Lately, I’ve been binge watching series on Netflix. I’m no working my way through Pretty Little Liars, a show I had dropped before and now I just really want to know how it ends. Cliffhangers and unsolved mysteries are a bitch, right? But I kind of like the ‘small town’ stories.
Before Pretty Little Liars, I finished Gilmore Girls, and I still follow Riverdale. I think Chesapeake Shore and The Good Witch are ones as well, although they do fall in a different genre. All of these focus on stories in small towns where most people know each other.
Even in books, a small town can become its own character. In the ‘Wicca’-series by Cate Tiernan, most of the story is set in Widow’s Vale, until the series digs deeper into other characters and Morgan grows up.
There’s something about communities. Rory Gilmore grew up in a community that loved her like their own daughter. Hell, they even demanded to be at her graduation from Yale. She was loved by so many, just as Jess was hated by all of them.
Living in a small community like that makes you feel watched. People judge. Ask Aria, Spencer, Emily or Hannah. Sometimes a small community isn’t beneficial. If you’ve done something bad, everyone will know. Secrets are harder to keep secret, although Pretty Little Liars has done a good job of trying to prove otherwise.
Even a relationship isn’t something that won’t affect the entire community, like Lorelai and Luke’s first relationship. It was part of the town meeting. People who are pillars of the community have a more public life than an outsider would think.
There is a lot to consider in a small community. If you haven’t been part of one, it’s hard to understand. Watching these shows and reading books about it gives me a good idea how it would be like.
Wide-set of characters
Since everyone knows everyone, it would be weird to leave out names. As a writer, it’s hard to come up with that, but later it’ll be easier to just pull someone off the shelf and have them do something different.
All these characters have some history together, or not at all, which might say something about them as well. Girls who rarely speak, but are in the same class, are in different groups. A teenager picked up a summer job at the local ice parlour and met someone who doesn’t go to their school. Old friends suddenly move back.
Every character has its own story and backstory. A TV series has more space to tell each story. Books have to be more careful how to use their words. This calls for creativity. These relationships don’t have to be named explicitly, but one line can be enough to say something about what the relationship between two people is and how they regard each other. It’s all in the details. The words used, the non-verbal cues, tone.
And the most beautiful thing about these relationships is that you can do anything with them. Change it, destroy it, advance it. Lover becoming friends, enemies become lovers, friends become estranged. Since there already is a dynamic between two people, it doesn’t need much to change it.
Conflicts are bound to happen
Small communities often mean that all kinds of people come together and they don’t always get along. In The Good Witch, where the town always seems like the happiest of places, there was something brewing. Secrets, mysteries and lies are everywhere. Even the happy places.
Some conflicts are pre-existing, like the South versus the North in Riverdale, or Lorelai and her parents. There are two ways you can handle these conflicts: escalate them or resolve them.
Conflicts are the base of a story. But the amount, between who and what the conflicts are is different for every story. There are plots and subplots. Some stories have subplots that don’t add anything to the story. Sometimes it’s a diversion for the characters. The mystery that goes with a certain type of conflict is the most interesting. Often only one side is told and the other side kept secret. We’re left guessing. Until the characters are ready to confront each other.
New arrivals stand out
When someone moves to town, they will be talked about and especially at school, first impressions are everything. It’s an easy way to create a new storyline, but it’s also cliche. The reader or viewer knows something will be up when the main characters notice someone new. They wouldn’t mention the new one if it wasn’t important for the story.
Having someone new come to town is another way to expose the habits of a community, ones they might not even know they exist. Jess and Paris both comment on the little oddities of Stars Hollow (and, of course, there are many).
Limited world building
Setting a story in one town limits the time you have to spend on world building. Even occasional trips to other places can be limited to the locations they visited. The town you create does have to be consistent. Having a place that’s familiar to the reader or viewer is comforting. It’s easy for them to come back. Even when the story is new.
The Gilmore Girls revival was pure nostalgia. The people were the same, Star’s Hollow was the same, the themes were the same. Even though Lorelai and Luke were together, they still were at odds and uncertainty hung in the air. We’re familiar with that. It what drew me back in.
I’m already looking for my next binge. The next small town read on my list is Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. A horror story set an American small town. The original Dutch version was set in a small town in the Netherlands. Thomas actually prefers the English version of his book, so I’m going to follow his advice and read the English version instead of the Dutch. What is your favourite ‘small town’ story? Are there aspects that you love the most about them?