I’m a fan of James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse books (and TV series). I’m also a fan of borrowing writing craft techniques whenever I see them in action. You don’t have to like or even know about this fantastic space opera to learn from it, because you have me here! In this post I’m going to give you a technique I spotted twice in the series to great effect along with an exercise to show how you can apply the technique to your own writing.
The basic technique is to have a character name a phenomenon they have experienced or witnessed frequently.
This creates a shorthand which both allows the reader to better understand the character, their experiences, the world, and how they see their place in it.
Example 1: The Churn
Amos Burton, an amiable guy with a brutal past and a propensity towards violence uses a frame called “the Churn” to understand his own life and the world around him.
To quote from season 1 of the TV show:
“Ain’t nothing to do with me: we’re just caught in the Churn, that’s all…This boss I used to work for in Baltimore, he called it the Churn. When the rules of the game change… When the jungle tears itself down and builds itself into something new. Guys like you and me, we end up dead. Doesn’t really mean anything. Or, if we happen to live through it, well that doesn’t mean anything either.”
To Amos, “the Churn” was experienced again and again as the next unavoidable meltdown within his world growing up in Baltimore. That repeated experience created what Amos saw as fundamental truth about the way things work. Society goes along as if it’s following certain rules, until it hits a breaking point, then power shifts, the system destabilizes and all you can do is try to survive.
From this named frame we know or can infer a great deal about Amos: he’s seen his society break down before, he’s a survivor, he has no illusions about being a hero or being in control of forces greater than himself, he has no illusions about being saved either, and he has a fatalistic view about this.
Example 2: The Cascade
Dr. Praxidike “Prax” Meng, a botanist on Ganymede Station has had significantly different experiences from Amos. He understands catastrophe through a different frame. He can see things beginning to fail around him and understands it through the cascade effect.
From the books this time:
“In a normal evolutionary environment, there’s enough diversity to cushion the system when something catastrophic happens. That’s nature. Catastrophic things happen all the time. But nothing we can build has the depth. One thing goes wrong, and there’s only a few compensatory pathways that can step in. They get overstressed. Fall out of balance. When the next one fails, there are even fewer paths, and then they’re more stressed. It’s a simple complex system. That’s the technical name for it. Because it’s simple, it’s prone to cascades, and because it’s complex, you can’t predict what’s going to fail. Or how. It’s computationally impossible.”
Again, the character views the world tightly through his own experience. By understanding his frame, we can again tell a lot about Prax’s experience and how he sees the world and his place in it: he has seen this kind of failure before, both literally in his work and metaphorically (in his marriage), his world is one of plants and science, like Amos he has a fatalistic view about his own ability to influence the systems around him.
OK, now the fun part!
Take a character from your current work in progress and brainstorm three different words or phrases using the below questions:
What specific experience have they seen or witnessed so many times they’ve lost count, yet which doesn’t generally have a name?
What would this character specifically notice about their own experiences and the world around them that people from other backgrounds might not see?
What name would they specifically give this phenomenon, out loud or in their head, that tells us even more about how they view the world?
As a personal example, in one novel I had a character from a marginalized group notice the phenomenon of the discrete moment in a conversation when the person he was talking to stopped seeing him as just one of that group and started seeing him as a real person. He, being who he was, named it “Carnival’s End.”
Bonus Exercise: Have two characters notice the same otherwise unnamed phenomenon. Have them each give it a different name that encapsulates the different ways they each understand their world.
Even if you don’t end up using the named frame, the exercise can help you better understand your character’s experiences and point of view. Understanding that a character has experienced a lot of social upheaval and violence tells you less than knowing that they call it “the Churn.” Try looking at your own daily experiences through named frames for a day or two. What you end up noticing, and even more importantly what you end up naming, shows what you see as significant.