167. About Writing: Narrative Structure

Two brief personal notes: First, my ever-changing schedule has reverted to normal. For now, I’m back to working during the day and sleeping at night like an ordinary person. Second, my thanks to everyone who took part in Be Nice to Someone on the Internet Day! It’s totally happening again on March 4 next year!

This blog hasn’t had a proper About Writing post since… October. Ouch.

Let’s fix that.

Narrative structure is a phrase I use to describe the way a story is told: a catch-all term for those fun, creative storytelling techniques that make a story different.

There are many ways to tell a story. Most stories begin at the beginning and end at the end. Many stories use only one narrator.

These are great ways to tell a story, but they aren’t the only ones.

Consider the following story: A, B, C. Let’s pretend is the start of the story, chronologically speaking. That makes the middle and the conclusion. My story is linear: it happens in order.

What if I want to tell my story out of order? It could be B, A, C. The reader can be introduced to a story in progress, with earlier events in the narrative revealed through flashbacks and the conclusion at the end. I could even tell my story backwards—C, B, A—as movie director Christopher Nolan (who is famous for films like The Dark Knight and Inception) did in Memento, a disturbing yet excellent film about a man with short-term memory loss.

Let’s consider another aspect of narrative structure: perspective.

One of my favorite narrative tricks is to switch perspectives as I tell a story. Two stories I’ve posted on this blog, The Infinity Manuscript and Zealot: A Christmas Story, give each chapter from the perspective of a different character. As a writer, it’s refreshing to bounce from one perspective to another as the story unfolds.

Things get even more fun when stories use multiple first-person narrators with different voices. A single scene can be described or interpreted in many different ways. It all depends on who does the describing or interpreting!

Then there are side stories. I love side stories.

There’s a word I like in Japanese: gaiden, the romaji form of the word rendered がいでん in hiragana and kana syllabaries. (This is what Wiktionary tells me. I don’t actually know Japanese.) A gaiden is a side story: a narrative that supplements or completes another narrative.

Call it a gaiden or a side story or whatever else you like: it’s awesome.

Orson Scott Card published a novel titled Ender’s Game, in which a boy named Ender is trained by the military to be humanity’s greatest asset in an interstellar war. Fourteen years later, Card published a companion novel: Ender’s Shadow.

The later novel tells roughly the same story as the first, but Ender is no longer the protagonist. The spotlight follows Bean, a supporting character from Ender’s Game. It’s the same story from a completely new perspective: introducing new characters, expanding the role of familiar ones and introducing fascinating subplots.

By intersecting with the original story at key points, Ender’s Shadow greatly improves Ender’s Game while being a fantastic novel on its own.

Here’s a geekier example: one of my favorite games in the Ace Attorney series is the criminally underappreciated Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth. This game takes the two most important characters in the series, Phoenix Wright and his assistant Maya Fey, and relegates them to the briefest of background cameos. Supporting characters Miles Edgeworth and Dick Gumshoe become the protagonists.

The other games in the Ace Attorney series merely lengthen its story. This particular game broadens its story. By giving center stage to secondary characters, the game gives a delightful alternate take on the series… and proves its story is compelling enough to survive without its usual protagonists.

There are all kinds of clever narrative tricks, but I’ll mention just one more.

My all-time favorite episode of my all-time favorite television show is, without question, “Tales of Ba Sing Se” from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Up to that point, nearly every episode of the show follows a predictable pattern: a primary plot following the protagonists interweaves (and sometimes intersects) with one or two secondary plots following the antagonists. This narrative structure is simple and effective—and “Tales of Ba Sing Se” throws it out the window.

“Tales of Ba Sing Se” is a series of vignettes or character sketches. There are no great adventures, just glimpses of the characters’ daily lives. Some of these tales are funny. One character gets caught up in a haiku contest that seems suspiciously like a rap battle. Some of these tales are sad. One character visits his son’s grave to wish him a happy birthday.

Tragic or comic, these tales develop the characters and give the viewer a wonderful break from the plot-heavy episodes that come before. “Tales of Ba Sing Se” is a deep breath before the show plunges into a season finale: a chance to get to know the characters a little better before they’re swept off again by their adventures. I love it.

Innovative narrative structures can make a story refreshingly different, but they can also sabotage it. Not every story needs to be a gaiden told in a nonlinear way from multiple perspectives. Some stories are best told straight. It’s easy for a creative narrative structure to become a distracting gimmick.

In certain cases, however, a clever narrative structure can make a story brilliant.

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