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Arcs of Artifacts
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
November 7, 2013
In this column, however, we'll discuss the arcs of artifacts -- the arcs of objects which are mostly inanimate. I say "mostly" because these items, although they rarely have real speaking parts, nevertheless sometimes have profound effects on a story. Sometimes it is simply in how the others react to the items; in other cases, such as The Lord of the Rings, the One Ring appears to have a malevolent, manipulative personality and actually influence events.
You may be aware of the dramatic principle "Chekhov's Gun," which concerns simplicity and foreshadowing. It goes like this: if you introduce a loaded gun early in a novel or a theater piece, it should be fired in a later chapter or act; otherwise, the gun should not be shown in the first place. The principle was articulated by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov; he said it several times in different ways, so I won't quote it exactly as there are several valid versions.
Of course, in real life, not all loaded guns get fired -- if they did there would be even more casualties than there already are -- but we are creating fiction, not reality. Fiction simply can't and shouldn't include everything in the real world. If you were to describe a real living room for a story, would you want to detail every piece of furniture? The carpet, the curtains and the photographs? All the kitschy knick-knacks? If you did, you would lose many readers, as you filled paragraph after paragraph with description. In general it is recommended that you give enough description to suit the purpose of the story or the passage -- and then stop.
Fiction is in many respects an abridged version of real life, and one way of abridging is by reducing the number of artifacts.
Which Artifacts Matter?
Since we've just said that you can't put the entire world into your story, you have to pick and choose which objects to emphasize. Of course, it's your story, so the decision is up to you, but reviewing the following principles and perspectives may help you decide.
The Perspective of the Characters: Which items do they care about and why? Things can matter a lot to characters for various reasons. A car may matter to a young man because it is a status symbol; it may matter to a single mother because it is her means of getting to her job. By showing which items the characters are invested in, you show their personalities.
The Perspective of the Plot: Which items do you need to make the plot work? Even as Chekhov points out that if you show a gun in Act I, you'd better shoot it by Act III, readers may feel cheated if you have a gun go off in Act III without its having been seen earlier. This is one area where you may sometimes "cheat" -- occasionally a character will, without any apparent warning, pull a gun out of a pocket and shoot. This happens in real life, or there would not be all the discussion about concealed weapons. You need to consider whether having things appear out of the blue improves your story or detracts from it.
The Perspective of the Readers: Which items do you need to satisfy your audience? Some may be necessary for establishing the time and period for those reading stories in a particular genre -- an English 18th-century lord would not be an English 18th-century lord without a fine carriage and the matched horses to pull it -- so you may as well fulfill your readers' expectations and give your lord a carriage.
Furthermore, some artifacts create an expectation in your audience, like the gun over the mantelpiece in Act I. So if you decide not to use something -- especially when an expectation has been created in your readers -- you may want to give a reason why.
To You, the Author: Which items do you want to include? You are, after all, the author; you can write anything you want! Let me warn you, however: it is possible to go overboard with description of scenes or particular items. So even if you are "into" ship steam engines, and your characters are crossing the ocean in 1900, you may want to limit your description of the vehicle's steam engine unless additional description will please your readers or serve the plot.
Artifacts Throughout the Story
There are far too many possibilities to list them all in a single article, but here are some considerations for creating arcs for your main artifacts:
Are the Artifacts Used? If they are, are they used in the usual manner or in a secondary manner? The One Ring conveys power on its owner. It also makes whoever wears it invisible, a secondary use. If you have an important artifact, what is its primary function? Can you think of unusual functions? Unexpected uses of the artifact can be very enjoyable for your readers.
Do the Artifacts Change Ownership? If so, how? The item can be transferred during a gift-giving ceremony, such as when Galadriel gives various presents to the members of the fellowship of the ring. The ceremony does not have to be particularly pleasant, as when the second Mrs. de Winter arrives in Rebecca to be installed as the mistress of Manderley. Artifacts can change hands via inheritance, theft, loss, or discovery. The transfer can happen with pomp and circumstance or even go unnoticed.
How Do Your Characters Feel About the Artifact? Do their relationships to it change? Do they want to own it, use it, hide it, wear it? Their changing relationships with these items can be a significant part of their arcs.
Artifacts have made potent symbols throughout literature. I've mentioned a few specifically; let me elaborate on them.
Manderley was the great estate in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. The estate, unlike the first person narrator of the novel, has a name. Not only was that the custom of great estates but it helps signal the significance of the place. The book opens with the narrator dreaming of the estate, and the estate plays a role at the end as well. It is a symbol, a motive, and nearly an actor in the novel.
The One Ring in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is another significant artifact. It changes hands several times throughout the trilogy. It is circular, made of special gold. It is a symbol of power and power's ability to corrupt.
Artifacts and what happens to them in your story can mirror your characters and what happens to them. Perhaps something represents pride; perhaps something else represents lust, or greed, or triumph.
Just as readers want to know what happens to your characters at the end of your story, they will likewise want to know the disposition of the significant objects. Are the objects destroyed? Put on display? Buried with their owners? Donated to charity? Left to gather dust in a closet? Your choice can impact the impression your readers take away from your story.
As many objects can survive longer than humans, your objects can sometimes move from one book or from one story to the next. You can make use of them if you're planning a sequel, or perhaps a series of stories, such as London by Edward Rutherford or Roma by Steven Saylor, in which coins and a talisman, respectively, are passed down from one generation and one story to the next.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.