How do you stay in the moment and manage events in past and future from that moment? The anime Toradora is a consummate example of a love story. It builds forwards and backwards (see below) and I strongly recommend it, to explore this aspect of storytelling. The following describes a subplot and does not give much away.
Ryugi is the protagonist and his mother is extraordinary. He is a schoolboy, deeply committed to cleaning and cooking. If he sees something that needs cleaning or tidying, he’s on to it. Yes, he actually enjoys housework! His mother works in a bar, where she has an alter ego, who is about 20 years younger. She is lazy, clingy and funny. Ryugi is devoted to her and embarrassed by her.
At first, she seems to be a brilliant comic creation. As the main plot comes to a head, we realise there’s a subplot. There are reasons things are as they are between them. What we thought was purely a running gag turns out to be much more. They’re rock solid, devoted to each other but when does a mother tell her son the truth? If you watch expecting a revelation, when it comes it seems minor. It’s over in a sentence or two but explains what has gone before and something of what follows.
This is brilliant storytelling because we think a comic subplot is solely for entertainment until we see another story going on beneath the main story. When we stay in the moment, we build tension and mystery that creates satisfaction in the audience when revealed.
Stories are spoiled if the teller lacks faith in their story; they’re strongly tempted to reassure their audience all turns out well. “I’m going to tell you the story of my breakdown and how I got through it.” That’s not a good way to start. You don’t occupy the moment of the story but some future time, looking back.
Say your breakdown was triggered by witnessing something in the street. You could start with “I was walking down the street a few yards from home …” or better “I’m late, have just left home and hurrying down the street …”. Both contain the same information. In the second you stay in the moment. The first is OK but the second feels more immediate.
It puts you in a frame of mind where you know only what you knew at the time. You’re less likely to continue with “Little did I know, I was about to witness something that would cause a breakdown that took me years to recover from.” This may seem a good way forward. After all, what could possibly have happened that caused such a reaction? In effect, it moves the focus to the event that precipitated the crisis and away from how the protagonist recovered.
Say you continue like this, “As I rounded the corner. I saw …”. Whatever it was, you are now in a position to describe it as you saw it. It was a moment that held you prisoner for some years. At the start of the story, the protagonist didn’t know what they’d get into or whether they’d get out of it.
Their presence, telling the story, is perhaps a spoiler. This is essentially a Voyage and Return story and so the precipitating event, however dramatic, is not really that important. The protagonist enters a new world and has to find their way back.
The Art of Surprise
Whatever’s waiting around the corner is a surprise. If truly surprising, you want to build tension. But the real challenge is how to hold attention for the rest of the story.
Some event precipitated a breakdown. What did you lose? What did you almost lose? You might have contemplated suicide but you’re stood in front of an audience, so there’s no surprise there.
Your first task is to describe the new world you occupy. Maybe you lost your job, your family or became addicted to something … Were you drawn in by something that at first seemed positive and then proved to be a disaster?
Take the audience to a dark place. The tension is in how you get out of it. At the darkest time, you could not see your way out. So, when you take your audience with you, neither should they.
Sow seeds earlier in the story. If the audience does not see their significance until later, you surprise them with something that feels right. The reveal is not an intervention from God but something that flows from what went before and makes sense later in the story.
Building Forwards and Backwards
Let’s say you have a couple of main characters. If you have the space of a novel, you can manage more. Game of Thrones is gripping because it has many characters and several tell the story from their own point of view. Each of the 7 or more volumes is weighty!
We’ll stick with two. Explore the relationship between them. There are two ways (at least) to do that.
Building Forwards. Follow their interactions. Boy meets girl and they walk home together from school. They talk. They argue. We know where this is going. The tension is in how they overcome the obstacles to their growing relationship. The problems they encounter show the differences in the way they approach them. What happens as they learn to work together?
If one of them is the protagonist, tell the story from their point of view. They have no idea what’s happening inside the other’s head. They watch and learn and the other does the same. As we listen, we ask whether they are right for each other. How will this end?
Building Backwards. Another way to build character, tension and surprise your audience is through their past. What we see is rooted in some unknown past event. Now the story depends on some revelation that clears the air between the two characters.
The technique is to drop hints and clues. The best are disguised as window dressing. What seems an arbitrary quirk, turns out to be rooted in something important that needs to be brought to light. Handled well, you feel tension building because one or more characters act in apparently inexplicable ways. Or perhaps the revelation resolves something for another character, causing them to act in an unexpected way.
Both ways build tension and tension resolves through emotion. Understanding emotion and how to use it in written and spoken stories is the art of the storyteller and the topic for next time.