Before we get started, let me say that, after Checkerboard Nightmare, Time Friends was the best thing Kristofer Straub ever did. And the fact that the archives aren’t available online is a travesty. Not that anything we can ever do will change that, but I’m glad I was able to say that publicly. Okay, now that is out of the way…
I was discussing on Twitter (insofar as anything can be discussed in 140 character segments) with a friend about the impossibility for different writers to maintain consistent characterization. I confess; I may have overstated that claim a bit. The origin of this conversation was our difference of opinion about the quality of the Hellboy movies. At least, the first one. I haven’t seen the second.
Regarding the movies, there isn’t anything new to say. This is the basic conversation that is most commonly had about The Lord of the Rings. Devoted fans of the films who also know the books take the stance that, despite the deviations, changes, plot holes, and other problems the movies have, they’re still good movies. The haters, on the other hand, take the position that no, um… that’s exactly why they’re bad movies.
The basic contention seems to me to be that the haters don’t think a bad script/plot can be saved by amazing effects, good acting or a beloved story/character coming to the big screen. But none of this is actually what I wanted to write about.
Near the end of the conversation, I made what seemed to me to be a fairly uncontroversial statement. “A story must be linear. This is the nature of time. But it can be told in a non-linear fashion.” My friend (if she will allow me to refer to her thus, though we have never met face-to-face) noted that this position was what she wanted to hear me elaborate.
So, forthwith, my thoughts, such as they are, on the linear nature of stories. In the wise words of the King of Hearts, begin at the beginning, go on till you come to the end; then stop. The essence of any tale consists of this. There is a beginning, things occur subsequently, and then that which is being told ceases beyond a particular point. (The title of The Neverending Story notwithstanding.)
It may not be the case that they story elements are arranged in this way when they are told, but unquestionably they could be. We’ve all seen movies that open with a scene near the end and proceed to tell what came before. This is a common tactic that allows the director to grasp our interest and avoid losing the audience while laying essential and perhaps less interesting groundwork in place.
The best example of this is in the movie Memento. (I hated this movie for reasons that have very little to do with its structure.) At first, one might think that Memento is a film with a non-linear story, but this is an illusion created by the extremely non-linear telling of the story. I’m not going to worry about spoilers; the statute of limitations on this movie was up some time ago.
Christopher Nolan tells the first half of the story going forwards and in black-and-white. Interleaved are scenes from the second half of the story working back from the end and in colour. There are several things that it is important to note, however, and chief among them is that a very linear and clear story exists. (Check out this impressive infographic here to see the story laid out.) Also worthy of note is that the colour portion is told in a series of linear, forward-moving vignettes. Each happens as a small linear story within the larger whole. They are not random, nor are they literally in reverse.
Finally, this particular narrative choice serves two purposes. The first is to deliberately disorient the viewer and push one into a greater sympathy with Guy Pearce’s character. The second is that it makes what would otherwise be a very short and dull story longer and much more interesting.
I think it’s not a stretch to say that all stories, because of linear time, must take place in a linear fashion. (Even time-travel stories, high- and low-concept: Primer and Back to the Future.) The way in which the narrative structure of the story is formed, however, is tremendously malleable, but the story itself begins at a discrete point, carries on for a while and ends again at a discrete point. These points may not be visited in order, but they exist in a particular order and we cannot visit them except in some sort of sequence.