Saturday, May 10, 2014

What the Amazing Spider-Man 2 teaches us about having multiple narratives

A problem that some writers struggle with is how to develop compelling multiple narratives within their story. This might not be as big of an issue for those delving into memoirs, and it may not apply a whole lot to other non-fictional pieces, but for most fictional authors, it is a very necessary and important skill.

The Amazing Spider-man 2 attempts to have multiple narratives, and while it doesn’t fail completely, the movie as a whole would have benefited more from a tighter direction, less subplots and a more focused, in-depth analysis of their characters. Without spoiling anything, and to give you an idea of what they attempted—the movie contains seven plots and subplots, and three villains, all while trying to shoehorn in big action set pieces (which is a requirement for any summer blockbuster). Although the movie is 2.5 hours long, it doesn’t reach its full potential, and this is a lesson we can learn for our own writing.

If a story has multiple main characters, then each of those main characters has to grow in some way. This takes time. There are plenty of fictional books on the market with a single main character, and the books can range anywhere from 200 to 350 pages plus. If another main character is involved, and especially if they haven’t already been established in a prior volume, they have to be given ample time to grow into whatever external and internal conflict the author has placed upon them. As the author, one can remove this “growth factor,” but it is almost universally required by authors, readers and critics that a story must have it.

If there are any villains in the novel, they must also be given enough time to develop as well, although this time can certainly be less if any of the following apply: the story is a mystery, the villain will be “revealed (not developed)” over multiple installments in a series, or there’s some kind of twist, like the hero ends up being the bad guy. Other than these instances, the villain must be developed to contrast the hero, so that the reader or viewer knows just how high the stakes are and how much the hero will grow from a victory. The three villains in the Amazing Spider-man 2 are all introduced pre-transformation, “birthed” as a villain, and given time to fight Spider-man, all in the same movie. During this runtime, there’s also romance, internal conflict, a couple mysteries, other action scenes, etc. It’s the equivalent of putting too many ingredients into the mixing bowl.

So how does one combat this problem? How do we as authors write multiple narratives and still maintain the integrity of the work?

The first answer is length. You cannot set a limit on how long a book must be if there are multiple narratives. Not at first. Editing comes later, but even then, you must be careful not to shortchange any main character’s growth. The Amazing Spider-man 2 was 2.5 hours long, but to accomplish what it set out to do, it more than likely needed another hour. Look at multiple threads done right. George R.R Martin has roughly ten characters in Game of Thrones, each giving their point of view, but the book is also more than 800 pages long. Ample time is given for the proper character development. Each character was approached as if they had their own separate book/story, and therefore it works. Keep in mind that these books were also edited. That means that the 800 page plus monstrosity could have easily been 1000 pages or more pre-edit. However, in order to maintain the development of each character, the final product was still long.

The second answer in handling multiple narratives is cuts. Simple is not always a bad thing. Every author should examine their characters for how they add to the story, regardless of how much their creator loves them. Would the novel benefit with their deletion? Should they be saved for another time? These kind of questions can also be applied to memoirs and autobiographies as well. Focus on the most powerful characters and experiences. That will be far more impactful than adding in every little detail. A good thing to always remember is that if a character or plot point is not adding to the story, it’s taking away from it.

In the end, it is up to the author what is included and what is not, but once it is out in the public, there is no turning back. There is a phrase that goes, “kill your darlings.” It means that no matter how much you love something in your story, you have to give it an objective glance before publication. More times than not, you’ll find out that the quip, joke, character, or monologue you loved so much, was exactly what was hurting your narrative the most.

So kill your some of what you love most.

Before critics kill your reputation.

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