What I Learned From The Unwritten (Part II)

Last time, I took some lessons from the first four volumes of The Unwritten. This time, I’m going to look at volumes 5-8. These volumes encompass some interesting turning points in the series. The heroes seem to have defeated the “bad guys,” even if it does come at a high cost. The mysteries deepen, a few new major characters are introduced, and some old characters come back.

What really makes these volumes great is that they don’t just continue the story that was started in the first four. They take it in new and unexpected directions. Each question that gets answered introduces yet more questions. All in all, it sets up the last three volumes so that you really have no idea what to expect as the story comes to its conclusion.

Moving the Goalposts Can Be Exciting

The first few volumes set up a shadowy cabal as the villains who cause all sorts of trouble for the protagonists, especially their chief henchman, Pullman. All of the bigwigs in the cabal are largely interchangeable and never characterized in much detail. It’s Pullman who is causing trouble on the ground for the heroes while the leaders of the cabal are safely hidden, and he’s the one they have to worry about. But Pullman is also the one villain who is given a back-story, revealed in drips and drops.

When the heroes actually have some success bringing the fight to the shadowy cabal, it might seem obvious that Pullman is just a Man in Front of the Man trope. But his motives turn out to be quite different from a “standard” villain. Almost exactly halfway through the story, the entire direction of the plot turns in a new direction.

Tropes are dangerous. If the reader thinks you’re just retelling a story they’ve heard before, they’ll quickly lose interest. However, tropes can be useful building blocks if you want to subvert expectations.

Tropes are just story elements that show up over and over again. They’re the canyons gouged by the flow of stories over the centuries, the comfortable shapes that stories like to fall into. A savvy reader will see parts of a trope and anticipate that the rest is forthcoming. However, you can make them a little less certain by including some elements that break the trope. Eventually, you can tear the trope apart in some unexpected plot twist, and it can be immensely satisfying. 

Sometimes these twists seem obvious in hindsight, but as a reader it’s very easy to get pulled into those deep currents that tropes provide. It’s a great way to disguise where the story is going.

Exposition Can Be a Reward

The Unwritten is great at introducing characters right in the middle of something. Tom Taylor’s dull life is turned upside down within the first few pages of the first volume. Lizzie sets those events in motion, but not in the way that she hoped. And Ritchie meets Tom in a French prison right before it explodes into chaos. The story forces the reader to hit the ground running. First, it shows you who the characters are and makes you care about them. Only then, and slowly, does it start to reveal their back-stories and the paths they took to get here.

By making you care about the characters first, the story makes exposition exciting. We want to know more about these people. How the heck did they get in these situations?

If these parts of the story were told in sequential order, they would be less interesting. They’re the lead-up to the exciting action that makes up the bulk of the story. But by withholding them for a while, they become a reward for the reader. Even better, they offer an opportunity to understand why the characters are the way they are. Learning about the events that shaped them provides new context to everything they’ve done so far in the story.

Epilogues Can Be Prologues Too

Almost every volume of The Unwritten, each major story arc, ends with a seemingly unrelated episode. After seeing the latest exploits of Tom, Lizzie and Ritchie, we might be transported to the Winnie-the-Pooh-inspired Willowbank Wood, to meet Pauly the lovable rabbit, who sounds a lot like a New Jersey mob thug and seems a bit out of place. We might be taken back a century or three to see the exploits of various famous storytellers and how they became entangled with the cabal. Or we might meet Daniel, a directionless young man with a degree in literature who finds himself taking a job that involves reading books all day with hundreds of other people in a featureless underground bunker.

Each of these little stories is an abrupt jump to a new time and place, with new characters. Each one eventually ties in to the main plot, but when the reader first encounters them, they seem like non-sequiturs. In this quiet lull at the end of an arc, when the story has just answered some questions and provided a small, satisfying conclusion, a brand-new big mystery is introduced. Namely, “who are these people and what the heck is going on?”

The next volume invariably jumps right back into the story of Tom et al., leaving these epilogues hanging unresolved for a while. Later on, when they tie back into the main story, there’s an “aha!” moment. These parts of the story are made more exciting simply by being told out of order. They’re also a great way of keeping up the tension in the parts of an episodic narrative where tension has just been relieved (at the end of an arc).

But Wait, There’s More…

The Unwritten is a big series, and I have one more post in me before we get to the end. Next time I’ll be covering the last few things I learned from the final volumes: 9-11. See you then.

Storytelling Class — Nonlinear Structures

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was nonlinear storytelling.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

I read the usual fiction blogs, and got about half-way through both Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story, and The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Seitz.

Wendig’s book on storytelling is a very in-the-trenches guide to good storytelling structures that can be easily and immediately deployed in whatever story you’re currently writing. It has the exactly same zany energy that makes Wendig’s blog fun, and while it mostly covers tried-and-true ideas about story structure, it’s a good review and packed with useful pop-culture examples.

The Wes Anderson book is a collection of interviews, photos and other Anderson-esque artifacts documenting the director’s work from his Bottle Rocket debut up to Moonrise Kingdom. It looks like the book has become a series as Anderson continues to make movies, so I may have to check out the Grand Budapest Hotel and Isle of Dogs volumes next.

I also finally finished reading The Lord of The Rings to the kids. Whew! It has been years since I read the whole thing, and I had forgotten a few things. It’s quite a series to read out loud.

What Did We Write?

I wrote my usual bloggery, and finished Razor Mountain chapter 7, which turned out to be a very long chapter. Freya didn’t write any fiction this week.

Nonlinear Stories

The main topic this week was nonlinear story structure. This was something that came up in our previous conversations that Freya wanted to know more about.

Linear stories show events happening in order. Nonlinear stories show at least some part of the story out-of-order from when it happened in relation to the other events. One could also argue that a story told in-order, but leaving some events out is also a form of nonlinear story structure.

Nonlinear structure is more effort for the reader to understand. Using too much of it, or not using it to good effect may end up frustrating the reader. If you’re going to use a nonlinear structure, do it purposefully.

Skipping Ahead

The simplest form of nonlinearity is skipping ahead. This is typically used to get past events that logically need to happen, but simply aren’t interesting enough for the reader to want to see them played out.

This can also sometimes be used to heighten excitement, often as part of a mystery, by leaving out some important event. In this case, it’s typically revealed later on, at the point when the revelation is most important. This can be dangerous because it can sometimes feel “unfair” to the reader that the knowledge was kept from them, especially if it was readily available to the characters.

Events Out of Order

A flashback is the most common way to show events out of order, inserting some previous events into the narrative near the point where they become relevant to the story’s “main” timeline. A flash-forward is a less common version of this, jumping ahead into the future to see some outcome that results from events in the story’s “main” timeline.

A frame story is a case where the bulk of the story is told as a flashback or “story within a story.” The recounting of the story is the “frame.” Examples of this are Scheherazade’s storytelling in the One Thousand and One Nights or the grandfather and grandson in The Princess Bride.

Parallel plots are often employed in stories with larger casts of characters, where individuals or groups have their own plots going at the same time. These stories will cover a certain amount of time for one character or group, then cut back to the start and show what happened during that period for the other character or group.

Events Disconnected

A more complicated nonlinear story may have many events out of their linear order.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind mostly consists of memories of a relationship, shown out of order. Memento follows a man with a brain injury that prevents him from forming long-term memories, starting with scenes at the beginning and end of the story, then going forward and backward in turns to eventually meet in the middle.

The video game Her Story tells a story through a series of interview clips, with the player able to discover different clips through play, and choosing the order to view them in.

Time Travel and Alternate Universes

Time travel stories almost always involve some nonlinear structures, and often complicate them with characters that go into the past and change the future, or muddle it with closed time loops where future characters participate in past events that contribute to the state of the future (their present).

Stories with alternate universes often use similar structures, with the added complication that similar events in different universes can have different outcomes, and at some point the alternate universes typically affect one another.

Homework

Freya and I both slacked and didn’t write anything for the previous class’s homework. This week, we’ll be playing catch-up. We’re both going to write something and either incorporate some non-linearity or use it to discuss beginnings, middles and ends.

Some of Freya’s ideas from our Ideas class were for homemade movies, so the next class topic will be script-writing 101. (I’ve never written a script before, so I’ll probably learn some things too!)