September 19, 2013

Once Upon a Time…

            …there was an aspiring writer.  And he lived in a beautiful world of wild dreams and deep denial…
            But let’s not talk about that guy.
            Last week I talked about basic linear structure.  This week I want to talk about narrative structure.  Narrative structure relates to—big surprise—my narrative.  It’s about how I’ve chosen to tell my particular story.  While events unfold in a linear fashion for the characters, how I decide to relay these events to my audience can change how the story’s received and interpreted (more on that in a bit).  So linear is how the characters experiences the story, narrative is how the reader experiences the story.
            One quick note before I dive in.  Within a story there might be a device or point of view, like a first person narrator, which gives the appearance of “telling” the story.  For the purposes of our discussion here, though, if I talk about the narration I’m talking about the writer.
            That being said…  here we go.
            In a large chunk of the stories any of us will encounter, the linear structure and narrative structure are going to be the same thing.  The story starts with Wakko on Monday, follows him to Tuesday, through Wednesday and Thursday, and concludes on Friday.  It’s simple and straightforward, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it.  My own book, 14, fits in this category.  It’s loaded with twists and reveals, but the linear structure parallels the narrative.
            There are also a fair number of stories, though, where the narrative doesn’t follow the timeline of the story.  Sometimes the writer does this with flashbacks, where a story is mostly linear with a few small divergences.  Other times, the story may be broken up into several sections and the reader needs to follow clues as to where these sections line up.  These are often called non-linear stories, or you may have heard it as non-linear storytelling (it was the hip new thing for a while there). 

           A great example of a non-linear story is Christopher Nolan’s early film Memento, where the story is actually told in reverse order, starting at the end and moving to the beginning.  My own Ex-Heroes series employs numerous flashbacks (although it’s worth mentioning that the flashbacks are all in linear order).  There was also a brilliant Marvel Comics miniseries by Roger Stern and John Byrne called The Lost Generation, which involved a time traveler moving back through history to see a forgotten superhero team, get wiped out as they saved the world, then moving forward (for the traveler) to see how the group formed and the origins of the heroes.  The issues were even numbered in reverse order.

            Now, there’s more to narrative structure than just wanting to switch around my story elements so I can look all cutting-edge.  If I’ve chosen to jump around a bit (or a lot) in my narrative, there’s a few things I have to keep in mind.  Be warned, we’re moving into an area that requires a little more skill and practice.
            First off, putting things in a new narrative order can’t change the linear logic of my story.  As I mentioned above, the week goes Monday through Friday, and this is true even if the first thing I do is tell you what happened on Thursday.  Monday was still three days earlier, and the characters and events in my story have to reflect that.  I can’t start my book with everyone on Thursday baffled who the murderer is, then roll the story back to Monday were everyone witnesses the killing and sees the murderer.  If they knew then, why don’t they know now?  There’s no logic to it (barring a case of mass amnesia).  If I have Phoebe act surprised that she owns a cat on Friday and then have the narrative jump to her finding the cat in an alley on Tuesday, I’m going to look like an idiot while my linear structure collapses. 
            These are very broad, simplistic examples, yes, but it’s amazing how many times I’ve seen this problem crop up.  Writers want to switch stuff up, but ignore the fact that the logic of their story collapses when the narrative elements are put in linear order.  This is an easy one to fix, it just requires a little time and work.  And sometimes a bit of rewriting.
            The other big issue with having narrative and linear structures so far apart is that people need to be able to follow my plot.  I can have tons of fancy word choices and beautiful language in my story, but readers are still going to put it down if they can’t figure out what’s going on. 
            For example…
            Think about when a little kid tells you a story about Iron Man and Batman and Snuffleupagus and there’s a moon base and they had a spaceship that Iron Man made before they fought the werewolf and the werewolf hates only getting to go out on Halloween so he decided when he was a little kid because only Snuffleupagus liked him and the rest of the time he has to get shaved because it’s too hot so he decided to go to the Moon so he could be a werewolf all the time and no one would make fun of him cause he didn’t know there were aliens on the moon but Batman saw the wolfman spaceship and tried to stop it and asked Iron Man to help and they fought the werewolf and Batman knew the werewolf when they were kids before he was Batman so he decided to help him move to the moon because they broke his spaceship but Iron Man had another spaceship he built after the Avengers movie and it looks like a big Iron Man and the werewolf had promised Snuffleupagus when they were little that he could come and so they got him out of the broken ship and you kind of tune it out and start mentally skimming.  I mean, you just skimmed a lot of that, right?  It jumps around so much that after a point it just becomes noise.
            Y’see, Timmy, the problem with chopping up my narrative too much is that people are automatically going to try to put it in linear order.  As I mentioned last week, we all do this almost automatically because it’s how our brains are set up.  The harder the narrative makes it for someone to reorganize the linear story, the less likely it is they’ll be able to follow it.  Which means the more likely it is that they’ll put it down.
            I talked about the idea of a detective at a crime scene last week.  If you’ve read a few mystery stories—or watched a few crime shows—you know a standard part of the mystery formula is the hero going through the events of the story and putting them in linear order for the other characters and the audience.  And how many are there? Eight or nine, usually?  Call it ten elements that are out of order and  the writer’s admitting it might be kind of tough to keep up at this point.
            There was a movie that came out about eight or nine years ago (I’ll be polite and not name it) that was a non-linear mess.  I don’t think there were two scenes in it that followed each other.  So we’re talking about well over a hundred scenes that were all scrambled and out of order.  Maybe as many as two hundred.  The actors were fantastic, but the story was impossible to keep up with.  It didn’t help that certain events repeated in the story.  Again, to be polite and protect the innocent, let’s say one of the characters was in a serious car crash and then was in another serious car crash two years later.  The audience was getting random scenes of burning cars, ambulances, emergency surgeries, recovery, and physical therapy… from two car crashes.  So we’re left trying to figure out which car crash the character was experiencing/recovering from at various points–once it was clear there’d been two car crashes–and then figuring where this scene fit in relation to all the other scenes.  The audience had to spend their time trying to decipher the movie rather than watching it.
            So non-linear structure can be overdone and become a detriment if I’m not careful.  This can be really hard to spot and fix, because it’s going to depend a lot on my ability to put myself in the reader’s shoes.  Since I know the whole linear story from the moment I sit down, the narrative is always going to make a lot more sense to me, even though for someone coming in cold it might be an illogical pile.  This is one of those times where I need to be harsh and honest with myself, because if I don’t my story’s going to be incomprehensible.
            That’s narrative structure in a nutshell.  Maybe more of a coconut-shell.  However I decide to tell my story, it still needs to have a linear structure, it still needs to be logical, and it still needs to be understandable. 
            Next time, I want to explain how linear structure and narrative structure combine via dramatic structure to tell a good story.
            Until then… go write.

Pop culture reference. First of the year…

Wow. Last week’s little rant must’ve struck a chord with folks. Almost double the usual number of hits. Hopefully it was the right chord.
One term that comes up a lot in gaming is “balance.” It’s important that the rules are fair and equal from all directions. No one player should have an inherent superiority to any other. Advantages in one area should come with disadvantages in another. And the players should have a fair chance against the odds themselves. If there’s only a 1-in-20 chance of this little piece of wargear working, it should be pretty darn impressive that 5% of the time it does.
Another term that comes up a lot in gaming is “broken.” It’s when a set of rules are so far our of balance that no one wants to play in that section of the game or against that particular piece of wargear. It’s just no fun to go into something knowing you’ve got no chance of success, one way or the other.
So, what does this have to do with being a god? More to the case, what does it have to do with writing?
Well, stories need to be balanced, too. We want characters to have a chance at achieving their goals, but we also want them to face a challenge getting there. If the story leans too far one way or the other, it becomes pointless.
If the antagonist is all-powerful, then the hero never has a chance. That’s boring as hell. There might be a few dramatic moments, if the writer really knows what they’re doing, but probably not. How long would you be willing to watch me stand in a field trying to will myself to levitate? We all know it’s not going to happen, so I’m betting not that long.
Keep in mind, the antagonist doesn’t have to be a guy (or gal) in body armor and a black cape. The high school jock, the bank officer, the evil drill sergeant, the abusive boss, even society in general– any of these can be the antagonist. And, again, if there’s no chance whatsoever of beating the antagonist, this story is not going to hold a lot of people’s interest.
I’d also point out that beating the antagonist doesn’t mean defeating them utterly. But as far as this main character is concerned, they have to have a chance to succeed at their particular goals. No chance means no interest.
The flipside of this is also true. If your main character has absolutely no chance of being defeated, that’s not very interesting either. Not many people are going to pay to see Mike Tyson pound on some nine year olds, and I guarantee the ones who do aren’t going for the fight. Would you pay to read a novel that’s all about someone who’s hungry and then they go out to dinner? Want to place any bets on Stephen Hawking solving third grade math homework?
Characters with godlike abilities aren’t interesting because they never get challenged. The reader (or audience) never gets the sense that there’s any sort of danger or threat. In which case, the whole story just became as interesting as me getting a glass of Diet Pepsi.
Consider The Matrix. It turns out Neo is a god, yes, but we only discover this in the last five minutes of the movie. Same with John Murdoch in Dark City. By the time they become all-powerful, the story’s pretty much over and we just get a few hints of what they’re going to do with their newfound godhood. In fact, when The Matrix turned out to be a huge success and they had to make sequel films, one of the first things the Wachowski Brothers did was try to scale back Neo’s abilities and say they were never as great as implied in the first film. Oh, he’s still powerful, yeah, but he’s no god. He’s a bit stronger, he can fly… but that’s about it.
Didn’t really help those sequels, though, did it?
This is, as a note, one of the problems many comic book writers have had with Superman over the years. How do you pose a believable threat to a hero who’s faster and stronger than anyone, and completely invulnerable to boot? A few writers, John Byrne probably chief among them, tried scaling the Kent boy way back, but other writers soon had the dial turned up past eleven again.
(Fun fact– Kryptonite wasn’t created to solve this problem. It was invented by the writers of the Superman radio show when their lead actor came down with laryngitis. They needed a way to explain why Superman didn’t appear in four episodes, so they had a kryptonite meteor hit the Daily Planet building without anyone noticing and end up in the same storage room Clark used to change. Bam–four episodes of the Man of Steel coughing feebly.)
There’s also another downside to nigh-omnipotent characters. Gods are boring as hell. They’re very tough to relate to, and if people can’t relate to characters there’s not going to be much in the story for them to invest in. Good characters have needs and desires and flaws, but godlike powers tend to nullify most of those things. All I need to do is snap my fingers and the Diet Pepsi is here. I didn’t even need to get out of my chair for it.
I read a script a few years back that was about two gods pinwheeling back and forth through history and assuming different identities in different times in an attempt to influence the development of mankind as part of some… I don’t know. A game? A random bet? A function of the universe? It was never made clear, but I can tell you I was bored out of my skull by page ten. If I wasn’t getting paid to read it cover to cover, I would’ve tossed it right then.
When Don Payne wrote his script for Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, he knew there was no way a giant in Teletubby-colored space armor was going to work on screen and come across as a threat. Rather than try to make Galactus relatable (and diminishing him in the process), Don turned the Devourer of Worlds into an inhuman, completely unrelatable thing– a monstrous, nebulous entity–and in doing so he kept the idea that this was something too powerful to imagine. People give Don a lot of crap for that script, but they ignore that he did a ton of stuff right (seriously–this film is loaded with plot elements lifted right out of Stan Lee’s stories).
If you’ve got an insanely powerful character in one of your stories, take another look at her or him. Do they need to be that strong? Wouldn’t they be more interesting with feet of clay? Maybe even a whole leg of clay? Isn’t your story going to be a bit more interesting if success and failure both seem like viable outcomes?
I think it would. But that’s just me.
Next week I’d like to revisit last week’s post and go into another idea from that online conversation.
Until then, go write.