Bob Tippee: Unhinging the Workplace Setting

Bob Tippee is an award-winning business journalist who writes about the oil and gas industry. His stories for AHMM are often set in fiercely competitive workplace cultures; our June cover story, “The PLT,” is an excellent example.

Fiction, of course, must transport the reader beyond immediate reality into a world of the writer’s imagination. Hugely important to that world is setting, a bundle of qualities unique to any story that might be said to fit along a spectrum defined by other-worldly fantasy at one extreme and here-and-now familiarity at the other. Settings between those poles must be somehow exotic: places where a reader might wish or be loath to go but cannot, possibly in combination with times inaccessible as well.

Whatever the setting, the writer must make it interesting and believable, simultaneously and continuously. Failure of one of these factors of setting bores the reader; failure of the other punctures the trance. Creating a setting in which a character can change fundamentally and believably, while struggling with a meaningful problem, in a way that resonates beyond the story itself, amounts to hard work and great fun.

Within this tension between interest and believability in setting, it seems to me, a subtle balance applies. Settings fantastic or exotic in some way inherently create interest. Because they strain believability, however, the characters and problems that interact within them need close tethers to what readers find familiar. And because believability attaches easily to places proximate in space and time, interest depends on out-of-place behavior by characters subject to outsize stresses. A writer profits by placing familiar characters in extraordinary settings or extraordinary people in familiar settings. Other combinations jeopardize interest or believability, or at least deprive background of structural contrast able to sharpen depictions of character and place and, sometimes, spawn handy little tornadoes of irony.

A familiar setting that seems sparsely explored by fiction writers is the contemporary workplace. Of course, many crime stories ply their investigations in police stations. Many literary stories evoke their subtexts in or near university English departments. Yet most people don’t work in cop shops or on college campuses. Most people work in windowed offices or cluttered cubicles, behind store counters or in Starbucks chairs, in converted garages or at dining room tables. These are the places where people, lots of people, chase their dreams or squander their time, bust their butts or watch the clock, stretch their brains or narrow their vision, fulfill themselves or lose their souls. Why aren’t more stories set there?

Interesting things happen in the workplace. People at work exercise ambition, lust, jealousy, ego, fear, and every trick life has taught them about seeming to have no deficiencies while succumbing to those they do. In the workplace, especially the corporate workplace, people conduct themselves with practiced calm, a mark of professionalism that can suppress thoughts, feelings, and individuality while generating the raw material for neuroses that, in the mind of a fiction writer, can lead wondrously to anything.

Even crime. Even if most do not, people in the workplace can pad expense accounts, sell company secrets, trade stock on inside information, bribe officials, pay or take kickbacks, lie to bankers, extort money from colleagues with sinister pasts, misrepresent goods or services for sale, get carried away extracting revenge for professional slights—the list has no end. Many workplace crimes are trivial, as crime fiction goes, but some are not. Even a trivial crime can be interesting when committed by a character unhinged from normalcy: the executive passed over for promotion whose resentment spins murderously out of control, the middle-grade drone using corporate anonymity to hide an incendiary secret (think Clark Kent), or—one of my favorites—the climber obsessed with ambition who will do anything in pursuit of vacuous goals.

Behavior unhinged from normalcy makes fiction interesting in ordinary settings and crime believable in work settings. The story, though not necessarily the narrative, starts with whatever unhinged the focus character in the first place.

Workplace settings must, of course, feel real. Stereotypical descriptions of work in a corporate office might fool a reader who toils in a police station or English department, but not a cube rat worried about the next performance review who has a report due and can’t make the copy machine work. It helps a writer to have been there.

I’d welcome more fiction than appears now with edgy characters encountering their humanity in here-and-now offices, shops, and entrepreneurial garages. Maybe more of all the many good folks who work in places like those then would read short stories.

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