Linear Storytelling: No Ordinary Plot ( Part 2 )

Ultimately linear storytelling is a plot issue. Plot is how we organize our story, how we ‘plot’ our course through the events of the tale. Amazing how they come up with these terms.. And every little decision we make, to go left, right, move forward, turn back, needs to be considered on multiple levels – tension, character, consistency – it needs to answer to what came before and what comes next, not just immediately but every other step taken will play its part. And I say that as someone who is a pantser.


Many would argue the pantser is the prime linear sinner. (Ooh I like how that sounded.. linear sinner). How can we foreshadow events we haven’t conceived of yet, lay the breadcrumbs for a betrayal we never knew was coming? As we have nothing but the previous steps to guide us, the only line we can follow is action > reaction.

I disagree with this wholly. First a pantser still often starts with something in mind. At least, a story. And a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. We know we want to write about Superheroes who turn rotten and have to be brought down by ordinary people taking a stand. Your end – your guiding star – is built into your premise. We may build haphazardly, but as with a jigsaw different parts reveal themselves to us, even if we don’t put the pieces down yet. I think of myself more as someone who plans in my mind rather than on paper, somehow its easier to scrub and take fantastic leaps that the writing might unexpectedly offer when you’ve haven’t laid out a path in black and white.

Another accusation would be that genre writers are linear sinners, because they are beholden to the conventions of their form. A quest involves a mythical target of great value, a series of clues leading the way, and a ragtag crew with the requisite skills to get us there. Basically its a polite way of saying they are formulaic. I won’t delve into the issue of whether literary fiction is a genre all of its own, I’ll simply say that formula exists wherever there is a body of work. It’s the familiarity that presents the problem when it comes to linear storytelling. However ingenious certain ideas were at their inception, time and repetition will quickly erode their value.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself – The 22 Rules of Storytelling According to Pixar

Formula is scored into our brains. We watch too much television, read too many books and as writers that’s going to bite us on the bottie if we’re not aware of it. A lot of writers aren’t aware of it.

One of the pitfalls here is different for the sake of different. We still need to be considering the whole, the internal logic of your world and story and providing something that will satisfy. Much like before it comes down to readers expectations. Only here we’re looking to subvert. The key to knowing the difference between what to change and what to keep? Emotional investment.

A romance reader is invested in seeing the main characters come together and there are certain ‘plot points’, for lack of a better phrase, that they definitely don’t want to see skipped over. As one friend of mine frequently rants – years later – ‘they didn’t even kiss!’ However, there are plenty of other steps along the way that exist only through repetition of established form and these works, despite following the successful model, fail to satisfy.

Or we see variations on the surface, changes to the superficial world that don’t carry through to the underlying form. Either in terms of leaving it essentially unaltered, something which insults the readers ability to recognise the manipulation. Readers are much more sophisticated than many writer’s credit them. The rise of the anti-hero who is actually just as self sacrificing and noble as a Ideal Hero, but you know he wears black and smirks a lot, is a good example of this.

Or they change the wrong element,  failing to understand why it was the way it was, and leave the reader disengaged or dissatisfied emotionally.

I want to take a moment to address that word, ’emotionally’, because some people tend to take issue with it. They think its applicable only to soap operas. They think when I talk about making it emotionally appealing I’m suggesting something along the lines of the abysmal Arrow or Smallville. Good lord no, that’s precisely what I am advocating against. They’ve alienated their primary audience precisely because they didn’t understand what would appeal to them. Emotional engagement speaks to excitement, intrigue, tension, curiosity. It doesn’t just mean weepy declarations of love and self-pitying angst fests. Just as relationships are not all sappy romances and likeable characters aren’t always nice guys. You’re a writer, engage with the word in all its dimensions.

Lets return to our quest. Because I know nothing about romance. There’s a scroll. You have been tasked with finding it and saving the Kingdom. You assemble your ragtag crew. There’s one clue, passed down through the generations. You solve it, it leads to another. Then another. You throw in some fanatical snake headed pursuers, a helpful smitten princess – mildly distracting our hero from his beautiful but prickly crewmate. A final face off with the King of the snake headed fanatics, and boom! we’re all saved..

What would you change to make it non-linear? Unpredictable and exciting?

A great deal of emphasis tends to go into the end twist. The mildly distracting Princess is the King(ess?) of the Snake heads! Gasp!

Not only is the twist so common it’s now a formula all of its own but something as superficial as this won’t remedy the plodding nature of the journey. The reason that Sixth Sense worked was because of how it altered the way we thought about everything that come before, how we perceived the character, his life, his purpose. The twist made it into an entirely different story. Not only is this particularly hard to do well, but even when it is, it tends to leave the writer unable to dig deeper into the world and characters for fear of revealing too much. The entire thing risks becoming a sleight of hand, balanced precariously on misdirection and withholding. And in books, far more than films, that’s a problem, we’re investing far more time to the journey, and most of us, we rather like digging.

What are we actually invested in? Do we care about the Kingdom? We haven’t spent much time there. I have seen an attempt to remedy this by creating alternate storylines wherein we spend time with the helpless Kingdom as it crumbles under the magical ravaging threat. If you make the threat incredibly interesting, this might work. Mostly however it ignores the reason we picked up a quest book in the first place – it’s the closest we’ll ever get to setting sail for high adventure. We’re explorers. Our gaze is forward fixed not backwards.

The Scroll then? The scroll is simply a means to saving the Kingdom. You can add another twist to this, a la Kung Fu Panda. Long lost, turned to ash, a old man behind a curtain. But the emphasis is still on saving the Kingdom, something we’re not that interested in. Even if you throw in that helpful princess and her elite fighting forces as a nice alternate solution and create a backwards loop, until you identify what it is that really hooks the reader, you’ll be left with something neat, clever but hollow. And yes linear, because trust me, your reader has already noted that elite fighting force. Your surprise will be expected, but their expectations will not be surprised.

The answer will vary from person to person, and the best answer you’ll find is when you ask yourself. And then ask yourself again, and then again. Most of us initially don’t know exactly why we are drawn to certain books and away from others. Like me struggling with why so many left me dissatisfied as a kid. We don’t know how to verbalise what we feel and we latch on to obvious superficial details, which is probably how genre arose in the first place. I don’t like much fantasy, yet some of my favourite books are fantasy. I almost never read historical fiction yet I adore both Austen and Lee.

That’s not to say many readers of fantasy don’t love fantasy. I used to say I was a sci-fi slut. I’d read anything from that section of the library. I’ve grown more discerning but yes, the weird and fantastical, the inventive and mind boggling has an allure of its own.

However, I don’t want to delve too much into character and worldbuilding, because these are the pieces and the board, and plot is the game. That doesn’t mean they are separate – they are never separate in good storytelling – but in this instalment the emphasis is on the relationships, the dynamics between the elements, how we use plot to reveal character and our fixed elements to drive the action.

 It was never about the monster. It was about the emotion. The monster came from that. We didn’t always make them unique. We tried as much as possible, but what was important was how they related to the characters and that’s what made them unique. – Joss Whedon

One of the main things that bothered me in both of the books I read recently, those that inspired this series, is how shallow and uninteresting the relationships were. In part of course this does come down to character and other fixed elements. Their needs, wants, fears and obligations were never well developed, or even mentioned in some cases. But it goes so much further. There was no tension, no growth, no conflict. In one, the main potential hot young love interest declares his love for our heroine before our adventure even begins. They even plan a date.  This explodes the ticking timebomb of their relationship and kills any will they/won’t they speculation. Some – I’m guessing the writer – might labour under the misapprehension that this is an annoying cliché best got rid of. How its done can certainly be annoying and clichéd, but all they are actually getting rid of is a good reason to read on, tension, stakes, curiosity about how things will pan out. When our heroine makes a tit of herself in front of Hot Young Potential Love Interest (HYPLI?) it doesn’t matter, he’s hers. Whey they run into that sexy alien, no worries, he’s hers. When he comes across like he’s thoroughly p’d off with her, she knows he’s still hers. If I am completely honest I couldn’t really figure out what he was doing there.

Blindly attempting to subvert formula, being different for the sake of it, often leads to contrived conflicts, going against established rules of character and world. Even those who identify (and it aint rocket science, sadly I’d be terrible at that) the importance of creating emotional draws, don’t seem to recognise how to do this, mostly they put the emphasis on the story and not on the reader and how the two interact. It leads to an over-reliance on blunt tools, such as raising the bad guy body count to that of an exponentially self replicating virus, trite montages, poor little unloved hero flashbacks, long monologues where our HYPLI tells our modest heroine of how amazing she doesn’t know she is and the inclusion of otherwise pointless characters such as dying children and siblings with random ailments (most of which cause big eyes and sickly sweet advice). The reason they feel the need to raise the stakes til the universe is ending, is because no matter how high they ratchet it up, they just don’t care. This is linear thinking. A sad thing causes sadness, an exciting thing causes excitement. Fiction is not that simple, especially in the written form. Car chases make me yawn, body counts are literally just numbers. You need to think beyond the obvious. The most exciting moment in The Chamber of Secrets was when a boy wrote his name: Tom Marvolo Riddle..

 There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet, and the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they DO NOT KNOW ABOUT IT – Men In Black

A linear plot is marked by static signposts. Moving parts make it infinitely harder to see the full picture and predict the outcome. In short they keep your reader on their toes, excited, engaged. All your main elements should be interacting and acting on one another, changing one another, shifting the goalposts. Or signposts.

To return to our quest. We follow a clue, we turn up in our new exotic land, adventure ensues, odds overcome, clue found and we’re on to the next land. This fails to do the above, because no matter how interesting a diversion it was, it didn’t really matter much. Nothing that happened there apart from the clue was of consequence, and even finding the clue doesn’t deviate from our course, like the sun following the moon, it’s as expected. Even if this is where we meet our mildly distracting Princess who becomes either saving grace or King of all Evil, it doesn’t change the linear flow. She simply reappears at the end. But what if mildly distracting Princess ends up coming along with our crew? That’s really going to throw a spanner in the budding romance with Prickly But Beautiful. And should she turn out to be the King of All Evil, after becoming a member of the crew, friend, trusted ally?

That’s a particularly bold example. You can’t pick up a new crewmate in every harbour, that becomes a formula in itself. But the way that one change can create other changes throughout your story, is where the interest really lies. Men in Black use a similar format, tracking down clues which leads them ultimately to a face off – or skin off – with the Big Bad. In one early interview we have a squeeze-the-slightly-dodgy-informant-set -up, a standard of the genre, however the way in which they play with this format makes it a genius piece of subversion and non-linear revelation.

Not merely because of the way it plays with our expectations in all the ways that we want it to, but never would have predicted, but because of the way they subtly alter how Jay interprets his new world and develop the relationship between him and the stoic Kay. The noisy cricket, the tiny little Kinder egg gun, from the man who calls him ‘sport’ and ‘kid’ at every opportunity, but turns out to be so powerful it blows him out the window. Kay’s seemingly cold blooded act of murder, forcing Jay to turn his noisy cricket on him, right at the moment the man he’s just shot grows another head. He is increasingly being wrong footed and it is forcing him to put his trust in a man who explains nothing, and is as unpredictable as the new world. Of course Jay isn’t quite the trusting type, yet.

To return to an analogy I used in the first part of this, think of it like throwing a pebble in a pond. Too many writers think it causes only one ripple moving in one direction. In reality the ripples are everywhere, moving forward, back, sideways. And when they bump into those static elements, those signposts stuck in the water, more ripples form.

Consequence is your friend if you are remotely interested in depth and nuance. Not a shocker that I like this. I like the little touches, the details. It’s hard to even think of an example because the real little touches, they fade into the background, but it’s this background that allows everything else, the important things, to stand out. A good way to get a handle on ripples is to understand the currents that drive them. Some might refer to these as themes. They aren’t always obvious til the end, but good writing is re-writing. In Men in Black a recurring theme is seen in the way the obvious is subverted, from Jay ignoring the monsters and shooting the little girl in the training test to the galaxy on the cats collar. The theme is things are not always what you think; small can be powerful, ugly can be beautiful. Using a theme this way, a link between your ripples, creates a sort of alternate storyline beneath the surface adding depth and making that line a little less linear.

No, I’m not finished yet. One more instalment, then I might have a handle on this. Here’s a pressie in the meantime. I still love this!! You have no soul if your foot doesn’t start tapping immediately.





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