One of my favorite things about rereading/reteaching stories is that no matter how well I think I know a work, I always unearth new intriguing bits. This past spring when I taught Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I zeroed in on how Shelley describes the breaking up of the frozen northern ocean where Walton and Victor become trapped: the “ground sea.” What strange, evocative phrasing. It comes up three times, first early, in Walton’s fourth letter, and then twice near the end when Victor recounts his chase of the creature. The third usage is at a crucial moment, when Victor is closing in on the creature:
“A ground sea was heard; the thunder of its progress, as the waters rolled and swelled beneath me, became every moment more ominous and terrific. I pressed on, but in vain. The wind arose; the sea roared; and, as with the mighty shock of an earthquake, it split, and cracked with a tremendous and overwhelming sound. The work was soon finished: in a few minutes a tumultuous sea rolled between me and my enemy, and I was left drifting on a scattered piece of ice, that was continually lessening, and thus preparing for me a hideous death.”
Since I’m not — spoiler! — a 19th century sailor, I first had to look it up. From the OED: “ground-sea, n: A heavy sea in which large waves rise and dash upon the coast without apparent cause,” with an early 1757 example: A rumbling noise was heard, like that which usually precedes what the sailors call a ground-sea. It also could be a synonym for ground-swell, whose definition is similar and fits with Shelley’s context.
Beyond the shiver-inducing loveliness of the phrase and Shelley’s imagery, and a more general awe at the ocean’s countless mysteries, I’m also interested in the ground-sea as a way of talking about creative writing.
Every semester in workshop, I (repeatedly) ask students a question: What’s under the boat? Oh, The Boat. It has become how I talk about the complexity of a story’s tension/conflict beyond plot (surface), particularly for a character, adapted from one of my professors. I sketched a — ahem — beautiful drawing (aka demented stick people with cauliflower fronds for hands) that transformed into the beautiful clip art here in my Beautiful Boat Analogy:
The “picture” is meant to convey the range of elements that make up a story. Not that all stories include or emphasize each element; each story makes its own rules. The key for me is that these elements are intertwined. There isn’t a set hierarchy. All of them work together and feed off of each other. But yes, notice the size of the word conflict, aka tension/the trouble, there under the boat.
In his wonderful little book Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern calls tension the mother of fiction. Tension is something the reader should feel right away, even if it’s not clear exactly what the problem is. Lit classes often define conflict in terms of versus: character vs. self, vs. person, nature, fate, society (or some combo: as Stern says, characters don’t only face their enemies, they face themselves facing their enemies). Writers often like to think of conflict as the trouble, or the stakes. This is what’s “under the boat,” lurking, threatening to tip that boat over as it makes its way across the water. I’ve heard the writer Tony Earley talk about it as The Thing on the surface and The Other Thing below, and eventually the two Things converge (you’ll have to ask him to elaborate, but I love that baffling analogy because it captures the weirdness and difficulty of trying to talk about making fiction).
This is where the ground-sea comes as an unexpected, delightful elaboration on my analogy: tension is the ground-sea! It’s the rumble below, haunting, lurking, complicating our characters and plot. It may rise and force a character to act/react, or it will complicate or change how a character acts/reacts.
As with a character’s interior landscape, figuring this out may take time. You may be figuring it out as you go, or it may change on you as you discover more about your character and her world. Ask yourself, What’s the trouble? What’s the problem here? In Carlson’s terms: What’s at stake, and for whom? In my new terms: what is the ground-sea, and when will it thunder?
It’s not easy, but you already know that, right? You’re not writing because it’s easy. This is what we writers push for; this is what makes stories so hard for us but so rewarding for readers. We make our seas roar.