May 16, 2024 / 2 Comments

The Second Time Around

Look, a self-referential title!

Okay, this one’s more of a ramble about my writing philosophy. Maybe with a couple tips tossed in. I don’t know. I’m rambling.

I like stories. Surprise! Books. Movies. Comics. Television. I love seeing how narratives unfold. I love getting caught off guard by a phenomenal twist. Stories are great, and reading them is a fantastic experience.

And I like revisiting stories, too. When I was a kid there were comic stories I’d read again and again. I have favorite movies that I like rewatching, books I’ve picked up for a fourth or fifth time.

In fact, I’m a big believer that people should be able to enjoy a story a second time. I’d go so far as to say I think that’s a sign of a great story. People should be able to read a story twice and enjoy it both times.

They won’t enjoy it the same way, mind you. There’s a literary term for reading something the first time, experiencing it without foreknowledge aaaaannnnnd I can never remember what it is. A professor told it to me years ago and I’ve never been able to remember it. Point is, we only get one chance to enjoy something for the first time. One. That’s it. So when we read something for the second time, we’re getting a different experience. Seeing things through a new lens, so to speak.

The same way we, the writers, might not get into some of the really clever stuff until the second draft, I think the second read (or viewing, if you want to talk movies) is when the audience really gets to enjoy how I (the writer) put things together. They can still enjoy the story, yeah, but they can enjoy a lot of elements on a different level. Now that they know how things end, they get to see the clever set-ups for what they really were. They’ll realize where I nudged them to think X instead of Y. They’ll also be able to move at their own pace, really appreciate that clever bit of description, notice the little one-two-three parallel. Maybe some scenes will take on a whole new spin, maybe have a very different type of thrill, once we know from the start who Yakko really is.

So we can’t recapture that first time experience, but hopefully the second time is—in its own way—just as enjoyable.

I try very hard to write for the second read. I want you to read my stories and enjoy them, sure. But I want you to enjoy them the second time, too. I want you to see that everything lines up. How I pulled the wool over your eyes here and here. What this character was really saying there. And that holy crap, no, I never cheated on this—it always worked that way.

In fact, the second time through can be kind of a test. If I go through again and now it’s really clear things don’t line up or motivations don’t make a lot of sense… that might be a warning sign. It’s probably telling me I’ve got a problem with my structure or my characterization or maybe just… my plot. And I might want to take another look at that. Because I want this to be as good as it can be, right?

Now… bear with me for a moment.

As some of you know, I am very anti-spoiler. I’ve gone on long rants about it on different social media platforms. Chewed people out about them. Had a few folks block me when I pointed out their spoiler “tips” basically amounted to putting the blame on people who don’t want things spoiled for them.

There are some folks out there who say spoilers don’t matter. Some people don’t mind learning spoilers and other people who… well, there’s some folks seem to almost take a malicious glee in blasting out spoilers on social media or in articles or even in headlines. I mean, so what if you found out that Wakko dies before you saw the movie, or somebody told you Dot was actually Phoebe’s sister? If the story’s not any good without that big reveal, then it’s probably not a good story, is it?

But there’s a big misunderstanding going on here.

If I get a bunch of spoilers before I get to read the book (or see the movie), and the story’s still good, this just means the writer planned on a second read, like we’ve been talking about. It’s still a good story, yeah, but the spoilers have robbed you of the original story. That version I’d intended to be your first, going-in-cold experience. Because you only had one chance at that version and, whooosh, its gone. It’s gone without you even getting to actually read it. The second-read story’s good, too, yeah, but that’s just it—I’d intended it to be your second read. You missed out on half the experience. Payoffs are great, but so are the setups.

And if the story isn’t any good without those reveals and twists… well, yeah. It’s probably not a great story. We already talked about it. But now there’s no chance of enjoying it, because it was structured around the idea of someone just reading it once and, well, the spoilers killed that.

Plus, just because there’s something bad doesn’t excuse behaving the same way for everything. Just because spoilers don’t change anything for a bad story doesn’t mean they’re justified for a good one. Yeah, I had a bad burrito once, but that doesn’t mean I should say all Mexican food is awful.

Y’see, Timmy, we all inherently write for our stories to be read cold that first time. We expect people to consume the narrative in the order we planned out. To learn things when we want them to learn them. But if I’m doing this right, my readers should be able to enjoy my story a second time as well. Not in the same way, but still in a way that’ll hold their attention and give them a different little set of thrills.

So, try to plan on giving your audience a great second read.

And maybe let people enjoy the first one, while you’re at it.

Next time… wow, the end of the month’s coming up quick. And with it, another one of those milestone birthdays for me. So this is probably a good time to talk about regular exercise.

Until then, go write.

May 2, 2024

Onward and Upward

Very sorry this is very late. I ended up with a clever thought about how I could restructure the whole thing. And then ha ha ha ha I kind of slashed half my fingertip open while working on some little toy soldiers (always be extra-careful when you’re using fresh X-acto blades, folks) and the bandages made typing a little challenging for, oh four days.

But here we are. Finally. For one last blathering-on about structure. This is the cool one, though.

So, I started off talking with you about linear structure, and then I talked a bit more about narrative structure. This week I want to combine these two and talk about dramatic structure.

As the name implies, dramatic structure involves drama. Not “how shall I recover from this sleight, woe is me” drama, but the tension and interactions and momentum within my story. Any story worth telling (well, the vast, overwhelming majority of them) is going to involve a series of challenges and an escalation of tension. Stakes will be raised, then raised again. More on this in a bit.

Speaking of which, before I dive in… okay, look, on one level I hate breaking all this stuff down and quantifying it because we’re talking about art. We’ve all got our own likes and dislikes and styles and methods, and there’s rarely any good, one-size-fits-all advice The art part of this is personal, and we should all be a bit cautious when some guru starts telling you how stories go together and slaps down graphs and charts or some nonsense like that.

So. with that out of the way… let me dive in and tell you how stories go together. I’ve got graphs and charts to help out.

Now, dramatic structure means I want to arrange my story so tension is rising. The plot needs to advance. Characters need to make decisions, and those decisions should have an effect on them and what’s going on around them, for better or for worse. Usually for worse. It may sound silly to say out loud, but tension should be higher at the middle of my story than the beginning, and higher at the end than it was in the middle. That’s just common sense right? Nobody wants to read (or write) a story that gets less interesting and compelling as it goes on. Or a story that starts sort of compelling and then stays… sort of compelling, and at the big climax is sort of compelling. I mean, maybe I’m just weird that way?

Mind you, these don’t need to be world-threatening challenges or gigantic action set pieces. If the whole goal of my story is for science-nerd Wakko to ask out popular girl Phoebe, a challenge could be working up the nerve or just finding the right clothes. But there needs to be something for my character to do to bump that tension line higher and higher. Stand up to the bully. Get to work in time for that important meeting. Come up with $30,000 by five o’clock on Friday to save Aunt Dot’s car wash. And, yes, defeating the cyborg ninja werewolf from the future so I can deactivate the terraforming device before it turns North America back into primordial tundra.

So let’s talk and let me show you some fun visual aids. On all of these graphs, the individual points are going to represent the linear structure. I’m going to be using the alphabet to mark them because we can all recognize that order pretty quick– A, B, C, D, and so on. Our X-axis (oooh, look at me, talking all mathy and sciencey) is going to be the progression of the story—our narrative structure. Think of it as the arrangement of plot points from the first page of my story to the last page (and damn, I wish I’d thought of that explanation earlier). Finally, the Y-axis is going to be our tension levels—dramatic structure.

Got all that?

Also, apologies up front. I didn’t realize how rough these graphs would be shrunken down. Sorry. Just open ’em in another tab. Also graphic design is my passion, yadda yadda, moving on.

Okay, let’s do an easy starter graph.

This is the story of me sleeping. It’s pretty simple. We start when I go to bed, and end when I waking up. It’s told in a linear fashion, so the linear and narrative structures line up. There’s a brief moment in there when a cat woke me up (maybe Julius or Alucard?) and I went back to sleep, but that’s pretty much it as far as dramatic tension goes.

Like I said, simple. Really, this is a story where nothing happens. It’s pretty boring. You may notice it’s pretty close to a straight line. A flat line, really. And if you’ve watched a lot of medical shows, you probably know what it means when they say something’s flatlined

So, if we want to see our heroes overcome challenges and watch the overall tension rise… what would that look like?

Well, here’s a very bare-bones dramatic structure. We start small, and tension increases as time goes by. Low at the start, high at the end. Makes sense, right?

But… this is pretty much another straight line, right? And straight lines are pretty close to flat lines (see above). So how am I supposed to have a dramatic structure that constantly rises but isn’t a straight line?

Well, let’s think back to high school physics for a minute (sorry if this is traumatic for any of you). Did any of you ever deal with that problem of playing pool on a train? As long as the train’s moving at a steady speed, you can play a game of pool on a moving train without any weird effects. Because you, the floor, the pool table, the balls… all of it’s moving together at the same speed. We’re not aware of the speed because everything’s moving together. We don’t hit a problem until the train speeds up, slows down, or goes around a corner.

Maybe a more familiar example—if I’m driving my car at a nice, even speed, I can reach out and play with the radio. I can have a drink of water or soda or coffee. I can wiggle around and take off my jacket or get my wallet out or whatever. And it doesn’t really matter if I’m moving at 40 or 60 or even a hundred miles per hour. Going in a straight line at an even speed is just like… well, not moving at all.

Y’see, Timmy, we don’t feel a constant velocity—it’s the change that stands out. That’s what grabs our attention. When I have to hit the gas or slam on the brakes or turn fast. that’s when I’m very aware I’m on a train or in my car. And these are the moments that demand attention. These points stand out above the constant ones.

So my dramatic structure can’t be a nice, even rise like that last graph. In a good story, there’s going to be multiple challenges and my hero isn’t always going to succeed. No, really. He or she will win in the end, sure, but it’s not going to be easy getting there. There’s going to be failures, mistakes, and unexpected results. Ups and downs. Because that’s normal. We don’t want a character who’s good at everything, never has a problem dealing with anything, maybe never even encounters anything to deal with. So that line is going to be a series of peaks and drops. For every success, every time we get a little higher, there’s going to be some setbacks. Any time my characters complete a challenge, new, bigger challenge is going to appear. Hell, it might even appear before they finish the current challenge.

Still with me?

Okay then, let’s try a third graph.

So, now we’ve got peaks and valleys. Things start small, but are pretty much always rising. Also, notice how even when there are lulls or setbacks, things never go all the way back to zero. The breather we get on page 150 is not the same as the one we got back on page 16. The overall dramatic structure is that tension is rising.

This might sound like a blanket statement, but pretty much every story should look something like this graph if I map it out. I mean, they’re not all going to match up precisely peak for peak, but they should all be pretty close to this pattern. Small at the start, increase with peaks and dips, finish big.

That’s it. The easy trick to dramatic structure that Big Novel doesn’t want you to know. No matter what my narrative is doing, the tension needs to keep going up.

Simple, yes?

Okay now let’s take a look at another one…

Do you see what’s different about it? Looks the same at first glance, yes? But check out that bottom row. I’ve changed the narrative structure by breaking up the linear structure. There are three flashbacks in the story now. So—for the reader—the events aren’t unfolding the same way they did for the characters.

BUT… again, the overall graph still isn’t that different. For this story, the flashbacks are adding to the tension. Learning this information at this point has made the drama stronger. I’m choosing to put this plot point here in order to create a specific dramatic effect.

This is something I’ve mentioned twice or thrice here on the ranty blog. There needs to be a reason for this shift to happen at this point—a reason that continues to feed the dramatic structure. If my dramatic tension is at seven and I go into a flashback, it should take things up to seven-point-five or eight. And if it doesn’t—if it actually drops the dramatic tension to go into a flashback—why am I doing it? I shouldn’t be having a flashback right now. Not that particular one, anyway.

Now to be clear, this isn’t an automatic thing. Events E-F aren’t ten times more dramatic just because I stuck them near the end of the story instead of the beginning. This is something I need to be aware of—me, the writer—while I’m working out my narrative structure. if I map out my story like this, even in my head (and be honest about it), I can get a better sense of how well my story’s structured. I probably don’t want a super-fast, high-tension story beat right at the start of my story. A scene with no dramatic tension in it most likely shouldn’t be in my final pages. If I’ve got a chapter that’s incredibly slow, it shouldn’t be near the middle of my book.

And if I do have things like this—things that are bending that story structure waaaay out of shape—it might mean I’m doing something wrong.

Okay, I think with that I’ve thrown enough at you. Ask any questions down below. Just remember, a lot of this is going to depend on you. The other two forms of structure are pretty logical and quantifiable, but dramatic structure relies more on gut feelings and empathy with my reader. I have to understand how information’s going to be received and interpreted if I want to release that information in a way that builds tension. And that’s a lot harder to teach or explain. The best I can do is point someone in the right direction, then hope they gain some experience and figure it out for themselves.

On which note… next time, I think we’re due for another talk about Zefram Cochrane.

Until then… go write.

Okay, we’re in the middle of a big discussion/ lecture/ infodump about story structure. To be more exact, the different types of story structure, because there are a bunch of them and they all serve a different purpose. That’s what I blathered on about last week. Well, that and linear structure. So if you skipped last week, you might want to jump back (look, a handy link) and read that first. Or maybe re-read it as sort of a refresher before we dive into this week’s little rant.

Now I want to talk about narrative structure. As I mentioned last time, these things have a few different names, depending on who’s talking or teaching, so maybe your stuffy literature professor called this syuzhet or something like that. But for now (and because it’s what I’ve done in the past) I’m going to call this narrative structure.

Remember how I said linear structure is how the characters experience the story? The narrative structure is how I, the author, decide to tell the story. It’s the order and style and viewpoint I choose for how things are going to unfold. It’s me saying I want to start with a prologue or ten minutes before the finale and then jump back to the beginning. Or that every third or fourth chapter will be a flashback. Or that I’m going to tell the whole thing from the point of view of the sidekick instead of the superhero. Or maybe, somehow, all of these things in one story. All of these are narrative decisions.

Actually, that’s a good before-we-go-any-further thing. My story might use a point of view or a device (say, a journal or epistolary form) that gives the appearance of “telling” the story. For our purposes here, though, if I talk about the narration I’m talking about me, the writer, and the choices I make. Watsonian vs Doylistic, remember? Because that first-person narrator or journal scribbler doesn’t say or do anything I don’t want them to. No I don’t care what that one other writer says about the characters having a life of their own and telling the writer what they want. I’m in charge. I’m God in the world of the story.

So, now that we’ve got our weekly blasphemy out of the way…

In a good number of stories we encounter, the linear structure and narrative structure are identical. They’re linear stories. Things start with Phoebe on Monday, follows her to Tuesday, and conclude on Wednesday. Simple, straightforward, very common. These books may shift point of view or format, but the narrative pretty much just goes forward hour by hour, day by day. My book, Dead Moon, fits in this category. It’s got a bunch of twists and reveals, but the narrative is pretty much a straight line from the beginning to the end. No flashbacks or frames or anything.

I’m not going to talk about this type of narrative too much because… well, I already did. If my narrative matches my linear structure, any narrative issues I might have are also going to be linear ones. And we talked about those last week (here’s another handy link in case you missed the last one).

Our focus right now is going to be stories where the narrative doesn’t follow the linear structure of the story. Sometimes the story has flashbacks or a frame, where it’s mostly linear with a few small divergences. Others might split the story between multiple timeframes, with one thread taking place in the present and one in, say, the 1950s. Or maybe the story’s broken up into lots sections and the reader needs to keep track of how they all line up—these are called non-linear stories, or you may have heard it as non-linear storytelling. It was the hip new thing for a while there. My book, The Broken Room, has a large flashback section where Natalie talks about her past, and it’s worth noting that her extended flashback/ retelling is all linear within its own subset of the book (she’s very precise about that sort of thing).

It’s important to understand narrative structure is more than just switching around my story elements. It means I need to start actively thinking about how all these structures interact. So here’s a few things I need to keep in mind when I start playing with my narrative structure.

First off, putting things in a new narrative order doesn’t change the linear structure of my story. As I mentioned above, the week goes Monday through Friday, and this is true even if the first thing I tell you about is what happened on Thursday. Monday was still three days earlier, and the characters and events in my story have to acknowledge that. I can’t start my book with everyone on Thursday baffled who stole the painting, then roll the story back to Monday where everyone was a witnesses who saw the thief’s face.

That’s a kinda stupid, overly-simple example, yeah, but you’d be surprised how often I’ve seen this problem crop up. Sometimes in really simple ways like this. Storytellers want to switch stuff around, but then they ignore the fact that just because they told us about Thursday before Wednesday doesn’t mean Thursday happened first. Again, the story collapses when the narrative elements are put in linear order. This is a really easy problem to avoid, it just requires a little more time and work.

Yeah, weird, I know. Telling a story in a more complex way is more work. Go figure.

The second thing to keep in mind when experimenting with narrative structure is… why? Seriously, why am I breaking up my story instead of telling it in order? I mean, yeah, all that non-linear stuff was edgy and bold for a while, and a lot of folks still do it, but… what’s the point of it in my story? Why am I starting five years ago instead of today? Why do I have this flashback at that point?

As an aside, I know some people hate “why is it happening now” as a story critique, and in a Watsonian way, I kind of get that. Sometimes things happen just because they happen. That’s how life works. I think sometimes things can work this way. I think sometimes they can’t.

But remember, we’re not talking about the Watsonian view of the story, we’re talking about the Doylist one. So why did I, the author, arrange these events in this way in the story? What effects am I trying to create? How is the narrative improved by shaping it this way?

And if I can’t explain how the narrative’s improved by shaping it this way—or if it plainly isn’t improved—again, what’s the point?

The third and final issue with a complex narrative structure is a little more subjective.

Last week I mentioned that we all try to put things in linear order because it’s natural for us. It’s pretty much an automatic function of our brains. This flashback took place before that one. That’s a flash forward. This flashback’s showing us something we saw earlier, but from a different point of view. Our brains latch onto the little details (or sometimes the big headers) and sort things accordingly.

But our brains have limits. There’s only so much we can keep track of and—let’s be honest—only so much we’re willing to keep track of. if I give you four or five numbers or letters and ask you to put them in order, it’s not a big deal. G X B N. See? You did that without too much effort.

On the other hand, if I throw a deck of cards on the floor and ask you to put them all in order… well, now this is a task. Heck, first you’ve got to find all the cards. And are they all supposed to be in numerical order or should you be doing them by suits? Are aces high or low? And if this is all in order, where do we put the jokers?

Point is, there’s a point where I’ve tweaked my story so much, my audience is going to spend less time reading it and more time analyzing it. Diagramming it like some photo-and-yarn covered conspiracy board. When somebody hits the ninth flashback done in a third tense from a fifth point of view… there’s a good chance they’ll need to pause to reorganize or re-analyze things in their head. And every time they have to pause, it’s breaking the flow. It’s knocking them out of the narrative when I want them to be sinking deeper into it.

And once I break the flow, that’s when people set my book aside to go have a glass of wine and watch gardening shows. I can say whatever I want about art or attention spans or readers putting in some effort, but at the end of it people can’t get invested in my story if they can’t figure out my story. And if they’re not invested… that’s on me.

Y’see, Timmy, narrative structure can be overdone if I’m not careful. I know some of the examples above sound a little extreme, but the truth is… they’re not. I’ve seen manuscripts where writers tossed linear order out the window and jumped tenses and povs and timeframes a dozen times. And some of them did all of that in the first fifty pages. Seriously.

This is something that can be tough 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, but for someone just picking up my story… this might be a bit of a trainwreck.

That’s narrative structure. However I decide to tell my story, it still needs to have a linear structure. Maybe even more important, it still needs to be understandable.

Next time, I’ll try to explain how linear structure and narrative structure combine to (hopefully) form a powerful dramatic structure.

Until then… go write.

April 4, 2024

Simple as A to Z

Okay, I’ve been dancing around this one for a while, but let’s do it.

Let’s talk about structure.

I think the first thing we need to address is that there are many, MANY types of story structure. If you think of a house, we can talk about its internal structure, but that could mean we’re referring to plumbing, heating, electrical, the actual 2×4 framework, the insulation, or even just the way walls and doors are laid out in the floorplan. All of these are the structure of the house, yes. But we understand that swapping out a circuit breaker isn’t going to fix some clogged pipes, and it’s definitely not going to make a shorter path between the bedroom and the living room. Different structures do different things in different ways, and the ways to implement or fix one don’t necessarily work for the others.

When we talk about structure in writing, it’s the same thing. There’s dramatic structure, narrative structure, three act structure, and more. And some of these have multiple names depending on what school of literature your professors were fans of. And like with a house, we need to account for them all, but they’re definitely all their own thing. And like with a house, we can’t apply the fixes for one to another. What works for this probably isn’t going to apply to that.

And this is why I end up having a problem with a lot of guru types announcing you have to this with structure or you never have to bother with that for structure or sometimes just saying… well, nonsense. It’ s really clear a lot of them have no idea what they’re talking about. I saw someone once arguing that three act structure is outdated and there’s no reason you can’t have five or seven or twelve acts. Which sounds really cool and whoo-hoo we’re breaking rules, especially if you’ve got no idea what three act structure is…

Point is, there’s a lot of folks out there talking about structure who have no idea what they’re talking about and you should probably ignore them and what they say.

With that said… let me talk with you about structure.

I’ve mentioned a lot of this stuff here before, and I’ve done this three part lesson or lecture or whatever you’d like to call it before, too (about six years ago). So if you’ve been reading the ranty writing blog for a while, you’ve probably seen some of it or been referred back to it. I figure it’s never a bad thing to revisit stuff, maybe update some examples, explain things in new ways.

Over the next few weeks, the three forms of structure I want to blather on about are linear structure, narrative structure, and dramatic structure. All of these interact and work with each other, and it’s my personal belief that all three of them have to be strong if I want to tell a strong story. If you want a quick, thumbnail explanation of them–

Linear structure is how my characters experience the story.

Narrative structure is how I, the author, decide to tell the story

Dramatic structure is how the reader gets the story

There’s a little more to it that that, but I’ve found this is a good, quick way to think of them.

So this week we’re going to talk about linear structure. Again, simple version, this is how my characters experience the story. Remember how I mentioned different names for things? Well, the Russian literary term for this is fabula. Another term you may have heard for this is continuity. It’s the line of events from past to present. Thursday leads to Friday which leads to Saturday and then Sunday. Breakfast, coffee break, lunch, dinner. Birth, childhood, college years, adulthood, middle age, old age, death.

If you like, remember I’ve mentioned Watsonian and Doylistic a few times? Things happening within the story as opposed to things I’m doing to the story? Linear structure is a Watsonian thing. I’m still choosing the characters and events, sure, but the linear structure happens entirely within the story.

Now, I mentioned all of these forms of structure are really important, and I’m tempted to say linear structure’s the most important (although I don’t want to pick favorites). And there’s a simple reason for this–most of us are experts when it comes to linear structure. Linear order is how we experience things all the time, every day. We’ve been studying this form of structure our entire lives.

This is why it gnaws at us when somebody knows something now, but doesn’t know it later. We pick up on it when ages don’t quite line up. We tend to notice when effect comes before cause, even if it’s subtle. Even if the story gives these elements to us out of order, our minds tend to sort things back into linear order. Because it’s how we’ve been taught to deal with the world. Things that don’t match this universal structure rub us the wrong way, even if we don’t always realize why.

Another way to think of linear structure is a timeline. And it also lets me point out a key aspect of this. If you’ve ever watched a procedural show or a detective show, it’s really common for the characters to take the various clues and incidents and break them down into on a chalkboard or whiteboard. Maybe they stick up some photos, too. And they all go in the order they happened– 4:08, 4:15, 4:16, 4:23, and so on.

Now, that key thing to keep in mind? It doesn’t matter what order the detectives discover the clues in. If we first learned the maid was here at 4:16 and then later on we learn the butler heard the gunshot at 4:08… well, it may sound silly to say but the gunshot still happened first. Learning about them out of order doesn’t change the order the events actually happened in.

So if I’m writing a story—even if I’m telling the story in a non-linear fashion—there still needs to be a linear structure. And the linear structure needs to make sense. Because readers will notice if it doesn’t.

A good way to test the linear structure of my story is to just arrange all the flashbacks, flash-forwards, recollections, frames, and other devices in chronological order. Pull apart my outline or notecards or whatever I’m using and just… put the story beats in order. Simple, right? The story should still make logical sense like this, even if it’s lost some dramatic punch at a few points (more on that later).

If my story elements don’t work like this—if effect comes before cause, if motivations get really weird, if people know things before they learn them—it probably means I’ve messed up my linear structure. I got so focused on doing clever, out-of-order things that nothing works in order. And—not to keep hammering this point—but people will notice this. They have to. It’s how our brains are wired, to put things in linear order.

There was a show I watched a few months ago that had a non-linear gimmick. Lots of flashbacks in every episode. And not all to the same period. Like, if the episode was set on Friday, we might start with flashbacks to Wednesday afternoon, but then move on to Monday morning flashbacks, and then some from Thursday night. And then the next episode is Saturday, but it flashes back to Tuesday and Wednesday morning and maybe also Thursday night, but for a different character.

On one level this was fantastic and I loved it. But as the show went on… it started to gnaw at me. And I found myself analyzing the show more than watching it, trying to figure out how this flashback and that flashback lined up, especially if we were saying the current episode was set Sunday morning. I talked to a couple friends who were watching it and discovered they were all having the same issue. Started good, but as the show went on the structure became more and more problematic.

In the end, the story didn’t make a lot of sense when you put it in order. There were just too many weird issues that didn’t line up. And it messed up a lot of the characters, too. The way they’d act and react, things they say (or not say). It was all being done to preserve big reveals later in the show, rather than being natural dialogue “now.” Once it was all in order, it was obvious the characters didn’t have any reason for the way they were acting or talking.

Y’see, Timmy, no matter what order I decide to tell things in, my characters are experiencing the story in linear order. And their actions and reactions, their dialogue and motives, they all have to reflect that. If halfway through my book Wakko flashes back to what happened a month ago, this isn’t new information for him—it happened a month ago. So everything he does or says before the flashback should be taking that information into account in a natural, believable way.

I know it sounds pretty straightforward and… yeah, it is. Linear structure is going to be the easiest of the three forms I blather about over the next few weeks because it’s the one we all know. Also, it’s just a logical, objective thing. There isn’t a big debate to be had about whether or not Thursday comes before Friday.

And yet, people still mess this up all the time. And mistakes with linear structure are almost always because of narrative structure.

But we’ll talk about that next week.

Until then, go write.