What is Multiform Narrative?

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Multiple Worlds:

In last week’s post I dealt with the category of multi-strand stories, drawn from my Ph.D thesis Multistrand and Multiform Narratives in Hollywood Cinema.

This week, I’d like to talk a little about the remaining category – multiform narrative.

Both categories attempt to deal with the bewildering simultaneity, frenzy, and moral befuddlement of modern life, but whereas multi-strand stories do that through multiple strands featuring multiple protagonists not tied to a single plot, multiform narrative comprises of stories featuring a protagonist who inhabits separate realities in an existential and ontological sense.

This necessarily means that the protagonist splits up into several copies of himself, each occupying a different realm – whether it is the multiple universes of Donnie Darko, or the illusionary realities of dream and memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or the virtual reality inside of The Matrix.

Open multiform narratives, such as Donnie Darko, stubbornly refuse to cue the viewer as to the preferential reality of the story. Donnie, for example, ostensibly appears to be both alive and dead in the movie, since the beginning shows him coming home from having slept the night on the golf course, only to discover that a jet engine has smashed into his bedroom.

But the end of the film replays the incident only this time Donnie sleeps in his bedroom and is killed by the jet engine.

Both incidents can’t be right in a single spatiotemporal framework. They present us with a paradox that can only be resolved if we place the two events in separate realities. In one universe, Donnie dies. In the other he lives.

Closed multiform narratives such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Matrix, by contrast, differ from their cousins in the open multiform category in that they announce which world is real and which illusionary. Here, the filmmakers are at pains to show us Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, et al., entering and exiting the matrix through telephone lines, while Lacuna’s memory-erasing procedure cues and orientates us in a similar way.

Open multiform stories, then, tend to be more subjective and bewildering, whilst closed multiform narratives offer a helping hand through well-placed cues.

Both categories, however, succeed in reflecting the multiplicity and uncertainty inherent in lives littered with smart phones, video games, and multiple apps open on multiple screens – lives from which that much-needed sense solitude and aloneness seems forever banished.

Summary

Multiform narratives encode the bewildering complexity of modern life by showcasing multiple realities featuring copies of a single protagonist.

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What is Multistrand Narrative?

Man spinning woolAs writers of novels or screenplays we are familiar with using character, setting, dialogue, plot, and genre, to convey theme, mood, and moral premise of our stories.

But to what extent do we utilise narrative structure itself to reflect these last three elements?

In my Ph.D thesis, Multiform and Multistrand Narrative Structures in Hollywood Cinema, I point out that the canonical structure comprising of a beginning, middle, and end, first elucidated by Aristotle, involving a single plot and protagonist pursuing a specific goal, is not the only way to tell a story.

Multistrand stories, also referred to as ensemble, thread-structure, and multiple-plot narratives have become increasingly common in the past few of decades. Woody Allen’s films, for one, tend to employ this structure, as do romantic comedies such as Love Actually, Sex in the City, He’s Just Not That Into You, Valentine’s Day, and dramas such as Crash, Babel and Syriana.

Distinct from multiform narratives such as Donnie Darko, Jacob’s Ladder, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which use multiple realities to keep us off center, multistrand stories portray the bewildering simultaneity and multiplicity of contemporary life by intercutting independent stories together, without subsuming them under a single plot.

Instead, equally-weighted strands cohere through a common theme. Each features its own protagonist and explores an aspect of the premise — love heals, for example — by having each individual story reach a similar or contrary conclusion.

Laying down several strands within a limited number of pages affects how much time the writer has available for introducing the various characters, and how those characters are portrayed. Vignettes tend to be the order of the day, here. Complexity within each strand, too, is kept to a minimum since the audience would have difficulty in keeping track of multiple plots involving multiple protagonists.

Taken together, however, the sheer number of independent strands encodes the bewildering intricacy, befuddlement, and moral ambiguity of contemporary life in a way that, perhaps, a conventional three-act structure fails to do. And therein lies the point.

Summary

Multistrand stories encode the bewildering multiplicity of contemporary life in their narrative structure.

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Need a Great Villain? Triple-Dip him!

Picture of Harry Potter Villain

Villainous Intents:

We’ve all heard about the importance of a powerful antagonist in stories.

An antagonist works against the protagonist to stop her from achieving the story goal. Together they form a dynamic pair whose ongoing battle forms the spine of the story.

We know that a well-written villain is clever and resourceful. He believes he is the hero of his own tale. He is often articulate, even eloquent, with a well-defined philosophy about life which motivates his actions and explains his loathing for the hero and her goal.

These characteristics emerge through his actions, but also through at least one great speech in which he explains to the hero, or another character, the depths of his villainous vision.

But it seemed to me that truly memorable antagonists needed something more – an extra ingredient that guaranteed their place in the annals of villainy. It was during one of my classes on writing that it struck me – great villains exhibit what may be described as a double, or triple dip. This is the moment when the character surprises the hero by plunging even deeper into darkness.

In the TV series, Outlander, an English knight, Black Jack Randall, has already proven to be a ruthless and cruel man capable of rape and murder. But in a crucial scene in a later episode he reveals to us the depths of his depravity.

He explains to his prisoner, Claire Randall, the Hero of the story, that the two hundred lashes, administered to a young Scot accused of stealing, were something beautiful, a work of art. We see the whipping as a flashback and flinch at the relentless violence of leather cutting into the torn, bleeding flesh of the young man – first dip.

Randall then seems to relent. He admits to Claire that he is filled with self-loathing for the man he has become, giving her hope that he will free her, and also, bolstering her cherished belief that any man is capable of redemption. But, suddenly, he turns and punches her in the gut, driving their air from her lungs. She falls to the ground gasping – second dip.

As if that’s not enough, he orders his reluctant soldier to kick her while she lies gasping on the floor, describing the kicking of a woman as something liberating – third dip.

These actions don’t only represent plunges into physical cruelty. They are an attempt to crush the spirit of the person they are directed against – Claire believes that Black Jack Randall can be saved. He proves to her he can’t. This isn’t only a physical blow, but also is a blow against her Christian belief in the ultimate Salvation of Man.

It is this triple-dip, combined with a relentless desire to destroy his enemy’s spirit that makes Black Jack Randall a truly memorable villain.

Summary

Double or triple dips, combined with a dark, relentless desire to crush the hero’s spirit, make for memorable villains.

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Do you Write Gut or Stomach?

Book Cover

The Land Below

Most writers I talk to have at least two things in common: they want to be read and they want to write well. I’m one of them.

We dream of writing a book or screenplay that’s so accomplished, that so touches the nerve of some current or emerging issue, shedding new light on its emotional, social, and political ramifications, that it shoots up the best-seller lists.

Let’s not fool ourselves — we all seek an audience. Even those of us who pretend, in our darkest moments, not to care, or who fool ourselves into thinking that if only the gatekeepers could understand the depth and complexity of our writing, they’d smile and nod and fling open the doors to the pantheon.

Popularity, of course, is no guarantee of quality. But neither is obscurity. Shakespeare was popular in his day. So was Dickens. Hardly a pair of slouches.

In my line of work as a teacher and writer I come across wordsmiths who’s idea of quality is language and subject matter that is impenetrable and stolid. Indeed, it seems that some make it a point to choose words that are obscure over words that are familiar, as if a large and exotic vocabulary, is, in itself, a sign of creative talent.

Of course, as writers we should cherish all words. Building a large vocabulary is a necessary goal, but we should not remain blind to the sensual quality of words — the notion that words of Anglo Saxon origin, in creative writing, tend to be more explosive and tactile, than their Latin or Greek-based counterparts.

Depending on the context, for example, “I punched him in the gut,” tends to be more forceful and tactile than “I punched him in the stomach.” In my newly released book, The Land Below, I’ve used both, but each time I was governed by character and mood.

We should ensure the words we choose are not, by their texture and nuance, broken bridges to the feelings and ideas we seek to express. And that, of course, requires we understand their origin as well as their meaning.

Finding a voice that speaks to the masses, while sharing the love of language and subject matter, is a worthy life-long goal for any writer. Living in an ivory tower with the echo of our own grandiloquence for company is not.

Summary

Sharing the love of words and subject-matter through clear and accessible language is a worthy goal for any writer.

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Want to Write Great Exposition? Hide It!

Closeup of boy with tree shadows on faceExposition in story is a necessary evil. We have to know certain facts about a character or event if we are to make sense of the unfolding story. But exposition is a break in story momentum and should be handled deftly. A good way to hide it is to layer it with subtext.

In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA provides several examples of good and bad exposition.

In Stand by Me, Richard Dreyfuss, a writer, relates past events in voice-over narration – often a quick and cheap way to bring the viewer up to speed. The scene, however, is static, filled with inertia, boring.

In American Graffiti, a radio dial and music immediately establish the time, place, and mood of the story. We learn through a few quick exchanges that Howard and Dreyfuss are planing to leave town in the morning. The setup occurs without lengthy and mechanical diversions.

In Silver Bears, several old mafiosi in bathrobes march down a plush corridor situated high above Las Vegas. They enter an enormous therapy pool and disrobe. Sucking on foot-long cigars they step into the water and proceed to discuss the sorts of things you’d expect to hear in the obligatory gangster boardroom scene. But placing the gangsters in a therapy pool and showing them as a bunch of naked fat old men, distracts us from the exposition and allows it to slip in surreptitiously.

In all three examples, context, mood, and necessary facts are relayed to the audience through exposition, preparing us for the story.

The first does it in a laborious and obvious way. It slows the action down and taxes the viewer.

The next two do so surreptitiously. They layer subtext in the setting and under the dialogue, keeping the audience engaged.

Summary

Load exposition with subtext to make it surreptitious and interesting.

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Omit Needless Words

Scissors on paper“Omit useless words,” William Strunk Jr. implored. Our writing will be more polished and powerful because of it.

Unnecessary words make sentences lethargic by wasting time and energy. This is even more important in screenplays than novels where a lean, tight style cuts to the chase.

In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers provides several examples:

A plush office. Sweeping views of the city through floor-to-floor glass windows.

“Glass” is redundant: A plush office. Sweeping views of the city through floor-to-floor windows.

Matthew falls to the floor with an expressionless face.
Better: Matthew falls to the floor, expressionless.

If something is understood in a story, don’t repeat it: He looked at the clock on the wall. Clocks are usually on walls: He looked at the clock.

Don’t repeat a point once it’s made: A hand taps Mark on the shoulder. He turns. Standing there is ALICIA SASSY, a 23 year-old Barbie doll with platinum-blond hair, a Playboy centerfold rack, and curves Beyoncé envies.

Barbie dolls are blond and stacked: A hand taps Mark on the shoulder. He turns. Standing there is ALICIA SASSY, a 23 year-old Barbie doll with curves Beyoncé envies.

Don’t repeat something already mentioned in the slugline:

INT. FERRARI – MORNING

Dun has slowed the car down to normal driving speed.

We know he’s in a car. Rather write:

INT. FERRARI – MORNING

Dun has slowed to normal driving speed.

Although this sort of cut-and-thrust brevity is less of a requirement in a novel, any story will benefit by having needless words omitted.

Summary

Ferret out needless words to make your writing leaner and more powerful.

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Scene Transitions: Repetition, Continuity, Contrast

White cups, some empty, some containing multicoloured liquidsTransitions in life, as in art, don’t get the attention they deserve.

Maybe that’s because they are transient states, in-between bits we must get through to get to the nitty-gritty.

When we think back on our lives, we tend to jump from accomplishment to accomplishment, failure to failure, or any combination of the two, leapfrogging over the small transitions that opened the gates in the first place.

Yet, stories rely on transitions. Transitions are the precursors to events. Handled badly, they make the episodes in a story appear unintentionally jagged and disconnected.

Here are three techniques, chosen from a basket of others, that may help alleviate this common problem – repetition, continuity, contrast.

1. Transition by repetition. A word, action, or response is repeated in consecutive scenes.

In Final Destination 5, a detective interrogates several suspects. To avoid lengthy and superfluous repetition, the detective asks a question in one scene which is then answered by different characters in consecutive scenes.

2. Transition by continuity. This technique can help bridge events separated by a small or large gap in time and space,

In 2001, A Space Odyssey, Kubrick famously jump-cuts from a bone being thrown up in the air, to a space station floating in space. Both bone and space station are tools indicative of man’s development, but are separated by a span of millions of years. The visual link between the two shots, reinforced by the continuity of image size and movement is so strong that it allows us to make the transition in an instant.

In a similar vain, a character could begin a sentence in one scene while someone else completes it in another.

3. Transition through contrasting words or actions. Here, the expectations created at the end of a scene are immediately reversed in the one following it.

For example, imagine a scene in which your character, sword raised high, motivates his troops by anticipating a crushing victory over the enemy, followed by a scene where the same character stands chained to a dungeon wall.

Summary

Use repetition, continuity, or contrast to create effective transitions between scenes.

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Small Acts of Kindness

Man giving man coinsOne of the most important things I learnt as a writer is that without knowing how to solicit emotion through my characters, I’d fail to draw readers into my stories and keep them there.

Emotion ties us to a story. It associates us with the characters who evoke it. It is the foundation upon which we build the whole cathedral, because if we don’t care about the characters, we won’t care about the story.

Emotion does not always have to be rendered on a large canvas. Sometimes a culmination of smaller brush-strokes is just as effective as a grand gesture, especially when applied unexpectedly.

In my most recent novel The Land Below, released on Amazon in February, a minor character, the bitter and unlikable Miss Baithwate prevents an old man from visiting a boy, his only friend in the world. She asks him to leave her hostel, accusing him of making the place look untidy.

But as she watches the old man limp away, she suddenly changes her mind and invites him in. She hides this random act of kindness under a gruff tone and a crusty demeanour, but the old man recognises the good in her, referring to her as his dear Miss Baithwate.

Not a major incident in the story, but one which adds to the reservoir of emotions.

I remember feeling a tinge of sympathy for the lonely spinster when I added this small twist — a tinge I would not have felt had she allowed the old man to leave without seeing the boy.

Miss Baithwate suddenly sprang to life on the page for me. She was richer, deeper, more likable after this act. And so was my story.

Summary

Small acts of kindness deepen character and enrich any story.

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Enrich your Scenes with Counterpoint

Woman playing celloIn my classes on storytelling I often talk about spring-loading scenes with seemingly contradictory cues to increase interest through tension.

This does not only encourage the viewer or reader to pay closer attention to the words and actions of the characters, it alerts her to what might be going on under the surface.

Additionally, when the release does finally come, usually at the end of the scene, it has been properly foreshadowed.

Here’s an example:

Imagine an army media-relations Major trying to get out of a dangerous assignment at the war front by threatening to badmouth a General to the media about military losses under his command.

The bad way to write this scene it is to have an exchange of raised voices and angry gestures with one party winning the argument at the end.

The better way is how the screenwriters handled it in Edge of Tomorrow.

In the scene, Major Cage does indeed threaten to ruin General Brigham, but he does this in a calm, almost polite way. Brigham’s response is equally calm and collected.

In the beginning, Cage seemingly holds the advantage. Brigham is sitting down while Cage stands, holding the higher ground, always an advantage in scenes of conflict. He seems to be swaying Brigham with his reasoning.

But the advantage surreptitiously swings over to Brigham when he stands up, towering over the more diminutive Cage, and paces calmly towards him, causing Cage to back up.

Although Cage remains under the impression that Brigham is going along with his suggestion, he betrays his nervousness when he backs up against a chair and is startled.

This small incident reveals the inherent tension in the scene and precedes Brigham issuing orders to have Cage stripped of his rank and dumped at the training camp prior to dropping him into the war zone.

No arm-waving. No raised voices. Just well-written action that moves in counterpoint to the threatening import of the dialogue.

Summary

Add tension and interest to your scenes by having the action play out in counterpoint to a threat being delivered through dialogue.

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Aristotle Said It First!

Close up of Aristotle's head - statue

Aristotle:

I recently had an interesting conversation with a fellow writer and lecturer.

We were talking about the increasing tendency in new television series to present protagonists that are not only flawed, but are downright pathological. The chief difference between the protagonist and antagonists here seems to lie in degrees of mental instability, criminality, corruption. Dexter, Walter White, and Hannibal are not only the central characters in their own stories, they are clearly darker and more dangerous than their opponents.

Why, then, do we still identify with such characters? Why do we like them, in some shameful and not-so-secret sense? In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell Michael Hauge makes the point that a writer must create a likable protagonist to avoid failure at the box office. But how does the writer pull this off?

Part of the answer is that the protagonist already has the deck stacked in his favour by virtue of his role in the story. It is his tale, after all. We read it because we find something redeeming in it. That, at least, is the tacit implication.

Furthermore, the protagonist is the character we spend most time with. We experience things through her eyes. She is the person we know most about. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also builds empathy and understanding for her dilemmas and motivation.

Dark protagonists, too, are gifted individuals. They are cleverer than their enemies, more persistent, resilient.

Dexter keeps outsmarting his opponents, while Breaking Bad‘s Walter White is the best meth cook in the business.

Hannibal may be a terrifying villain, but he is rich and smart, and a great chef and dresser to boot. The array of wannabe protagonists who oppose Hannibal pale in comparison. Not only is he the main character in his own story, there is something darkly attractive about him. He is like a quantum particle constantly staying ahead of the observer and surprising him with its unpredictability.

But ultimately, even a dark protagonist needs to have positive, likable traits that entice us to emapathise with him. Dexter loves his son and sister deeply, and the people he kills, are, after all cruel killers themselves. Walter, too, loves his family until the end where his obsession to succeed rides roughshod over any values he may originally have had.

Michael Hauge stresses that a writer must introduce the protagonist’s positive traits early in the story, before showing us his flaws. This is even more important in a dark protagonist, where the negative traits outnumber the positive. We have to like the main character first before we see him drag himself through the mud.

Of course, you wouldn’t like to meet any of these characters in the real world — have a Hannibal over for dinner, or ask a Dexter to baby-sit your child while you spend a night out.

But within the safe world of the story? Flirting with danger may even be cathartic, as Aristotle noted in his Poetics centuries ago.

Summary

To foster empathy, introduce your dark protagonist’s best traits first, before showing us his worst.

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