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Writing Tip: The Narrative Rope

Plotlines are one of the most essential pieces that make up any story. I like to imagine each plotline as its own narrative thread that weaves its way hither and thither throughout the story, as we follow different characters and their perspectives to see how they will factor into the larger story as a whole. A good story, in my opinion, is one that utilizes all of its various plot threads to their fullest potential to weave together what I like to call a tight "Narrative Rope". This means each plot thread works together with other plot threads in order to twist together a tighter rope that will in turn twist together with other ropes to form a greater whole "Narrative Rope". The closer each plotline works in tandem with other plotlines, the tighter the rope will be. Let me give an example.

Very recently, one of my favorite TV shows just came back on the air over on Disney +: STAR WARS The Mandalorian. The first two seasons were a wild ride that left me hungry to know more, and this third season could not have come a bit too soon. On the night of the episode one premier, my Dad and I hunkered down on the couch to be launched back into the adventures of Din Djarin and his adorable sidekick-son, Grogu. The screen went dark, the music began to play, and suddenly it had begun! We had waited TWO YEARS for this!

And you know what? It sucked.

I kid you not, I was bored by the second scene. The pilot episode was only thirty-five minutes long, and in that time the creators thought it necessary to give the audience tonal whiplash by darting the main characters around to FIVE different locations, each with their own disconnected narrative threads that wound away in totally different directions. I tried to reserve my judgements until the end, but it was too much. My Dad could see just by my face that I had issues and thoughts before the third scene even started.

The main issues I had were with just what I described above: poor tension between various narrative threads. Each plot line was rapidly introduced, and the quickly replaced before I could even attempt to summon any sort of empathy for the new characters they had slapped on screen before my very eyes. In short, the episode began with a very serious ceremonial ritual that inducted a young child into a radical warrior cult, before turning over to the next scene at Mach five speed to take the protagonists to a bustling planet to meet some old friends so they could repair a droid that shouldn't even be function anymore, only to run into some pirates who had beef with the protagonist's friend, a shootout happened, the protagonists left the planet but were then hunted down by the pirates for stupid reasons, the protagonists killed them, then went off to another planet to beg and plead some other character from last season for help, only to be turned down and sent on their not-so-merry way once more. Was that the biggest run on sentence that I as an English major could legally be allowed to get away with? Yes it was, but for good reason. Reading that sentence should give you the closest feeling one can have to what I experienced while watching this episode. It was cramped, overly stuffed, and far to long and exhaustive to take in without at least eating a sandwich in between for some energy, or something. Let me break that down.

The reason I say these scenes had bad narrative tension was because the various plotlines had little to do with each other. The protagonist starts the "main quest", becoming redeemed for his transgressions, then goes off on a side quest to help fulfill that goal of being forgiven. He arrives at that busy planet with his friends because he needs a droid to help him explore a mine on the other planet where he can be forgiven. Okay, so this "side quest" is directly related to the "main quest". One can draw a clear line of relation between each point. Easy. However, the droid is not easily fixed, so the protagonist has to go out and find a specific part, or else find a new droid. But on the way to go and do that, he is attacked by those pirates from earlier, and an action scene erupts in which there is very little tension, because I already know that he will survive. Then, after easily murdering the pirates, he goes off on another narrative tangent to visit the other character that he wants help from, completely unrelated to his quest to fix the droid. So we are, what, FOUR diversions away from the main quest, and almost nothing has gotten done? That is absolutely outrageous!

In this example, the narrative threads do not twist well together to form a cohesive narrative rope. Instead, each thread has detached itself from the core and has spun off in a new direction, only for it to be severed once again as another divertive plotline is opened up that requires yet another narrative offshoot. Very quickly, it just becomes a side quest, of a side quest, of a side quest, of a side quest. The episode finished, and almost nothing was done.

Now, I should be fair and say that I did continue to watch the show the following week, and I'm happy to say it got itself back on track. But that still does not excuse the laughably bad pilot episode. I understand that the show creators believed they needed to reintroduce the core of the show to the audience, what with it being two years in the making and all, but I still think they could have done it better. Each of the above-described scenes could have been their own episode-long stories, thus allowing themselves room to grow and expand into stories worth telling, thereby justifying their own existence.

I know some might see this as an overly complicated dissection of some random TV episode, but the principle still stands for any large-scale story that someone would like to tell. It is absolutely paramount that you maintain plotline cohesion between your various narrative threads, so that you can twist it all into a fine, tight narrative rope. Each thread twisting and straining to reinforce the others and create something that people will want to enjoy for many years to come, because you have shown you care enough to make certain their time is valued.

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