Television’s insatiable need to start dramas with some throat-grabbing action has prompted a structural change in aspects of American fiction writing. The primary elements of fiction—the “inciting incident” and the “climax”— have seemingly traded places. In television and the movies, the inciting incident, which traditionally kicks off the action and from which conflict rises to the highest point—the climax—now seems to be required to start off at such an intense level of conflict, if not outright explosiveness, you wonder where it could possibly go.
The writer must weave the resulting disparate literary fragments into a focused story line that carries the reader credibly through to the end of the tale. The simplest way to deflate such high levels of initial tension is to narrow the purpose of the opening/introduction to grab the audiences’ attention and maybe introduce a key character. This was the technique employed in early James Bond films. The opening action scenes had little or nothing to do with the main plot of the movie other than to capture our attention and get our adrenaline flowing.
Television operates on a little tighter timeline so the writer doesn’t have the luxury of inserting the viewer obliquely into the main plot or ease into character development through some unrelated explosive action. The story lines are already interrupted by commercials, so too much initial or additional complexity could potentially create more confusion than intrigue.
It wasn’t long ago that the traditional linear plot line served the short story writer and the scriptwriter fairly well. But added to the big boom start is also the perceived need to interject a little realism into the lives of the main fictional characters. Suddenly our hero is involved in non-linear story line that includes dialogue about fighting with an ex-spouse over child support or a new spouse fighting with his ex-spouse who is having an affair with the wife of the police chief’s best friend all while chasing down a hot lead on the murder she’s investigating.
I’m not convinced these efforts at realism is what the audience wants as much as producers perceive is required to quench—or perhaps create—thirst for realism and emotional turmoil. I’m not condemning the techniques, but like any spice added to a recipe, as a writer you need to be careful to not add too much or dilute the main ingredients.
The technique has in part been driven by the ten-minute television segment, which has generated the “need” to bring each segment to a close through a mini-climax. The British tradition comes from the stage and thus the audiences are more likely to enjoy the steady pace of human interaction that progresses toward a solution to the mystery through longer acts rather than shorter scenes.
The big-boom opening can also require additional strands into a story line, each of which must be stitched together into a unified weave. The resulting additional plot points thus can force a story to start farther away from its actual origin. To identify and explain the audience up to speed, can potentially entangle the readers in a thicket of plot points and complexities. Reading fiction is an escapist activity. When the writer overburdens the reader with too much complexity the writer risks destroying the fun of the read. When that happens, you can kiss your readers goodbye.
You don’t have to turn to contemporary writers for insight on how to avoid getting bogged down in non-linear plot complexities. Pick up a copy of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” or “Murder on the Orient Express,” and let her take you on a guided tour through a mansion or train littered with the murdered and murderers as she masterfully operates her loom of intrigue. Her divergent strands of story vary in degrees of tension and conflict and offer an exciting exploration into non-linear story telling and how to meet the challenge of wrapping all the resulting diversity into a cohesive and effective ending.
The Brits don’t worry so much about the perceived need for constant action and serialized climaxes. They allow the tension build gradually and enjoy the process of following their favorite detective’s plodding efforts to collect and compile the clues that ultimately lead to solving the crime. Rather than sprinkling their fiction with action, they lace it with intrigue. But even Agatha Christie sprinkled in a new murder occasionally to keep the level of tension up.
Writers have always had the option to write their story in either a linear or non-linear fashion. But pressures exist that favor the non-linear form, the simplest definition of which is any story that doesn’t follow the linear—A, B, C, etc.—pattern of structure and presentation. The challenge with the non-linear approach is making sure the continuity of the story is not lost or confused in the weave.
Say you want to fictionalize some aspect of an historical event—dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, for example. You’re almost obligated to start with Hiroshima, where the first atomic bomb was dropped to assure historical perspective. History already informs the reader what happens next. It would appear there would be no surprises, only statistics. The fiction writer will peel back the layers of statistics and historical facts and search for the differences and contrasts within eye-witness accounts, or flip factual truths over to see if there’s a soft underbelly primed for fictionalization, or expand the intriguing personalities of the people involved—all to find some un-explored aspect or point of view or detail around which to construct story. The fiction writer inspects the facets of each fact. Wrapped in secrecy as the events were, the fiction writer will search for some intrigue, or the opportunity to create some, to expose to the fictional light of day. After all, wherever you have government secrets, you have spies and thus the natural ingredients of fiction.
If you wrote “Hiroshima” on the left side of your white board and “Nagasaki” on the right, it would not take long for your writer brainstorm-filled cranium to come up with an extensive list of story options—factual and fictional or a combination of the two. Like any good Venn diagram, the center column would be for the stories generated by the synergy between the historical and fictional facts.
Likely, the story would begin with the ultimate action—a mushroom cloud—followed by flashbacks to put the tale in perspective and the plot on a linear track that leads to some point in the present or the future that is the focus of you story and gives to it the promise of something new for the reader to explore.
Because everybody knows the real ending of the development of The Bomb, the creative writer would look for a story line that would allow the interjection of tension that had some independent place to rise from and go to. The unexpected or near failures of the reality of the Manhattan Project might produce the tension and conflict perfect for the pen of the fiction writer to wedge open a crack of truth and inject the thrill of fiction. For example, take this paragraph from an entry about the Manhattan Project on Wikipedia. It presents an easy half-dozen story ideas from which the fiction writer could create his or own path to the mushroom cloud:
“Two types of atomic bombs were developed during the war. A relatively simple gun-type fission weapon was made using uranium-235, an isotope that makes up only 0.7 percent of natural uranium. Since it is chemically identical to the most common isotope, uranium-238, and has almost the same mass, it proved difficult to separate. Three methods were employed for uranium enrichment: electromagnetic, gaseous and thermal. Most of this work was performed at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In parallel with the work on uranium was an effort to produce plutonium. Reactors were constructed at Oak Ridge and Hanford, Washington, in which uranium was irradiated and transmuted into plutonium. The plutonium was then chemically separated from the uranium. The gun-type design proved impractical to use with plutonium so a more complex implosion –type weapon was developed in a concerted design and construction effort at the project’s principal research and design laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
“The project was also charged with gathering intelligence on the German nuclear weapon project. Through Operation Alsos, Manhattan Project personnel served in Europe, sometimes behind enemy lines, where they gathered nuclear materials and documents, and rounded up German scientists. Despite the Manhattan Project’s tight security, Soviet atomic spies still penetrated the program.”
Just think of the behind-the-scenes drama involved in President Truman’s decision to drop “Little Boy” on Hiroshima and wait but a mere three days before dropping the even bigger “Fat Boy” on Nagasaki. (Is there a two or three act play in there?) Or back up still farther, and look at the preparation to test the very first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, knowing that the test would likely tip the hat to the Germans or the Japanese. And, there were those who thought the explosion might set off a global nuclear reaction that would destroy the world. Wouldn’t that make an interesting scene from the moon if you were the scouting party for some alien force that planned to take over the planet only to witness its self-imposed incineration?
And what would have happened had Germany won the race to be first with a nuclear device? There are story and plot lines running all over the place. Maybe there’s a fictional story about the guys who race against time to head off a planned East Coast German nuclear attack launched from a secret facility on the west side of Greenland down the Davis Strait. Suddenly the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki might take backseat to the ones that threaten New York and Washington, D.C.
The non-linear thinking fiction writer might flip the story on its head and have the Japanese, with German help, revisit Hawaii and the first mushroom cloud rises over the sands of Waikiki. Where might the next target be? Can it be stopped? Who are the heroes and the villains? Will it come by plane or has a nuclear device, or, Heaven forbid, several devices, already been planted and the only thing we know for sure is that there’s a secret agent—perhaps several—with arming codes and devices making their way to the bombs’ unknown locations. Suddenly from the world of the known we generate feasible stories of contemporaneous fiction and new sources of intrigue.
There are several potential starting points that begin far away from the traditional beginning that the fiction writer can pry open to create a new fictional reality. And that is the trick—coming up with unique differentiations from the truth of historical events. Even if you end with the “truth,” you will have given your readers an exciting new path to get there.
The idea here is to suggest that you explore non-linear techniques to tell your story. Somewhere along the way, you will likely be compelled to pick up the A-B-C linearity in order to bring the story to a tidy ending. Maybe not. End perhaps with an open question or the evidence that a second plot has been concocted. The story that closes may not represent the really dangerous threat, but a false hope as the real threat lurks in the shadows of the other story. Maybe the Members of Mayhem have a plan to detonate a nuclear device in Times Square on New Year’s Eve of 2016! Or the character everybody thought had the hair-brained idea about such a threat turns out to be correct and begins the lonely journey to head off the global disaster on her own. Is there enough time—out there alone, dogged by the bad guys and maybe a pair of good guys who just figured out the truth?
As you contemplate the applicability of the non-linear plot, keep in mind the saying: “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” our first intent is to deceive. Just because a story may not be linear, it still needs to be cohesive. Readers will enjoy a complex plot but not one that loses them in a maze of confusion. Telling story remains your primary goal. Impress the readers with the intelligence of your characters, not your cleverness. Your job is to make your characters in such a story frighteningly real.
Remember, too, that the above example started as a story initiated through action. It might be as effective to start more quietly through the main or some key and unassuming character. If there is a conspiracy afoot, using your introduction to highlight a good buy or a bad girl or the conspiracy potentially offers alternative starting points. The distinction between action- and character-driven beginnings may be nuanced, but becomes important as you explore whether to initially focus is on a person or a thing or an event.
And why divorce the opening action from the main story? If B can’t happen until A occurs, the opening scene may be the success of or threat to A. A new challenge might be interjected when Plan A fails and Plan B appears to have a fatal flaw that threatens to bring hero and her efforts to naught. There can be a lot of story that can be inserted between points A and B!
The non-linear story style offers up a wide range of possibilities and opportunities for the writer to engage the reader and write a jigsaw puzzle of mystery and intrigue. Story ideas tend to bloom linearly so don’t let that tendency narrow your options. As you brainstorm an idea, let your mind jump around and be non-linear. Ask yourself a lot of “what if” questions about virtually every aspect of your story, but remember, the pieces need to fit together.