Are stories evolving? In his book The Screenwriter’s Workbook screenwriting guru Syd Field wrote this about the screenplay: […] I think we’re in the middle of a screenwriting revolution, a time where screenwriters are pushing the form in new directions.”
This insight may well be applied to all stories.
In my own PhD thesis, Multiform and Multistrand Narrative Structures in Hollywood Cinema, I trace the impact of digital media on the story-telling form. I suggest that since stories are structured to reflect our experiences their form is likely to change when experience changes.
The increasing non-linearity of life, reflected in the web environment in which we spend so much time, must influence our understanding of action – even of time and space.
Meaning, and our interpretation of it, which rests on our salient understanding of how time and space structures experience, has to shift under such pervasive and persistent pressure.
This may explain the popularity of films such as The English Patient, Cold Mountain, 2046, Pulp Fiction, Memento, Donnie Darko, Inception, and many others.
These films muddle our understanding of linear sequencing, of cause and effect. They rearrange past, present and future, making the status of what is real problematic. The idea is to reflect, at the level of structure, the bewildering complexity and multiplicity of contemporary life.
The danger in tinkering with the traditional form defined by Aristotle as a narrative that has a beginning, middle and end, however, is that the emotional impact on the reader is lessened. Stories that fail to evoke strong emotion are not effective.
My advice to authors and screenwriters who choose to write in evolving, non-linear forms, then, is to ensure that their characters continue to evoke powerful emotion in us – passion, sadness, joy, disdain – the usual fare of traditional story-telling.
I’d like to think I followed my own advice in my non-linear novel, The Level.
Evolving form and structure, then, should never dazzle us at the cost of lessening the emotional impact of our characters. Not if we want our audiences and readers to give a damn.
Never allow the evolving form and structure of stories to get in the way of emotion.