In life as in culture evolution is inevitable.
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.”
My PhD thesis, Multiform and Multistrand Narrative Structures in Hollywood Cinema, traces 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 our experience of the world 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.
Context, and our interpretation of it, which rests on our understanding of how time and space structures experience, has to shift under such pervasive and persistent pressure.
“As we evolve so must the stories we tell. Nothing reflects this evolution as much as the change in structure—from linear into non-linear story telling.”
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 linearity, 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 emotions through character action and consequence fall flat. Inception works as a film because it innovates form while placing the characters in life-threatening situations within the story.
Authors and screenwriters who choose to use evolving, non-linear forms, then, ought to ensure that their characters continue to evoke powerful emotion such as passion, sadness, joy, disdain—the strength of traditional story-telling.
An 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 care about them.
The evolution of story form should not get in the way of characters who engage readers and audiences through emotion.