Narrative is a funny thing. Films and books follow a storyline, usually linear, that forms the basis of the plot’s narrative (save for a few artsy pieces, which we don’t need to get into). Events in a story connect one after the other until the story is over. In a movie, something from the scene before connects to the present scene, and things get tied up at the end. This is a very basic view of storytelling.
Most screenplays and novels obviously have a little bit more nuance and ups and downs, because that’s what makes stories interesting. But they still have a definitive end. Things get tied up and concluded.
But that’s not what happens in real life. Sure there are some definitive endings; school graduations, getting fired, dying. These are events in real life that mark the ends of something. But that’s not the end of most real lives. You graduate from school and there’s no fade to black as you breathe your last breath because you do stuff after you graduate. The more you tie things up in your real life, the more new things come up. While we as a species love a classic hero’s journey story arc, lives don’t work that way. Shouldn’t we be writing to emulate the way things are in real life?
Essentially, shouldn’t things be messier in our stories?
The short answer? Yes and no, (helpful, I know).
Let me give you an example straight from Mama-Gremlin (aka, my mom). She’s an insurance litigator and is working on a strange little case (obviously not going to give any names or real details, so bear with me among the vagaries).
There was an honest-to-God car chase that ended with a few crashes. We don’t know why the client was being chased by this SUV; was it road rage, was it revenge, do they even know each other? Right now, we’ve got no idea, and might not until depositions take place and even that’s not a guarantee.
Here’s where the narrative gets messy.
At the end of the event, the client was sideswiped by the SUV and brought to a stop. The SUV flipped a few times, landed right-side-up, drove off…
Then came back to the scene of the accident.
That’s a little messy, isn’t it? (And juicy, I love hearing my mom’s weird cases. Insurance litigation sounds boring, but the equation of people being stupid and people wanting money sometimes yields some great slices of the human experience).
Officially, the driver of the SUV said that their dog had been in the car and had run away after the car flipped. So, of course, instead of staying at the scene, they drove off to go get their dog. (They’re the kind of people who instigate a car chase that ended in a multi-car pileup, so I’m not putting money on their basic reasoning skills.)
Mama-Gremlin doesn’t believe the dog story, and frankly neither do I. It just seems a little too weird following the extremes of the car chase (a real car chase! Like in movies! My mom is having all the fun!), to go driving off in search of a dog. In fact, the dog may not exist. We don’t have all the details yet, but a dog in a car accident might yield vet bills or even a picture on social media of a dog with a cone of shame. So far, zilch.
Honestly, I get leaving a scene like that when you’re the cause of it because that’s what bad guys do, but I don’t understand the coming back. You’re wild enough to start a car chase, but also an upstanding enough citizen to give a statement to police? It’s weird. I don’t buy it. Neither does my mom, neither does the company she works for. The dog story is flimsy. Why go somewhere and then come back?
So what makes sense narratively? What ties up all these elements of the story? If you were a writer (and you are! Good for you!), and you had to come up with a single thing that made this all make sense what would you propose? What starts a car chase? Then what makes someone drive recklessly because they’re being chased? What prompts someone to leave the scene of an accident and then return?
My mom’s narrative proposal? A gun.
(holy cow, right?!)
My mom believes that the driver of the SUV left to stash a gun (or drugs, or something else illegal) somewhere so it wouldn’t be on their person or in their car when the cops showed up. Furthermore, why would the client be running away from the SUV? I know that if I was being chased by someone with a gun I’d probably be doing some reckless driving to get away, for sure. It ties up the narrative.
The problem? There’s no evidence for this hypothetical gun whatsoever. It’s a gut feeling with no proof. It makes a world of sense to me, and it fixes all the problems present in this weird car chase story. But we can’t do anything with it in the real world. My mom gets to go through this legal case without this little linchpin that makes it all make sense.
This is the junction between narrative and real life. This is ‘the messy.’ As a storyteller, this gun theory feels so solid I can almost touch it. From a legal standpoint, it’s nothing. This is the point in crime shows and police procedurals where they say “that’s circumstantial!” Because it is. The gut feeling is where a lot of story happens. Even better? The place where gut feeling meets a wall is where conflict happens, and screenplays love conflict.
So, I ask again, shouldn’t things be a little messier in our stories?
Abso-freaking-lutely and also no freaking way.
How do we do that? How do we have it messy and tied up?
First, you can make things as messy and bizarre and over the top as you want.
That’s the fun part of writing. The more you add means the more there is for your audience to absorb and focus on and divert attention to. Weave as tangled a tangly web as you like.
And then second, you have to know how it’s tangled and how to untangle it.
If we pretend my mom’s example above is say, a crime show, you as the writer have to know there’s a gun. You must know what makes your characters do what they do (aka, their motivations). The conflict comes from my mom and her firm and the police NOT knowing there’s a gun. It’s messy for the characters, but it cannot be messy for you. (This is where editing comes in…)
Third, you have to know why it’s tangled.
Knowing what your characters are doing is great, but knowing why they’re doing it in your story is a little harder.
Again, let’s go back to Mama-Gremlin’s story as a crime show. We’ve established that you, the writer, know there’s a gun. Your plucky Mama-Gremlin litigator-protagonist doesn’t know the gun exists. This hypothetical SUV driver knows the gun exists and makes a dash to get rid of it before coming back to the scene.
What happens next?
Well, you made this mess, you gotta clean it up.
This gun is a plot point, and even if in real life it may just stop existing outside of this insurance case, it can’t do that in your story. You don’t have to have the gun be easily discovered right away, but it cannot just vanish. This is a weird line to walk. You as the writer know what’s going to happen from your opening scene to your ‘Fade to Black’ but a reader needs to trust that you can make the narrative make sense.
The final takeaway; life is messy, don’t make your screenplays messier than they have to be.
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