Monday, March 16, 2020

Different Ways to Tell the Same Story

Spoiler Alert: This post uses details from the classic story, "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck. If this is on your reading list, put this post aside, read the book (it's only 200 pages) then come back. 
Traditionally, a story in the conventional three-act structure brings our characters into the world, takes them on an adventure, brings them to a culminating moment, and they end up changed, for better or worse. Nothing wrong with this structure at all - it's very effective, and it brings the reader along a life path that is very familiar and comfortable. Our own existence is much the same - a linear movement from A to B to C and so on down the line. However, the nonlinear method - telling a story outside the order of events - has some advantages.

Of Mice and Men gives us the story of George and Lennie, two field workers going from job to job out in California during the Great Depression. This state of existence creates a solid base for their development, offering no biases for the reader and letting the story fill in the character. We learn that George is pretty smart, and that Lennie is a hulking man with mental impediments and control issues. As the story unfolds, we get little reveals that Lennie needs a caretaker in George. More importantly, we see in an escalating series of confrontations, particularly with their angry, annoying boss, Curley, that trouble is never far away. Confrontations with Lennie end with people getting hurt, and the second-act tension ramps up to the point where Lennie goes too far and kills Curley's wife. In one of Steinbeck's most tragic and memorable moments, George takes Lennie to a peaceful place, talks to him calmly, and shoots him dead.

From a writer's view, this is a textbook escalation story, with a build-up that not only ramps up the tension between the different character groups, but also acknowledges George's personal conflict about how to take care of Lennie. However, what if some of this information is revealed ahead of time - before it occurs in the chronological order of the story? With that technique, we create a new rhythm to this classic tale - for better or worse.

A common technique is to begin a story with a dramatic event somewhere well into act two. At one point, Curley attacks Lennie, and gets his hand broken by Lennie's immense strength. If we bring out this point first - the reader's first experience is a fight between Curley and Lennie - that impression starts off the story with an emphasis on Lennie's capacity for physical violence. He is not the gentle giant who we later learn has no impulse control, but rather a man willing and able to break someone's hand. Definitely a different note to start with, and it affects all the subsequent notes.

Now, if we start the story by first showing George taking Lennie back to their camping area, gun in pocket, ready to put an end to his companion, but do not go as far as pulling the trigger before going to how their story began, this creates suspense. We know that moment is coming, but will he do what we think he will? When we then see them as friends and George as a loyal caretaker, we think about that moment ahead and wonder how could we go from a friendly moment to imminent tragedy. In a story like Steinbeck's we do not need such an artificial build, as the story carries a very natural sense of drama. However, some stories that dramatically shift between the beginning and the end can benefit from the reordering.

The little reveals of information can do amazing things to a story. The next post will be not about order but about when to drop the elements that create a specific mood.

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