The first challenge for a storyteller is to determine the best way to tell their story. Do you start at the beginning and work forward, or in the middle and work your way back? Do you tell it from one or from multiple POVs? Do you use opposing POVs? There is almost always a multitude of perfectly reasonable ways to tell a story. But how do you arrive at a point where you know you’ve hit it dead on?

A script I’ve been working on for the last few years used to have four different timelines, each with a 5-act structure, with act breaks and turning points all roughly coinciding to give it more punch. I tried my hardest to shoehorn the true story into a structure I’d planned on a big wall chart before I’d even started on the treatment. Those were the times when I still had enough patience to actually plan my script in advance. Now I tend to shoot first and ask questions later.

In its seventh draft, this script now has only two timelines left. En plus, they’re disguised as one linear structure when in fact they weave into each other sequence over sequence like a larger main cog turning a smaller subplot cog — hierarchically interdependent. I know, don’t say it... My shoulder is indeed sore from all the pats I’ve given myself since coming up with this stroke of pure genius.  

The script evolved very slowly, rewrite after rewrite. I started with a 3-act narrative, using extensive flashbacks and multiple plotlines as tag-ons to play with the acts, and relay the true story that plays over many decades. But with every new draft I realized that I was too stuck on this preconceived structure.

Each story can be told in many different ways, from many different viewpoints.  When you come up with a new story idea, try to forget for a moment everything you’ve learned about storytelling, and just observe and breathe it. Look at its momentum, its meaning, its themes, its sharp edges, and its complications and obstacles. Let it sit with you for a while, wait until you can see it with your third eye. (I know, right?) Maybe scribble down on a large sheet of paper all the elements and characters that are involved, leaving their hierarchy and narrative importance to one side for a moment. Look at it and start building a narrative structure with those ingredients. Is it still linear? Is it still on a single track? Or maybe on two or three parallel tracks?

Not two weeks ago at the beginning of Mt Everest climbing season, an avalanche swept away a huge number of sherpas and climbers working on prepping the mountain’s route through the kumbhu icefall. At least 13 died. It was the single-biggest tragedy since 1996. It’s been a massive story — it nearly ended the 2014 Everest season before it had begun.

Imagine you want to write a film about this. Conventionally you’d probably take a single protagonist and follow them through a linear three-act journey. This could be a powerful and effective way to tell the story. But there are other, more complex ways to tell the same story that could enable you to communicate several different POVs, maybe even with opposing messages and deeper themes. This you could do by telling the story with a parallel structure, telling the viewpoints of say, a Sherpa and his family, an international climber and his team, and maybe another character down at base camp. Immediately you’d create a lot of dramatic conflict and tension, potentially opposing viewpoints all caught up in the same catastrophe.

The storylines will follow their protagonists through the same horrific event, with different versions on the same theme, thus making it deeper and giving it some dissonant notes for complexity. In so doing, you can make a powerful comment about the ethics of climbing Everest, and what that means to local Nepali communities as well as the political and economic impact that the influx of western money has brought about. Examples of films that work like that are Paul Haggis’s Oscar-winner Crash, PT Anderson’s Boogie Nights or Steven Soderbergh/Stephen Gaghan’s Traffic. All make powerful statements with multiple and often opposing viewpoints, thus broadening and strengthening their themes.

In my current script I use a form of sequential narrative, interlinking two storylines that shed light on the same story and theme at different times in the main character’s story. Pulp Fiction, Amores Perros or Babel do something similar, but in more obvious ways. Because my real-life main character is a very unreliable person and therefore more of a wildcard character, I also created a foil main character to uncover the story through the eyes of the audience. A good example for foil main character and wildcard main character would be The Scent of a Woman, with Al Pacino the unreliable wildcard and Chris O’Donnell the foil.

Going back to the Everest story, you could also quite easily use a flashback structure to tell the story. Imagine the 3 main characters all in hospital on the same ward, and now you go into individual flashbacks to tell their respective stories. This could be very powerful indeed. Good examples for this kind of structure would be Reservoir Dogs, The Social Network, 21 Grams or The Usual Suspects, although the latter has an added gimmick in the form of an unreliable narrator to complicate things further.

So my point is, after you feel you have in some way mastered conventional linear narrative structures, try and look at your story and see what treatment might best work for it. I know, this is always much easier said than done. I learned the hard way via many rewrites what works best for my current true story script, and even now one could argue there could be several more ways to tell it.

But as you start on a new story, just remember that old dictum content dictates form.

Oh, and before you start writing that Everest epic, there's actually a film coming out next year, starring non other than Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin and Keira Kneightly, about the tragic events that occured in 1996. As you can see, Jake pulls off that early hipster look just fine.
And the title? Why, Everest, of course.
 


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