The amazing power of fish-out-of-water stories
Stories about a character forced into an unfamiliar context are a staple of creative narratives, from books to plays, TV
We love fish-out-of-water stories because they tell us about the human condition, and make us examine our own inner workings. Every one of us has places where we feel at home and places where we don’t. Those contrasts, if handled well, make for wonderful story tension.
Here are some of the specific “powers” these kinds of stories have, as I discovered while writing my latest novel, Almost There, about an urban teen who, on the eve of a trip to Paris, gets stuck in her mother’s rural hometown.
Characters’ reactions to unfamiliar environments shows how adaptable, accepting, or curious they are. Does the unfamiliar threaten or fascinate? How confidently or timidly do characters carry themselves among those unlike them?
Weaknesses and fears that never come out in familiar, comfortable environments often show themselves in new venues. Conversely, the new experiences can cause unknown interests and strengths to emerge.
When I dropped New Yorker Danielle in rural northern Pennsylvania, I found that her city-kid independence expressed itself as curiosity—and also made her seem a bit cocky to the locals. The wooded landscape initially frightens her, but also proves an inspiration for creating new art.
Reveal a comfort zone and sense of “normal”
Your concept of what is safe or dangerous, wonderful or disgusting, cool or weird is to a large degree colored by how unfamiliar things compare to life inside your comfort zone.
An urbanite will feel far more comfortable in man-made environments and in the press of a crowd. Put one in the woods, and they’ll likely find the environment deeply sinister. Sounds they can’t account for might be a dangerous predator; dirt could be full of gross, crawly things.
As an outsider, a character might make striking or hilarious observations a local wouldn’t. For example, on arriving at her grandfather’s, Dani describes the summer hum of crickets chirping as “a threatening cacophony, reminding me that this is their crawly, leggy, wingy territory.”
Dani’s normal is multicultural and fairly unfazed by difference. When she learns the neighbor has been labeled with the ethnic slur “Mick,” she quips, “Seriously? Is being Irish considered weirdly ethnic here? In New York, you could have earlobes stretched to your shoulders and pierce your whole face with nails and hardly get a passing glance from anyone.”
Reveal underlying biases
Characters approach unfamiliar things with a set of expectations—sometimes even deep prejudices they didn’t know they held until put in proximity with this environment.
For example, when an unfamiliar beater Volvo appears in her grandfather’s driveway, Dani assumes that only an elderly person would drive such a car, and this person must be “be a granny from Poppa’s church bringing us dinner. I hope it’s one of those epic tuna noodle casseroles with crushed potato chips on top that Mum always jokes about. I bet it’s as delicious as it is lowbrow.” It’s actually one of her New York friends, an additional shock because she’s accustomed to no one learning to drive until they’re 18 and no longer a restricted “junior learner”—rules peculiar to the five boroughs.
Awakening to biases can become an instrument for change in a character. When Dani befriends a neighbor and sees the ways he struggles that she never has, she begins to re-evaluate her own life, and realizes just how privileged her upbringing has been.
We all naturally make judgments about unfamiliar things. The familiar world will be held up as a model, and the unfamiliar measured against it as either inferior or superior. How a character makes value judgments about which culture is superior gives a very accurate window into their entire value system.
For example, Dani recognizes in the neighbor boy an entrepreneurial drive she’s never seen in her city friends. She notes that he acts “like a grown man” when seeking work and calls it “intriguing.” Rather than label him a boring workaholic, she admires his maturity.
What is your favorite fish-out-of-water story? Why does it speak to you?
About the Author
Laurel Garver is a Philadelphia-based writer, editor, professor’s wife and mom to an arty teenager. An indie film enthusiast and incurable Anglophile, she enjoys geeking out about Harry Potter and Dr. Who, playing word games, singing in church choir, and taking long walks in Philly's Fairmount Park. You can follow her on her blog, on Twitter, or on Facebook.
About Almost There
Genre: Young Adult Inspirational
Paris, the City of Lights. To seventeen-year-old Dani Deane, it’s the Promised Land. There, her widowed mother’s depression will vanish and she will no longer fear losing her only parent, her arty New York life, or her devoted boyfriend.
But shortly before their Paris getaway, Dani’s tyrannical grandfather falls ill, pulling them to rural Pennsylvania to deal with his hoarder horror of a house. Among the piles, Dani finds disturbing truths that could make Mum completely unravel. Desperate to protect her from pain and escape to Paris, Dani hatches a plan with the flirtatious neighbor boy that only threatens the relationships she most wants to save.
Why would God block all paths to Paris? Could real hope for healing be as close as a box tucked in the rafters?
I love fish-out-of-water scenes and stories. The story I'm currently
attempting to plot plotting is going to have a strong element of this.
Maybe my love goes back to my the first time I saw Wizard of Oz!
How about you? What's your favourite Fish-out-of-Water story?