Ground Situation: The Ultimate Story Test
As I’ve been working on my novel (which, by the way, has morphed into a multi-voice, more-like-linked-short-stories-than-a-novel novel) and editing some lovely manuscripts, I’ve been thinking a lot about what John Barth calls the plot’s “ground situation.” The ground situation is what occurs before the main action in your novel. It’s where your characters start and what emotional state they are in before page one.
When we writers talk about plot, I think the conversation tends to center upon inciting incident, rising action, and climax. But the ground situation is just as important, if not more so, than these plot elements. The ground situation is responsible for setting up the action, and it is also the test by which you can tell whether or not you’ve told a story. In his essay “Incremental Perturbation: How to Know Whether You’ve Got Plot or Not,” Barth claims that without a ground situation there can be no story, “for it is its effect on the ground situation that gives the story’s action meaning.”
So, what makes a good ground situation? According to Barth, a good ground situation is one that is “voltaged,” full of electricity, tension, or dissatisfaction. Characters are ripe for destruction, for something to knock them off of the crumbling cliff on which they stand.
Keep in mind that this tension is often subliminal. Before a novel begins, the characters are more or less living in a state of equilibrium (delicate as that state may be). They have buried their feelings, regrets, hatreds, longings; they have been living on one valium and one glass of whiskey every night. They are getting by, but barely.
Enter you, the writer, and down the rabbit hole they go.
Think about Jane Eyre: orphaned twice, once by her parents and then by her kind uncle. All of that occurs before we see her with the awful Reed family, before she goes away to school, and before she meets the oh-so-debonair Mr. Rochester. At the start of the novel, she is in a fragile state, yes, but she is surviving. It isn’t until she is relegated to the red room, where she thinks she sees her uncle’s ghost, that the story’s plot begins to unfold.
The ground situation does more than set your characters up for the main action of your novel. The ground situation is also the test by which you can determine whether or not you’ve told a story. Barth writes, “If nothing of consequence about the ground situation has been altered, no story has been told; the action has been all effort and no work. If the ground situation has unquestionably been changed…then a story may have been told.”
Undoubtedly, at the beginning of the novel, Jane’s life is at the mercy of those around her. But by the end of the novel, she has obtained a state of autonomy: she chooses to decline St. John’s proposal and she chooses to marry Mr. Rochester, as (she claims) equals. She is a sovereign individual.
This is not to say that characters might end up right where they started when a novel ends. At the end of the story, your characters may find themselves back in a state of equilibrium, but, according to Barth, “it is an equilibrium complexified, qualitatively changed even where things may appear to all hands (except the reader/spectator) back to normal.”
So take a look at where your main character starts at the beginning of the novel, before your inciting incident. Who is she? What is at stake for her? What does she still have to learn? Then, take a look at your character at the end of the story. Has she changed? Externally, maybe she’s still working for that jerk on page one or maybe she’s transcended her humble beginning to become queen of her kingdom. Either way, ask yourself, has there been some irrevocable internal change? If yes, then, chances are, you’ve told a story. If not, take some time to work on your ground situation because the story before the story can make or break the rest of your novel.