Narrative has always been present in human history from the paintings in the Lascaux cave until videogames.
Narrative is powerful, because can deliver a message, teach something meaningful and help understand better the world; it is enduring and indestructible thanks to its universal and adaptable nature.
It’s been a long journey since Aristotele theorized narrative with his book Poetics, and many things changed and evolved. Kent Puckett’s Narrative Theory: A Critical Introduction provides a thorough historic retrospective on the matter but I’ll need to do a methodological reduction, in the mathematical sense, converting the essence of narrative theories into a simpler form.
First we need to define narrative as a representation of a real or fictional action or event. This representation can appear in many form, like:
speech, literature, theater, music and song, comics, journalism, film, television and video, radio, gameplay, unstructured recreation, and performance in general, as well as some painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, and other visual arts.
I will analyze written, spoken and visual narrative forms, especially books, movies, tv-shows and videogames, and their key element: the narrative structure.
“Narrative structure is about story and plot. Story refers to the dramatic action and Plot refers to how the story is told. Story is about trying to determine the key conflicts, main characters, setting and events. Plot is about how, and at what stages, the key conflicts are set up and resolved.”
Nowadays we have four main narrative structure categories:
· Linear narrative is the most common form of narration, where events are largely portrayed in a chronological order, which is, telling the events in the order in which they occurred.
· Nonlinear narratives, disjointed narrative or disrupted narrative is a narrative technique, where events are portrayed, out of chronological order or in other ways where the narrative does not follow the direct causality pattern.
· Interactive narration refers to works where the linear narrative is driven by, rather than influenced by, the users interaction.
· Interactive narrative is a form of fiction in which users are able to make choices that influence the narrative (for example, through alternative plots or resulting in alternative endings) through their actions.
However, our society has experienced a collapse of narrative in the recent years. As described in Douglas Rushkoff’s book Present Shock:
“Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always on. It is not a mere speeding up, however much our lifestyles and technologies have accelerated the rate at which we attempt to do things. It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now — and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.”
We changed a lot as a society during those years, especially with the internet and all of those new technologies. We also live in a capitalistic society that constrains us, categorizing each of us in a specific way. It is becoming harder for people to express themselves, to feel unique and to be able to narrate themselves. ( Later we will discuss those topics in details).
We no longer have time in which to tell a story and therefore new narrative forms emerged. Rushkoff says:
“The inability to tell stories over time has yielded new forms — like video games and fantasy role-playing — which tell stories in the present tense. They are less about getting to some conclusion and ending the play than they are about keeping the play going”.
And consequentially the old narrative forms ( like movies and tv-shows) have started to get closer to the new ones whom adapts better to this new kind of society.
This why tv-shows and cinematic universe are so popular, because our society needs narratives that can always be present in our lives, where the end of one story is the beginning of a new one.
However, if video games, as interactive narrative form, can allow themselves to ignore the conclusion of the plot, tv-shows and movies cannot. This is why those are the forms affected the most by the narrative collapse.
TV Shows and movies need catharsis and an end (even if temporary in TV Shows). Moreover, as Rushkoff describes, those old narrative forms uses a series of narrative techniques that the audience now can recognize and anticipate. This is why those “old” forms, use mostly nonlinear structure. It allows the author to use old techniques and elements in a new way, creating a more compelling and entertaining narrative for an always more demanding audience.
However, this is not enough to overcome the narrative collapse.
The main problem is that nowadays On-demand is the main way trough which narratives are being delivered to the audience.
There is a new medium trough which stories are being told, the internet, and we need a new narrative structure that can fit into it.
Therefore, we need narratives that:
Shows us how we can free ourself from looking just and always at the present.
Can be compelling and entertaining on-demand
To do so, we need a new kind of narrative structure that:
Get rid of time and the difference between present, past or future and create a structure with “timeless” event.
Relies extensively on the use of symbols to create meaning.
Redefines the narrative elements and templates in a new way.
I call it the post-nonlinear narrative structure.
First we had linear structure, then when new techniques emerged and the audience demanded more compelling narratives, non linear narrative structure developed. Nowadays, because of the collapse of narrative and the on-demand distribution, we have the post nonlinear narrative structure. It is the evolution of the nonlinear one, being a disjointed, fragmented narrative. However, it differs in the way the plot progress, using a four act hidden desire journey arc instead of the usual three act hero’s journey arc used in the the other structures.
Post-nonlinear narrative structure is highly customizable depending on the form whom uses it and therefore can also be interactive. It’s most used in serialized narratives like TV shows and video game but also in books and movies.
Some examples of post nonlinear narratives are the movie Arrival and the movies of cinematic universes; TV shows like Westworld, The OA, 13 Reasons Why, The Handmaid’s Tale; books like S. by J.J. Abrams and The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin; video games like The Legend Of Zelda Breath Of The Wild, The Witcher 3 and Lost Odyssey.
This series of articles will explain how this new narrative structure is used by narrative forms, especially serialized, analyzing the narrative techniques it uses and the subjects it talks about.