Story structure: linear vs spatial

I’m not the kind of person who usually outlines or plans. I start with an opening idea or scene and just run with it. This is fine if your deadlines are loose and the process is meant to be exploratory. No harm, no foul, in poking into a dead-end idea; just back up to a previous save and try a new path.

This isn’t so tenable when you’re working to a deadline. When I’ve done work for hire, I’ve used an outline; sometimes those outlines were provided to me by an editor, and sometimes it was up to me to build the structure. There’s a sense of safety in having an outline. But if your deadline’s close, then veering from the laid out plan can carry some very big problems.

I’ve never written transmedia before. It’s a new mode of thinking for me. Because I’m using Bakhtin‘s concept of polyphony as a lens for analysing and building a transmedia story, I have some conceptual frameworks to build upon, but aside from that, I’m doing as Bradbury says and building my wings on the way down.

This time, I’ve decided to start with a treatment. I read a few film treatments just to get a sense of how one might feel; it’s a nice way of getting a general picture of how a story might go. Note that I’m not fussing about mechanics right now — nothing about platforms, nothing about plot. I’m just trying to lay the story out from start to finish.

And it’s not working out like I thought. While I don’t want to dwell on mechanical things, I do have to bear in mind that this will be a transmedia story. Threads to follow everywhere. This is a boon and a curse. I feel a little more free to digress into worldbuilding when I hit a point where I need a planet name or a nation or a cultural more, but it’s far too easy to slip down those rabbit holes and two hours later I have a fleshed-out people but not much in terms of a treatment.

Which brings me back to outlining. Outlines are linear, and go from less granular to more granular. This project is calling for something similar, but spatial instead. A central point, with main branches (story, world, character) that go into increasing granularity. I’ve been working with a mind-mapping tool called XMind; once I get one in a state that doesn’t feel too half-baked, I’ll take a screen-shot and post. That spatial visual image is extraordinarily useful.

And this is not at all to disparage linear outlining. I’m finding this useful in the more granular areas of story development, and to some extent, worldbuilding (astrography, geography, and governance in particular). Letting these linearities spread out, spoke-like, from a central idea, however, is freeing and visually and thematically mimics the tension invoked by Bakhtin’s polyphony. The story isn’t told in the tale of a single person’s experience; the story lies in the space between different people, or characters, each of whom represents a particular ideological standpoint. So far, this has informed my story planning by forcing me to go spatial.

I’m wondering if, as time goes on and the components of the story become more solid and defined, if among these spokes will arise concentric circles of connection — a map of Canberra, or a traditional spider web. A bicycle wheel has the strength to not buckle because of the constant and even pressure exerted by its spokes between the center and the rim; maybe this bicycle wheel image is one to keep in mind as I progress.

There’s another analogy about tightening opposite bolts when replacing a tire, but I’ll leave that one for another time.

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