I’m happy to be settling virtually into the Mixed Up Files clubhouse, and settling physically into my family’s new home in rural New England. While boxing and unboxing all my worldly possessions, I’ve given a lot of thought to “moving experiences” in literature. Authors most often use relocation as a plot device, but it can also highlight a book’s theme, demonstrate character traits, or show an aspect of the setting.
This is the most straightforward example. Typically there’s a character who encounters a new kid in class, or is a new kid in class, or has to deal with a friend or family member moving away. The move might be permanent, like Pip moving to London with great expectations, or it might be temporary, like Alice’s visit to Wonderland. The important thing is that if Alice decides not to follow the White Rabbit, the entire rest of the story fails to take place. The character’s move is what moves the plot.
C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe features a group of siblings who are relocated to the countryside during the WWII bombing of London. They then discover a magical gateway and move again, this time into the land of Narnia. That second move is necessary to the plot, but what about the first? Wouldn’t this story have worked just as well if it had been otherwise unchanged but instead had the siblings discover a portal in their own long-familiar London home?
Lewis used the initial move to introduce a theme and ratchet up the tension. These kids, moved from bomb-battered London to a seemingly safe environment, suddenly find themselves in more danger than ever. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. The move has created ironic tension, because the pastoral countryside is not the sanctuary it was made out to be. The themes of danger and safety are integral to the book and make the story more impactful.
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin presents a group of unlikely characters who compete to solve a mystery and earn the inheritance of a wealthy eccentric. At the start of the book, every one of these future contestants moves into the same apartment complex, which makes it possible to tell the story in a compact space. It’s a practical move, necessary to the plot, but it also spotlights the manipulative nature and social engineering skills of Sam Westing as he entices all of these people to uproot their previous lives even before the contest and its stakes have been introduced. If any of those families had decided to stay put instead, the entire intricate plot would have begun to unravel. By the end of the book, we see exactly how manipulative Westing has been, but it all starts with that big collective move.
A World-Building Move:
Consider the Harry Potter series, in which Harry moves from his uncle and aunt’s house to Hogwarts for each school year and back again for the summer. In his first year, Harry moves twice. First, he moves to a part of the wizarding world that’s a single semi-permeable wall away from the world we live in. From there, Harry and the other first-year students move by train to the pure magic of Hogwarts, which is as far removed from the muggle world as one can get. Most of the characters who make a similar double-move are muggle-born, like Hermione. Others who are native to the wizarding world only have to move once, like Ron and Draco. Every student is in for a magical year of new experiences, but readers have been introduced to a caste system that plays out more and more in later books.
How else have you seen a move used in your favorite books? Let me know in the comments, and thanks to everyone who helped me move my words onto this blog.