[identity profile] verushka70.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] ds_workshop
Firstly, my apologies on the tardiness of this piece. I was supposed to go a week or two after [livejournal.com profile] nos4a2no9. Riiiight. *sigh* Anyway, here we go!

The original question was:

“What's the best way to structure a story that doesn't use a conventional A-B-C plotline? I want (desperately) to write a story that manipulates time and incorporates a lot of flashbacks/flash-forwards but I'm not sure how to go about it, or what to avoid. Can someone help?”

I've broken up the answer into parts, including
Why this question took so frakkin’ long to answer

Writing a story vs. Telling a story, and about the DS stories, and movies, analyzed here

Learning the rules so you can break them: Chronological narratives with causally dependent plot events—the conventional story narrative

How to write chronological narrative stories

“Post-modern” plots which are actually narratives, underneath all their fancy dress: Pulp Fiction, Memento, Run Lola Run

Non-narrative/non-chronological plots that actually are narrative/chronological, Part I: Examples in DS fanfic (“Tell Me A Story”; “More Than You Know”; “After”)

Non-narrative/non-chronological plots that actually are narrative/chronological, Part II: Examples in DS fanfic: (untitled Post-It notes story; At The Time Of Writing)

Complicated or multiple narratives within the same story: DS fanfic example (“Acharnement”)

How to write a truly non-chronological, non-narrative story

A note on truly non-narrative, non-chronological “plotless” stories (and DS fic comparison: The Fraser Record (Excerpts))

Finally, complicated or multiple narratives within the same story, with flashbacks and/or flashforwards (DS story examples: Stop Me If You've Heard This One; Thus Every Feather Obeys The Wind)

In summary



Why this question took so frakkin’ long to answer

This was tough to answer, not just because answering it is tough, but also because the answer has to encompass a lot of possibilities. I started this and gave up and re-started from scratch like three times, got writer’s block, then re-started from scratch again. Finally I sought professional help: I went through my entire collection of books, which desperately needs thinning, until I found my copy of John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction—Notes on craft for young writers.”

Everything I initially wrote to answer this question I wrote in a much more verbose and muddled fashion. Re-reading “The Art of Fiction” helped me clarify and pare down my muddled verbosity; reminded me of things I had totally forgotten. I highly recommend Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction.” It’s a relatively quick read (194 pages, not including the index and writing exercises), chock full of great advice, and not pedantic, either—at least, I don’t find it to be so. It was the textbook in a graduate fiction writing course I took eons ago. (Be warned: once you read it, you may not be as proud of stories you were previously proud of—you’ll realize all the mistakes you made, and may cringe . . .)

Ultimately, what I think will prove most instructive is analysis of various well-known films and several DS stories, progressing from relatively straightforward plots to more complicated plotting with entwined multiple narratives, flashbacks/forwards, etc.

So when it's suggested in here that you go read a particular story, may I humbly suggest you right-click on the link and open it in a new tab or a new window. That way you can easily switch back and forth between the analysis here, and the story itself.

Writing a story vs. Telling a story, and about the DS stories, and movies, analyzed here

In answering the question, I make a distinction between writing a story and telling a story. Ordinarily we would consider the two the same thing. But for the purposes of this workshop piece, writing is the actual “heavy lifting,” the work you put into the plotting, characterizations, and actual tedious typing, deleting, copying/pasting, cutting, and moaning/explaining/defending to your beta readers. Telling is the finished product, the story you post or archive, once you have it the way you want it.

The DS stories I use here were chosen simply because they were recced by other DS fanfic readers (and writers) as examples of non/chronological and/or non-narrative and/or non-A-B-C-D plotted stories and, when analyzed, they illustrate a variety of plotting concepts.

I personally enjoyed all of these stories. YMMV. Please do not take their presence in this piece as an endorsement or recommendation above and beyond other DS stories about which I don’t know, wasn’t recced, and with which I’m unfamiliar. There must be thousands of excellent DS stories out there, but I can’t reference or use them all here.

Of the stories recced to me, those I left out were not left out because I disliked them, they were left out for reasons of space and/or repetition (e.g. they illustrated a concept I’d already illustrated once or twice with other stories).

There are a number of SPOILERS in this piece for various movies and DS fanfics, since they are used as examples and illustrations of plotting concepts. This piece assumes you have at least a passing knowledge of the movies “Pulp Fiction,” “Memento,” “Citizen Kane" and “Run Lola Run.” If you're not familiar with them, that’s okay, it's not completely necessary--but this piece may spoil the plots of these movies for you, if you haven’t already seen them.

If you haven’t already read the DS stories used for analysis here, and you don’t want them spoiled, read them when directed to do so in this text. Otherwise there's lots of spoiler-age; sort of a necessary evil.

To prevent squicks, please read authors’ warnings first. I’ve tried not to use squicky stories, but some which serve as illustrations of concepts may squick some readers (to wit: Acharnement). To see if this is the case, you may want to scan through my analysis of plot events first, before reading... but again, that may spoil the story for you. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

All stories analyzed here are either RayK/Fraser or RayV/Fraser (and one RayK/Volpe).

Learning the rules so you can break them: Chronological narratives with causally dependent plot events—the conventional story narrative

Let’s define our terms. What, exactly, is an A-B-C plotline? How can you avoid it if you want to write a complex narrative that doesn’t follow A-B-C plotting?

First, to use an old adage, it helps to know what “the rules” are in order to break them. In storytelling, “the rules” are typically that there is a narrative built on a chronological series of causally related events leading to a climax of some sort, and occasionally a denouement (although not always).

A, B, and C symbolize plot events which are chronologically and causally related (and dependent on each other). A is the beginning plot event (without A, B can’t occur), and the narrative proceeds in order, chronologically and causally from A to B, B to C, C to D, etc. until the accumulated plot events have set up the climactic event which ends the narrative.

This is the conventional narrative structure used in most short stories, novels, and screenplays.

“A chronological series of causally related events” basically means that you have an A-B-C-D plotline where A-B-C-D have causal (and therefore chronological) relationships to each other. B has a causal relationship to A: B cannot occur until A occurs first, because something in A sets up B. Something in B sets up C. And something in C sets up D, etc.

“Chronological” is meant loosely, of course—plot event A may have occurred twenty years before plot event B. What is important is that B cannot happen if A doesn’t happen first—the dependent, causal relationship.

Thanks to Newtonian physics and entropy, in our world, things that are causally related are always chronologically ordered. The seed doesn’t sprout if it wasn’t planted; it doesn’t grow to maturity if it doesn’t sprout first; it doesn’t bear fruit if it didn’t grow to maturity first.

To use a different example, Ray doesn’t slip out of the Canadian consulate and get kidnapped until Turnbull allows him to and lends Ray his red, full dress RCMP uniform as a disguise, first; Turnbull doesn’t lend Ray his red uniform as a disguise to leave the Consulate (against Fraser’s orders) and use the bathroom across the street until Ray threatens to “whizz in the sink” first; Ray doesn’t threaten to “whizz in the sink” if the Canadian consulate’s toilet doesn’t stop working, first.

How to write chronological narrative stories

How people write is anybody’s guess. We all have our ways and our muses. Many times, maybe most often for most fanfic authors, we write a story in the order it will ultimately take when posted or archived: A-B-C-D. Fraser is lonely (A), Ray is lonely (B), Fraser meets Ray and they eventually have hot sex (C), and then both are no longer lonely (D). A simplistic illustration, but you get the idea.

But of course stories—even A-B-C plot lines—aren’t always written in order. You may go back and forth working on different parts, refining, adding, subtracting, in any order, until you’ve written your A-B-C-D story.

Maybe the “seed” of your story idea was a scene that winds up at the end; if so, you have to write everything that leads up to it.

Or maybe the “seed” of your story idea was a scene in the middle; then you have to write everything that comes before it, and everything that comes after it, up to and including the end.

Or maybe you’re just lucky enough to have had your original inspiration be a scene that takes place at the beginning, so you can write all that comes after it, up to and including the end.

So if you find yourself writing a conventional narrative story of A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I plotting, but your muse has seen fit to grace you only with C, E, and G—don’t worry. Once you have C and E, you know you have to write D (the plot event C “sets up” and that, in turn, sets up E causally and chronologically). Once you have E and G, you know you have to write F (the plot event that links E and G causally and chronologically). And since you have C, you can figure out what you need to set up C—and get down to writing B. And since you have G, you can create a new plot event that depends causally and chronologically on G occurring first. Very doable. (Forgive me if I’m stating the obvious.)

Now if you’re just writing a 300 word drabble, you don’t need to go through all that. But if you’re writing a long story with multiple POVs/narratives and many plot events leading up to a climactic moment, analyzing your narrative(s) and plot events can really help when you get stuck.

Those are the general rules for conventional narrative storytelling, aka chronological, narrative plotting, aka A-B-C-D-E plotting.

Now, how do you break those rules?

“Post-modern” plots which are actually narratives, underneath all their fancy dress: Pulp Fiction, Memento, Run Lola Run

A common device is to start at the end, then swing all the way back to the beginning and move through all the causally dependent plot events in chronological order, leading back up to the end, and revisit the ending. To use an old example, “Citizen Kane” begins with an end plot event (Kane’s death—let’s call that K), and then starts over at the very beginning (A) and moves through all the major plot events in Kane’s life (B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-J) to wind up back at the end (K) with a greater understanding of who Kane was. The final form of “Kane” is:
K-A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-J-K.

When you analyze the apparently post-modern plotting of movies like “Pulp Fiction” or “Memento,” you discover that their plot events are actually chronologically and causally dependent on each other—just as they would be in a conventional narrative. Underneath the flashy writing and/or direction, in each case, there is still an A-B-C-D narrative. In the case of “Pulp Fiction,” the only major difference is that the telling of the story begins not at the beginning but somewhere in the middle, moves in a narrative direction through to the ending and then comes back to the beginning and moves through the plot events from beginning to the middle where it began: a fascinating conundrum of a plot.

In terms of plot structure, the story in “Pulp Fiction” was no doubt written out and plotted A-B-C-D-E-F-G, first. But what Tarentino did that was different was to tell the story in a different order in the finished product by starting the telling in the middle: D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D.

“Memento,” on the other hand, takes the narrative structure of A-B-C-D-E-F-G and reverses it. Christopher Nolan starts the telling of the story at G, with no context or causal setup, disorienting the viewer. Each plot event (F, E, D, etc) is causally dependent on the one that comes before it – G could only happen if F happened first – but:
(1) the causal relationship of the plot events – the story – is told in reverse chronological order (G-F-E-D, etc. instead of D-E-F-G) and
(2) the causal relationship of each event to the one preceding it is initially hidden until the scene(s) fully plays out, disorienting the viewer

Together, these techniques inspire disorientation and suspense in the viewer and yield an intriguing puzzle of motivations moving backwards in time to reveal a beginning plot event (at the end of the movie) which is devastating in its arbitrariness.

All of this may sound complicated. I guess it is. But I guarantee you that in order to tell the stories of “Pulp Fiction” or “Memento” and not frak up the causal and chronological relationships of each plot event, both Tarentino and Nolan had to first write them—plot them—as chronological, narrative stories, then re-organize them later into their final forms.

Do I have any verification of this? No, I don’t—it’s just simple logic. Those kinds of stories are impossible to tell in all their mindfuck glory if they aren’t first blocked out in a chronological narrative (especially if your audience will eventually be able to examine them in detail using pause, rewind and fast-forward).

While both “Pulp Fiction” and “Memento” tell their narratives in seemingly circular or disorienting styles, in actuality they are tightly plotted. They had to be. Otherwise, it’s far too easy to wind up with something totally incoherent when what you intended was an audience mindfuck where the narrative only suddenly becomes obvious after they’ve seen the entire film, like a rabbit popping out of a magician’s hat.

Another movie example of post-modern plotting would be “Run Lola Run” (aka “Lola rennt”). In “Run Lola Run,” the beginning and middle plot events remain the same. But the movie restarts multiple times to show us and play out multiple different endings, and therefore multiple different plot events. The “Run Lola Run” plot(s) could be described as A-B-C-Z1, A-B-C-Z2, A-B-C-Z3, A-B-C-Z4.

In each case (Z1, Z2, Z3 and Z4), the ending plot events follow and are causally dependent on beginning plot event A, then middle plot events B and C occurring first (and in that order). But each different ending plot event is independent of each other (though not independent of A-B-C).

Hope that made sense. Re-read it several times if it didn’t . . . though we can break things down into simpler parts, simple does not mean easy!

Non-narrative/non-chronological plots that actually are narrative/chronological, Part I: Examples in DS fanfic (“Tell Me A Story”; “More Than You Know”; “After”)

It might help to point out that there are some DS fanfic stories that appear to be non-chronological or non-narrative, but which are actually narrative stories. They just happen to be told in a format or style that makes the reader forget there is a narrative, or hides or “remixes” the narrative(s). In fact, when I asked for suggestions from people on non-chronological or non-narrative DS stories, what was actually recommended to me every single time were narrative stories written in unusual formats.

To clarify, a story that has an underlying narrative plot (A-B-C-D) but whose format or execution results in D-C-B-A or A-D-B-C or D-A-B-C-D or any other "remix" of the A-B-C-D plot events, is still a narrative story. It may be considered non-chronological in its format or execution, however.

A story that has no chronologically, causally related plot events is a non-narrative story -- that is, rather than having plot events A-B-C-D, it has 1-a-A-i-I. (More on this later.)

Let me give you some examples, which will inevitably involve SPOILERS. “Tell Me A Story” by estrella and “More Than You Know” by [livejournal.com profile] bethbethbeth are great examples of the reverse chronological narrative. Go read “Tell Me A Story” (TMAS) first.

Finished reading TMAS? Okay. In TMAS, the chronological order of the plot events—their causally dependent relationships to each other—is (SPOILER):

A: 5:47pm RayK picks Fraser up to spend the evening on a stake out
B: 11:32pm They finish listening to a ball game radio broadcast, and Fraser vetoes all of Ray’s suggestions on how to kill time and stay awake for the rest of the stakeout
C: 1:14am Fraser discovers Ray has fallen asleep and takes a small liberty
D: 2:58am Fraser wakes Ray and begins to tell Ray a story. . . about he and Ray
E: 3:32am After Fraser’s story, Ray doesn’t know how to say what he’s trying to say
F: 3:44am Fraser and RayK demonstrate their feelings for each other and Ray assures Fraser the feeling is mutual

However, in the telling of TMAS—the final, online version—the order of plot events is reversed chronologically: F-E-D-C-B-A.

“More Than You Know” (MTYK) by Beth H does something similar but executes it slightly differently. Go read MTYK now, or prepare to be SPOILERed.

Though MTYK tricks out the plot events as dream states, the plot events are nevertheless chronologically ordered. Ray passes into these dream states in reverse chronological order back to the very beginning of his partnership with Fraser, like a matryoshka (Russian nesting doll). The dream states are all (except maybe one) DS episode-related. The chronological order of the narrative is as follows:

A: Ray awakens from a weird dream about sleeping on a cot with some guy, to find himself in bed at home in his apartment; he gets up and goes to work at his undercover gig as Ray Vecchio, on the very first day he will meet Fraser (BDTH)
B: Ray awakens from a weird dream about sleeping in a tent with Fraser to find himself on Fraser’s cot in the Canadian consulate, hiding out there after Volpe’s murder (Asylum)
C: Ray awakens from a weird dream about living and camping in the wild with Fraser to find himself in a tent with Fraser post-Muldoon’s capture (COTW)
D: Ray enjoys morning in the campsite he and Fraser have made, living and camping at the southern end of the Northwest Territories for the last five years

However, the final order of MTYK—the telling of MTYK—is reversed: D-C-B-A.

[livejournal.com profile] joandarck’s “After” has the same reverse-chronological narrative (go read it), in shorter, less complicated form. “After”s plot events are (SPOILERS):
A: Dewey’s sarcastic, humorous remark about Fraser and RayK’s mutual high after bringing down some bad guys gives both Fraser and RayK ideas;
B: Fraser and RayK get intimate at the consulate; RayK confesses just how deeply the experience has affected him;
C: RayK tests the boundaries of the change in their relationship by trying to run away, or by trying to get Fraser to get him to stay/chase him (depends on your POV).

But again, the telling is reverse chronological: C-B-A.

Non-narrative/non-chronological plots that actually are narrative/chronological, Part II: Examples in DS fanfic: (untitled Post-It notes story; At The Time Of Writing)

Now, let’s look at some DS stories done with “narrative devices” (unusual formats or different “media” used to communicate the plot events). I’ve read that some critics think the use of different story-telling devices or media can distance a reader from the story and lessen the emotional impact because of the extra effort required to follow the narrative. I am not sure that I agree with that statement.

Regardless, that distance can be used to light-hearted, comic effect, as we see in [livejournal.com profile] doll_revolution’s untitled Post-It notes story which tells a Fraser/RayK story. This was one of the stories recced to me as non-chronological/non-narrative, but it actually isn’t (as you’ll see).

Go read the bookstore Post-It note correspondence story, or be SPOILERed below.

This is actually straight A-B-C-D chronological, narrative story. The plot events are:

A: 4/1 order for two Canadian history book for Fraser, with a Post-It from Helen to Jenny about Fraser’s good looks
B: 4/2 Post-It from Jenny to Helen, asking why the address at the Canadian consulate
C: 4/6 order for a book on shamans for Fraser, with a Post-It from Helen to Jenny advising her to be there when Fraser picks up his books
D: 4/11 Four Post-It notes where Jenny and Helen gush about Fraser, Jenny betting Helen $5 that Fraser is gay
E: 5/1 order for three books on modern homosexuality for Fraser, with a $5 bill and Post-It where Helen curses at losing the bet
F: 5/13 longer note from Helen to Jenny about running into Fraser at the mall with his possessive “blond toothpick” (RayK)
G: 5/15 longer note from Jenny to Helen about Fraser coming into book store with possessive blond “Q-tip” RayK
H: 5/17 order for the “Gay Kama Sutra” for Fraser, with a Post-It note about things heating up on the Fraser/Ray front
I: 5/19 Several Post-Its on Jenny’s computer describe RayK coming in and also ordering the “Gay Kama Sutra”—oblivious to Fraser having also done so—and refusing to fill out paperwork , paying extra cash on the side for Helen to memorize the order
J: 5/25 Post-Its between Jenny and Helen, describing how Ray came in to pick up his “Gay Kama Sutra,” Jenny asked if he’d like to take Fraser’s “Gay Kama Sutra” to him, and Jenny thereby clues the clueless Ray and Fraser in to the fact that they are gay for each other
K: 6/1 card with a dozen roses from Fraser and Ray, thanking Helen and Jenny for the best customer service in the city

Though it is told via order forms, Post-It notes, notes on notebook paper and stationary and finally the card with a bouquet, ultimately the Post-It notes story proves to be a chronological narrative story, with A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-J plot events and K for the ending event.

On the other hand, the supposed distancing effect of unusual story-telling devices can also be used to devastating effect, as demonstrated by [livejournal.com profile] loneraven’s “At The Time Of Writing” (ATTOW). This was another story recced to me when I asked for non-chronological or non-narrative stories, but, as we’ll see, it is actually a conventional chronological narrative told in a very unusual format. Go read ATTOW, or be SPOILER-ed.

The plot events of ATTOW, chronologically and causally, are:

A: Fraser’s Jan. 7, 1998 journal entry describing his unsettling dream about people with “shadows” following them
B: Jan. 8, ’98 answering machine message from Ray, calling Fraser from the precinct
C: Turnbull’s shopping list for the Consulate from the 2nd week of January, ’98
D: Fraser’s Jan. 12th, ’98 book order for “The Interpretation of Dreams”
E: sequence of to-do list, shopping list, and affectionate notes from Fraser and Ray to each other, 2nd week of Jan, ’98
F: Jan. 14th, ’98 letter from Fraser to Maggie Mackenzie in Inuvik, mentioning that he dreams “of cracks in the ice....something is changing, breaking”
G: handwritten note from Ray to Fraser, undated but “known to to have been written” 1/16/98
H: “Have you seen this woman?” poster of missing woman seen on lamp-posts, walls, and in store windows throughout Chicago in the 3rd week of Jan., ’98
I: Internal memo, 27th precinct CPD, from Welsh to Kowalski, dated 1/20/98, re: Fraser talking to “invisible people” in Welsh’s office
Ja: excerpt from Fraser’s journal entry, 1/21/98
Jb: letter from Ray to his mother dated 1/21/98, describing the case of women going missing and then turning up dead, and Fraser’s “crazy” state of mind over it
Jc: disjointed, unsent letter to Ray from Fraser, found in Fraser’s journal at his 1/21/98 entry
K: 1/22/98 Chicago Tribune weather forecast, noting a temperature drop into the 20s for Sat. 1/24
L: internal memo dated 1/23/98 from Thatcher to Fraser, ordering him to take time off work
M: Cook County Hospital ER 1/24/98 list of items found on unknown white male brought to ER hypothermic
N: Dewey’s 2:03am 1/25/98 answering machine message to Ray, with slip mentioning Ray’s real surname
O: Rx dated 1/25/98 for haloperidal (Haldol), an anti-psychotic drug, for Fraser
P: Recording of Fraser on 1/26/98, speaking in English, Acadian French, Tsimshian, and Inuvialuktun, later translated by Maggie MacKenzie, used by Asst. SA Stella Kowalski for an emergency court order
Q: Extract of transcript of Ray Kowalski’s statement of 1/26/98
R: Undated, suspected 1st week of Feb., note sent to Armando Langoustini from Ray Vecchio
S: Excerpt from Maggie Mackenzie’s journal entry of 2/10/98
T: 2/14/98 a “long, soft, grieving” kiss
U: 2/16/98 letter from RayK to Maggie about getting Fraser home from “the other place”
V: Excerpt from case study of Patient X, a “36 year old white male” with hallucinations, including that of a young girl behind the examining psychiatrist and author; published in the American Journal of Psychiatry 155:12 1998. Includes an additional paragraph later edited out of the published article wherein the author mentions his 6 year old daughter, who died in an accident in 1992.
W: excerpt from Fraser’s journal entry dated 4/1/1998, describing the ghosts and ghostly images he sees following people (or around Dief)
X: “a scrap of paper torn from a book, held in clenched fist,” 12/31/99, “almost illegible from constant handling,” with excerpts of the last several lines of T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men

In ATTOW, a great variety of items (presumably evidence from an investigation or an internal review report) construct a chronological narrative with a chilling climax. However, the ordering of plot events in the final version is not strictly (or perhaps I should say, is not purely) A-B-C-D. Actually, it is A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-Ja-Jb-L-Jc-K-M-N-P-O-Q-R-S-T-U-V-W-X. The slight disordering only serves to make it more believable and realistic; it seems that the items really would have been discovered and enumerated slightly out of order as described.

It could be argued that B, C, E, G and T are not actually plot events. They set nothing up and no subsequent plot events seem to be causally dependent on them occurring first. They might also be considered a second or shadow narrative, the narrative of the Fraser and Ray’s relationship; they show a breakdown in Fraser and Ray’s relationship that parallels the breakdown in Fraser’s mental state. But although they support the reader’s conclusion that Fraser suffers some kind of mental break (which the reader knows isn’t actually a breakdown; Fraser always saw Bob Fraser; now he sees other people’s ghosts, as well), B, C, E, G and T are not strictly necessary for the reader to come to that conclusion.

Complicated or multiple narratives within the same story: DS fanfic example (“Acharnement”)

In terms of your question, it seems like what you’re intending to write is a complicated narrative with causally related plot events (A-B-C)--possibly two or more narratives intertwined--with a lot of flashbacks and time manipulation. This probably seems very daunting. (It is.)

But let’s see if we can break it down. Of course, without knowing details, I may not be exactly answering your question, but hopefully I can give you some idea of how to go about doing it, how to structure the plot.

First of all, let’s be certain that what you intend to write is, actually, a narrative where the ending is causally dependent on all the plot events that come before it, no matter how you choose to tell or execute the story in its final presentation. Maybe you have two entwined narratives, one Fraser’s and one Ray’s. In that case, let’s say the end is 6-F (you’ll see in a moment). Ray’s narrative starts 1-2-3-4-5, and Fraser’s goes A-B-C-D-E.

If you write them strictly as two entwined narratives in a chronological, narrative story, you could write first Ray’s narrative as 1-2-3-4-5, then Fraser’s as A-B-C-D-E, and then edit and re-order them for a final version of the story as 1-A-2-B-3-C-4-D-5-E-6/F (where 6/F is the end).

Or, let’s say you want to write a story with three entwined narratives (or two narratives with a shadow narrative). Let’s use AC Chapin’s “Acharnement” as an example.

Now, go read “Acharnement.” (You may prefer to read the text-only version of Acharnement for readability purposes. (Note: “Acharnement” may squick some, but it is such a pure distillation of Fraser’s emotional and physical isolation and desperate need post-Victoria’s Secret, it sets the reader up to believe Fraser could do that which one might otherwise never see him doing. (To check for squickiness, scroll down to the analysis and have a look at the last half of plot events.) Unfortunately, the archiving process removed original HTML formatting that helped delineate between the narrative threads, which can make the changes in POV seem kind of jarring. But I kind of like the disorientation that the screwed-up archival version gives you.

Now that you’ve read it, let’s examine how “Acharnement” is plotted (SPOILERS):

Fraser’s dreams are the first narrative; they “book-end” the story. Let’s use 1-2-3.
Fraser’s experiences while alone are the second narrative; we’ll use a, b, c for that.
Finally, Fraser’s interactions with RayV are the third narrative, for which we’ll use A-B-C.

(We could even throw in Fraser’s memory of puberty as a fourth brief narrative, using alpha, beta, gamma, etc., but since it only appears once, it’s not actually a narrative. Nevertheless, I’ll mark it anyway.)

So, the multiple narratives of “Acharnement” are actually entwined and plotted as follows:
1: dream!Fraser is a mountain lion, holding down RayV and purring
a: alone!Fraser has a wet-dream and needs to change his shorts, and remembers:
alpha: puberty!Fraser who slept for a month with a towel pinned around his hips
b: alone!Fraser wishes he could talk to RayV about these dreams, but can’t/is too embarrassed
c: alone!Fraser has sentry duty, does paperwork, gets yelled at by a heaving Thatcher
A: Fraser/RayV—RayV tries to get Fraser to “talk about it” (whatever’s bothering him)
B: Fraser/RayV—RayV takes Fraser home; they don’t get dinner together
e: alone!Fraser “hides” in the phone booth until RayV rescues him
C: Fraser/RayV—Fraser explains how he ended up in the phone booth; tells RayV about:
d: alone!Fraser meets a woman, not realizing she’s a hooker, and she assaults/mugs him
D: Fraser/RayV—Ray takes Fraser home, gets Fraser to talk (nothing’s been the same since Victoria)
E: Fraser/RayV—Fraser talks, RayV and Fraser hug
F: Fraser/RayV—Fraser tries to turn the hug into more
G: Fraser/RayV—RayV pulls out of the hug; Fraser grabs him by the wrist
H: Fraser/RayV—Fraser caresses RayV more and more intimately; RayV ejaculates
I: Fraser/RayV—RayV tries to pull away; Fraser won’t let him and moves Ray to the bed
J: Fraser/RayV—Ray unbuckles his pants for Fraser; Fraser breaks Ray’s zipper
K: Fraser/RayV—Fraser fellates Ray
L: Fraser/RayV—they sleep
M: Fraser/RayV—D-L have fundamentally changed the Fraser/RayV relationship; they try to make sense of what happened
2: something in Fraser purrs

In some sense, we could compress D through L into just D, as follows:
1: dream!Fraser is a mountain lion, holding down RayV and purring
a: alone!Fraser has a wet-dream and needs to change his shorts, and remembers:
alpha: puberty!Fraser who slept for a month with a towel pinned around his hips
b: alone!Fraser wishes he could talk to RayV about these dreams, but can’t/is too embarrassed
c: alone!Fraser has sentry duty, does paperwork, gets yelled at by a heaving Thatcher
A: Fraser/RayV—RayV tries to get Fraser to “talk about it” (whatever’s bothering him)
B: Fraser/RayV—RayV takes Fraser home; they don’t get dinner together
e: alone!Fraser “hides” in the phone booth until RayV rescues him
C: Fraser/RayV—Fraser explains how he ended up in the phone booth—he tells RayV about:
d: alone!Fraser meets a woman, not realizing she’s a hooker; she assaults/mugs him
D: Fraser/RayV—Ray takes Fraser home; the h/c dynamic becomes, via Fraser’s aggressive need and RayV’s passive giving, not entirely coercive yet not entirely consensual Fraser/RayV sex
E: Fraser/RayV—D has fundamentally changed the Fraser/RayV relationship; they try to make sense of what happened.
2: Something in Fraser purrs

Around now I should point out that there is a difference between truly incoherent narrative, and narrative manipulated to seem incoherent in order to creates a sense of disorientation in the reader, and foster greater reader sympathy with (a) character(s)’s perspective. ATTOW is a great example of that, as is [livejournal.com profile] custardpringle's The Fraser Record (Excerpts) (coming up). Movie-wise, “Memento” also does this.

Now, “unrelated plot events with no causal relationship to each other” aren’t a problem if your intention is a truly plotless story, novel, play, or movie (um, think Beckett's Waiting for Godot, or possibly Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or My Dinner With Andre). But this is a problem if you think you’re telling a narrative story—even a frakked-up narrative—and you’re actually not.

How to write a truly non-chronological, non-narrative story

Let’s say that you do want to tell a truly non-chronological, non-narrative story. How, then, can this be constructed, given that it will necessarily be plotless?

The elements can be related to each other thematically, allegorically, or metaphorically rather than causally. Realistically speaking, allegorical or metaphorical ordering of scenes will be the two least likely to be used. The major plot events in Beowulf are allegorically, not causally, related (so Gardner tells us in The Art of Fiction). But I can’t think of any modern examples. I’m not even sure how one would write such a story.

But thematically ordering non-chronologically, non-causally related scenes is very doable.

Let’s say you want to write an existential DS story about the human condition: our essential aloneness. Your main character is Fraser, but he’s not the only DS character who could illustrate the human condition. Why not use Welsh, Thatcher, Francesca, RayK?

In this case, we’ll use a different letter or number for each character. Because the scenes are not plot events, and because they have no causal, chronological dependency on any scene that comes before, any of them can come first, second, third, etc. So, Welsh=1; Thatcher=A; Francesca=a; RayK=i; Fraser=uno

Let’s write the scenes:
1 Welsh stands at his closed office door, about to close the blinds, apparently looking into the bullpen but really staring off into the middle distance with a weary expression on his face, his thoughts clearly far away
A Thatcher watches Turnbull close the Consulate door behind him, then stands very still listening to the silence and emptiness of the Consulate
a Francesca sits at a mirrored vanity in her civilian aid uniform, her face turned up to a photo of Fraser on the mirror, but her eyes unfocused, staring off into space, and her expression tired and wistful
i RayK is working the bag at the gym, and he pauses and holds onto it, panting, letting his eyes unfocus; a sad slackening of his tight and tired features betrays his thoughts of the empty apartment that awaits him when he comes home from the gym
uno Fraser stands at the end of a pier sticking far out into the lake on a way north side beach; Lake Michigan boiling and roiling violently around him, waves occasionally crashing over the pier and wetting him; white-capped waves are visible as far as they eye can see; he stares at the gray line where lake and sky meet, his focus obviously far, far away; his body language a cross between listening and listless, as if he might turn away soon, not having heard or seen what he wishes

The final order I’ve written above is 1-A-a-i-uno. But as long as it ends with uno (Fraser), the preceding scenes can come in any order.

If we want to order them thematically to “crescendo” with characters whose careers or characters force them to put duty before relationships, we could re-order it a-i-A-1-uno (Francesca, RayK, Thatcher, Welsh, Fraser).

If we want to order them thematically to “crescendo” with those who have loved and lost and been most damaged by the experience, we could re-order it 1-A-a-i-uno (Welsh, Thatcher, Francesca, RayK, Fraser).

(I apologize for going angsty . . . it’s just my nature.)

As you can see, even a plotless story has multiple possible structures. The more unrelated scenes, the more possible structures. You could even make a "construct your own plotless DS fic" web page given these basic elements.


a note on truly non-narrative, non-chronological “plotless” stories (and DS fic comparison: The Fraser Record (Excerpts))

As previously mentioned, Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot” is an example of a plotless narrative—that is, there are no successive causally and chronologically dependent plot events to raise the emotional drama and increase suspense or anticipation for a climactic plot event/ending... because nothing happens in the play except a lot of talking. (It’s been eons since I read it, so correct me if I’m wrong.) This is existentialism.

The 50s Beat Generation poets and authors (Jack Kerouac, et al), of which William S. Burroughs was a member, occasionally used a method called “cut up.” To “cut up” meant to take anything narrative—your own story, a newspaper article, whatever—and cut it into pieces or sections, then reassemble the parts randomly, fracturing the narrative. Theoretically this destroys the narrative thread. Realistically, using the kind of analysis I’ve done here, you could probably find the narrative; it would just be "remixed."

Now, I don’t know if that’s one of the techniques Burroughs used to write Naked Lunch (or The Wild Boys, or The Soft Machine or Nova Express). (He has admitted he wrote much of Naked Lunch under the influence of heroin, his addiction . . .) But I’ve read all of the aforementioned Burroughs novels. The one that most seemed to have a narrative hidden behind all the disorienting prose was Naked Lunch. But I’ll be damned if I had the patience to analyze it thoroughly. For a trip into truly disorienting, possibly non-narrative/non-chronological fiction, try reading Burroughs. It will make your head want to explode. Despite all the boy/boy buttfrakking and “jissom” (as Burroughs puts it) all over the place, it's not all that hot in a slashy sense... it's just creepy, weird, surreal buttfrakking...

The point of all this is to say that truly non-narrative, non-chronological fanfic, short stories, novels, novellas, whatever, seem to be exceptionally rare. They also seem to be quite an acquired taste.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t a lot of incredible new twists on narrative storytelling—there are. [livejournal.com profile] custardpringle’s fascinating DS/House of Leaves xover The Fraser Record (Excerpts) is but one example. Yet beneath it’s seemingly chaotic storyline are three narratives (SPOILERS):

1. a narrative about the house (from HoL, presumably; I haven’t read HoL, so not sure)
2. conversation and actions of Fraser, Ray,and Bob Fraser) while lost in the house's inner labyrinth
3. what appears to be a lengthy, verbose report, possibly from CPD IA or OPS, on the investigation into Fraser and Ray’s disappearance

Each narrative are set apart from each other by the use of different fonts, which is kind and helpful to the reader. (Yay!) I leave it to the reader to analyze the chronology and causality of the plot events, but I assure you: they’re there. Bottom line, The Fraser Record (Excerpts) is still a narrative story--just told using an unusual format or execution.

Note: new and/or unusual formats of narrative story telling require more effort on the part of the reader. This can prove frustrating or off-putting for some readers. Just messing up the narrative can throw some readers. Be prepared, if you’re writing in this vein, for some readers to “just not get it” or to comment with fb about their confusion. I don’t mean in any elitist way—we all have different tastes, and some people like more challenge in their reading material than others. To each his or her own. But be prepared to lose some readers from jump if your story is in one of these more unusual formats that requires more participation on the reader’s part.

Finally, complicated or multiple narratives within the same story, with flashbacks and/or flashforwards (DS story examples: Stop Me If You've Heard This One; Thus Every Feather Obeys The Wind)

I’m not sure what kind of time manipulation you’re talking about, but let’s say that you want a story that includes all (or at least, some or many) possible endings a story could have (ala the movie “Run Lola Run”). Or maybe your story has many possible beginnings that all converge inevitably into the same ending plot event(s).

Let’s use [livejournal.com profile] shayheyred's RayK/Volpe story Stop Me If You've Heard This One (SMIYHTO) to illustrate. Go read it--I’m about to SPOIL it for you.

There are multiple narratives in this story, but some (the generic “guy’s”) are simpler and shorter than others. In SMIYHTO the multiple narratives are:

RayV’s (aka Ray1’s) cop/criminal interactions with Volpe (we’ll use 1,2,3, etc)
RayK’s (aka Ray2’s) cop/criminal interactions with Volpe (we’ll use A-B-C, etc)
alone!RayK’s activities with and without Volpe (we’ll use a-b-c, etc)
A guy, sometimes “the wrong guy,” who walks into a bar or alley (we’ll use V-W-X-Y-Z, etc)

Now, the narrative structure of SMIYHTO is as follows (remember!—this is the chronologically and causally dependent ordering of plot events, which is not the final order of the story!)

1 Ray1 has a working relationship with Volpe because he “owes” Volpe
2 Ray1 knows Volpe is one of “those guys” and hates the way Volpe gives him “The Look”
3 Ray1 has to go away, fast, and needs someone to cover for him
4 Even while Ray1 is gone, Volpe knows where he is and what he’s doing

a Ray2’s marriage ends, his job suffers, and so he’s offered a transfer
b Ray2 is torn between taking the transfer and shooting himself with his own gun
c Ray2 decides to get shitfaced in a bar before deciding between the transfer and offing himself
d Ray2 encounters Volpe in the bar; Volpe gives him “The Look”
e Ray2 leaves the bar with Volpe, they walk into an alley, and Ray2 gets well-sucked and fucked
f Ray2 takes the transfer and gets all that comes with it (Fraser, Dief, etc.)

A Ray2, posing as Ray1, walks into an alley on assignment and finds... Volpe. Again.
B/g Ray2 figures Volpe owes him, and tells Volpe so; Volpe agrees

V a guy walks into a bar
W the wrong guy walks into a bar
X the wrong guy walks into an alley
Y the guy walks into an alley, again
Z the guy walks into a bar, again

The final version of SMIYHTO ends up like this: V-W-X-1-2-3-a-b-c-d-e-f -Z-Y-A-4/B/g

To write a complex narrative with flashbacks and flashforwards, let’s start with the simplest possibility first, and add complexity as we progress.

Let’s say you only have two narrative threads: Dief’s (1-2-3, etc.) and Ray’s turtle’s (A-B-C, etc.).

In its simplest form, let’s say you want to write a chronologically ordered story that entwines the two narratives. It could go something like this:
1-A-2-B-3-C-4/D
where 4/D is the climactic plot event and end to the story.

If you want to write them as two entwined narratives in reverse chronological order, structure it as above (1-2-3, etc, for Dief; then A-B-C, etc. for the turtle). Then “remix” or re-order the two narratives into:
6/F (climactic end plot event), E-5-D-4-C-3-B-2-A-1

If you want to write them as two entwined narratives in reverse chronological order with flashbacks, you could write each character’s narrative as before (1-2-3, etc, then A-B-C, etc.), then entwine the narratives (1-A-2-B, etc.), then re-order the plot events into (for example) the following order: 6/F, E-5-(A-1)-D-4-(B-2)-C-3, where 6/F is the end plot event(s), and the ( ) denotes flashbacks.

If you want to write them as two entwined narratives in chronological order with flashbacks and flashforwards, you could do something like this:
C-3-D-4-(A-1)-E-5-[I-9]-F-6-(B-2)-[H-8]-G-7 . . . Z-26
where ( ) denotes flashbacks, [ ] denotes flashforwards, and Z-26 is the final plot event(s)/climax.

We can analyze [livejournal.com profile] mergatrude’s Thus Every Feather Obeys The Wind (TEFOTW) as an example of this type of complex narrative with flashbacks and flashforwards. This time, I’m not going to analyze it. Consider this an exercise. I’ll give you a hint, though: there are three narrative streams. (If you give up, the analysis will be added later at the bottom of this workshop piece.*)

In summary

So, to summarize, if I were writing a long, complex story with multiple narratives and flashbacks/flash forwards, this is how I would do it:

1. Initially, let my muse take me wherever, and write whatever she inspires

2. Once I have some of it written, start thinking about how many characters are involved? who are the most important ones? is there one narrative or more than one (in other words, do Fraser and Ray experience the same events together, or different events apart, up until some point at which they may converge)? think about what I want to happen to the characters; make notes of the essential events that build the story

3. Figure out which plot events are dependent on other plot events, and order them chronologically/causally

4. a. Either write the story out in chronological, causally dependent order (as a conventional narrative) and re-order it later to suit my original non-chronological intention (easier, but not necessary if it’s a fairly short story), or

4. b. Write a skeletal guideline of all my intended plot events as a kind of “ruler” to use, and then write the story out in the complex, frakked-up way it comes to me, referring often to my “ruler” so that I keep the narrative threads and the chronological order of causally dependent plot events straight while I’m writing (more difficult, especially if it is a long story with multiple narratives or a lot of flashbacks/flashforwards and/or other time manipulation)

Repeat steps 2-4.b. ad nauseum until you finish or you give up.

Good luck!

* to be added (soon)

Date: 2008-04-22 07:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] buzzylittleb.livejournal.com
*squees* I love you! And I haven't started reading yet! I'll be back with some comments later, hopefully.

I currently have a lot of plot.

Date: 2008-04-22 08:40 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] love-jackianto.livejournal.com
Thanks for posting this, I'm not a writer myself but I do love learning about the craft. I wouldn't know how to plot a story in my life depended on it, maybe I'll use your suggestions.

Date: 2008-04-25 09:50 am (UTC)
luzula: a Luzula pilosa, or hairy wood-rush (Default)
From: [personal profile] luzula
Thanks for writing this, it's awesome!

Date: 2008-04-27 05:39 pm (UTC)
anna_luna: (Fraser Dances)
From: [personal profile] anna_luna
You are a genius darling persona and I love you for writing this, especially because you used fic examples and the clear way you explained everything. THANK YOU!

Date: 2008-05-01 04:32 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mergatrude.livejournal.com
This is an excellent post, and made me think very hard about the way I go about writing, and the different ways I could structure my writing. Usually I operate on an unconscious level - at least until the beta process.

And I confess that I still haven't untangled my own story completely!

Date: 2008-06-03 11:30 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] custardpringle.livejournal.com
AND HERE I AM A MILLION YEARS LATER to say

a) I still cannot get over being used as an example in your essay, because it is an utterly brilliant essay :D :D

b) yes, those parts are in fact taken straight from of Leaves. Sorry if it's confusing. *goes to clarify in case of lawsuits-- what, it's only been up for over a year*

Date: 2008-07-18 07:44 pm (UTC)
ext_3548: (DSRayReads)
From: [identity profile] shayheyred.livejournal.com
Just this minute read your post for the first time, and the squee you may have just heard comes from me at being included as an example. Interestingly "Stop Me If You've Heard This One" probably would never have been written if I'd paused to plot it out carefully. It was a "Stop, Drop, Porn" entry and I literally wrote it in a kind of stream of conscious way. Thus I am delighted and amused to find your deconstruction of it. Apparently I do well as long as I don't think too much about what I'm doing!

Thanks again for a wonderful, and I must say, rather brilliant essay.
Edited Date: 2008-07-18 07:45 pm (UTC)

Date: 2012-07-09 06:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pelohyitos.livejournal.com

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c6M_6qOz-yw

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