i like structure!

(I was going to say “I love structure!” — but I think people use “love” much too freely these days. If you love your iPhone, or whatever software you write with, I think you have a problem.)


There are, more or less, two types of writers: those who always tell their stories in proper (chronological) sequence, with maybe the occasional flashback, and those who, at least sometimes, don’t.

Right now I’m thinking about group #2.

For writers in group #1, those who always tell their stories in order, that’s probably just the default option — maybe it’s never even questioned.

But for a writer who sometimes goes back and forth and all around, to go consistently frontwards in a particular story must have been a conscious choice.

I thought of this with The Hateful Eight. Some of Tarantino’s earlier pictures (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill) play a lot of games with time. But The Hateful Eight does not. It is quite straightforward, with one — clearly labeled — flashback, and this must have been the result of a deliberate decision.

What did Tarantino gain by this decision?

Seriousness? In general, as far as I can remember, his movies have become more straightforward — in structure — as they have moved more to explicit social and historical commentary.

Inexorability? This is specific to The Hateful Eight. Throughout the movie there is the sense that, as Samuel Beckett put it, something is taking its course. Given the people involved, how could this story have ended any differently than it did?

Truth? Maybe. Time does, after all, move forward in the real world. You can want it to pause or rewind, but it won’t.

Interesting to think about…

My first two novels hopped around in time in different ways, but when I moved to writing mystery stories, I straightened out the chronology. Mostly this was because mystery stories are perplexing enough in content — it seemed counterproductive (and potentially annoying) to add an additional level of trickery in the form. Which isn’t to say that you can’t do that — just that you’d better have a darned good reason for going in that direction.

With mystery stories, there are some (unwritten, as far as I know) rules about the ways you are allowed to trick the readers, and other than those you’re supposed to “play fair.”

All that being said, I do enjoy a story that jumps around in time, if it’s done well. I remember the first time I read Roger Zelazny’s Roadmarks (where every chapter is either “Chapter One” or “Chapter Two” — and where I found out later that the Chapter Twos were placed in between the Chapter Ones at random) and thought, “Hey, this is my kind of book!”

This is also one reason (of many) that I enjoyed the movie of Cloud Atlas (as I talked about here)

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4 Responses to i like structure!

  1. Maggie says:

    I don’t mind the time-hopping format as long as it becomes clear at some point. It’s annoying to read a book (or see a movie) all the way through and not have a clue what just happened because the time frames were so confusing.

  2. One of the pleasures of this type of story, as a viewer/reader, is when the pieces start to click into place and you suddenly see how it all fits together.

    If you’re going to deny the audience that satisfaction, you’d better have something pretty darn good to deliver in its place.

  3. SB Roberts says:

    This makes me think of a Seinfeld episode that starts at the very end (including the rolling credits) and goes all the way back to the beginning. The payoff was so satisfying as the story went further and further back in time, showing how everyone ended up in the situation in the first place. I’ve always thought it’d be fun to try, but I haven’t found the right story for it yet.

  4. That’s a good example. I haven’t seen the episode, but I’m aware of it, since it was based on the play Betrayal by Harold Pinter, which also goes in reverse — showing an affair from the aftermath back to the beginning.

    There’s a pretty good movie version, but I was lucky enough to see it on Broadway, with Blythe Danner, Roy Scheider, and Raul Julia. It was very good.

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