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I'm writing a fantasy story about whether a teacher should be fired or not over teaching competency; most of the story revolves around the politics and the procedural process of the decision.

So much of fantasy seems to be about exceptionally high stakes, starting with the end of the world and going down to the loss of love or the loss of a loved one. Losing your job sounds pretty low stakes compared to those. How do you dramatize the mundane?

Our real lives are filled with what feel like high stakes questions (can I get the committee to vote my way? can I afford that extra car payment? should I take six weeks off to go to Clarion? etc.), but they don't always translate well to drama on the page.

When I was editing fiction for the California Quarterly, I used to get a lot of what I referred to as "suburban angst." These were stories about people whose lives were comfortable in all ways (and often upper middle class) who were agonizing over whether they would become their country club's president, or if their kids were achieving well enough in school, or if they should buy the red BMW or the black one. They bored the hell out of me because the characters didn't have any real problems. Now I'm interested in writing fantasy about these lower stake problems, and I'm trying to figure out how to do them well with fantasy elements, or at least better than the stuff I saw at the California Quarterly.

Note: This question was contributed by James Van Pelt.

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2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Characters. You have to make us care about the characters.

If we really care about the teacher; if we believe in the passion of the person trying to get the teacher fired; if we see the effects incompetent teaching have had on students, and not just statistics, but actual living, breathing student characters, then the stakes are huge.

Show us both/all sides of the issue, not academically, but through the characters who really believe in what they're doing, If they believe, you can make us believe, and once we believe, we'll care.

ETA: Ask yourself why YOU care. That's probably why we'll care, too.

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+1 for the ETA. Perfect summary. –  Joel Shea Jul 11 '11 at 22:21
    
I wanted to write my own answer here, but I think you've nailed it. Good job. –  JSBձոգչ Jul 12 '11 at 14:16

I think Kate's answer covers this nicely, but I just saw an Israeli film called Footnote which, IMHO, does exactly what you're asking about. There are great examples here for your question (and in line with Kate's answer). Spoilers for the film (highly recommended, I'll add) follow.

The film is about a father and son, both of whom are professors in Talmud scholarship (to most people - an obscure academic niche; not even the religious study of the religious texts, but the academic study of them). The father is introverted, meticulous, didactic; he's been snubbed by the academic community because his single, monumental life's work was superseded by somebody else's fluke discovery. The son is outgoing, popular, something of a ham; he's charismatic, but lacking in true gravity. The movie is about the tension between father and son - the father is intensely wounded by the community's treatment of him; he is jealous of his son's success, and sees the community as superficial and worthy of scorn.

So most of the film revolves around the obscure, the procedural, the political. Who got what prize when; who gets to vote on adding new members to certain organizations; all in areas that practically nobody cares about. Here are a few moments the film achieved that had amazing tension:

  • Reactions to the politics: The film opens with the son being honored in a ceremony, and giving a speech. We don't know any of the background yet. For the entire scene, all while the son is talking, the camera shows us only the father's face. The son is talking about what a brilliant educator his father is, what an inspiration he was; the father's face grows more and more sour. We don't even know what the tension is about yet, but we know this much: the father is furious; and if he's furious when his son is praising him, that praise can't be sincere or authentic - the father is angry; the son is lying. The formal, ceremonial event is very dull, but people's reactions to the event make the scene exciting.

  • Stakes of the politics: The key conflict in the film comes when the father is erroneously informed he's to be honored with the coveted Israel Prize - actually, it's his son it's meant for. Immediately, his entire life brightens up - he becomes more friendly and more forthcoming; he's proud of himself; we see that the recognition is immensely significant to him. That makes it clear to us what the stakes are - not the dry result of the procedure, but what it means to the characters.

  • Procedure as metaphor: After some twists, the son bargains with the prize committee to give the father the award, to keep the mistake a secret. One of the caveats is that the son himself needs to write the alleged "judges' comments" recommending the father for the prize. The son sits at his computer, copying the judges' comments recommending him, and trying to fit them to his father. They don't fit - and he keeps changing effusive words of praise to more cautious ones. The formal process demonstrates the distance between the two characters; it's practically a metaphor for how the son wants to appreciate his father, but doesn't, and perhaps can't.

  • Politics as a tool to be used: Meanwhile, the father is exulting in his newfound glory - obscure though it may be. When a newspaper reporter interviews him, he does not hesitate to castigate the community that has snubbed him for so long - and he pointedly includes his son in his criticism. Here, the formal procedure is a tool for furthering the characters' personal agendas. Procedure is what they're all swimming in, so it can be intentionally and directly used for personal aims.

Hope this is helpful :)

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