, I’d need to do certain things to make you engage with the story. If I don’t, it’s just a bunch of goo going at it in a petri dish. To use a real-world example, consider Dune, which is about as exotic as you get. Amid the Bene Gesserit and the Gom Jabbar, we have Paul and his mother. We have Paul taking a test. We have Paul in pain. These things we understand, and these things allow us to connect with Paul early on. They carry us through a story that would, otherwise, be an unidentifiable alien landscape. The exotic is tempered by the mundane so that we can access it intellectually and emotionally.
The more I think about it, every story has this balance to strike. Now, the precise nature of the balance is very wide, but it is nevertheless there. Our normal world needs the new and unusual to keep our interest, just as alien worlds need some aspect of the normal to do the same. This strikes me as something very fundamental to storytelling and, while I’m certain somebody else has put it into words better than I have here, I honestly haven’t seen this idea explored. It probably warrants some explanation.