Plot, Rant

On Modular Stories

Because I feel like being contrary today, we’re going to talk about something that most “literary” types love to do that drives me absolutely bonkers. Come on, modular stories–let’s dance.

For those of you who don’t spend an absurd amount of time reading and thinking about story structure, a quick explanation: a “modular story” is a story that does not follow a linear narrative. That is, it doesn’t move in a chronological order, instead jumping around within the story or between different stories. Sometimes, the different sections don’t even feature the same characters or world. Instead, they are united by thematic meaning.

Now, it’s important to note that I don’t have a problem with modular story lines in theory. In fact, my very favorite book, Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, is a (mostly) modular story, with the plot jumping around in time. I’m not saying that modular stories aren’t worth telling or that they have no value. Just that they are very hard to do well, and all too often bad examples make it through to publishing purely on the basis of their pretension, and that pisses me off.

Why am I talking about this now? I’ve just finished reading Dream Angus: the Celtic God of Dreams by Alexander McCall Smith, which committed just about every crime a modular story can. And you bet your ass we’re going to talk about it.

Dream Angus consists of six different micro stories, woven together into one book. Well. I say “woven together” for lack of a better term–really it’s more like they’re stuffed in alongside one another with no regard for spacing, thematic relevance, or their relationship with one another. The only story that gets closure is that of Angus himself–the re-telling of the Celtic myth, following Angus from his birth to his marriage (to a swan woman, because mythology).

The rest last for only a few pages, just long enough to open the story and get you interested before completely bowing out. Ostensibly these stories are connected by Angus himself, and the fact that the characters in those stories each have a dream at some point (mostly), but in practice they have nothing in common. Even Angus doesn’t show up consistently. When you’ve finished reading, you’re left sort of scratching your head, wondering if you missed something, which I guess most people would take as a sign that they just didn’t understand it.

That’s bullshit. And it’s the biggest problem with modular stories. If the reader can’t find the connection and deeper thematic meaning behind all of your random little snippets of story, then you as an author have failed. I don’t care how popular your book about lady detectives was–you still have to tell a damn story.

All too often, story quality is discarded in favor of this sort of “experimental” story line, especially among young writers, because it feels like you’re doing something innovative. You aren’t. I cannot tell you how many godawful “modular stories” I had to slog through in creative writing courses, all of which appeared to be modular for the sole purpose of being different rather than because the form fit the story.

Form should always fit the story. If you do not have a specific reason for making a story modular, then don’t do it. Write a linear narrative first. Then, if the story calls for it, shuffle things around, study your angles, and figure out what works. For the love of god do not shuffle the story for the sake of being cool.

This goes doubly for Hollywood. I’m looking at you, Cloud Atlas.

Chronologically yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“What I don’t like are pompous, pretentious movies.” -Peter Jackson (ahahahaha)

P.S. On the subject of Cloud Atlas, what say ye about the book? Has anyone read it? I mean, the movie blew, but that was mostly because it completely failed to communicate its central thesis in its eagerness to show off bad make-up. I suspect the book is a good deal better. Should I read it?

P.P.S. The ever-eloquent Emily, fresh off her spectacular 1.5-year engagement writing the first draft of Terriblebook, which I hear isn’t actually terrible at all, has joined our blogging anti-delinquency pact. Go congratulate her on being a badass.

6 thoughts on “On Modular Stories”

  1. That is a great quote from Peter Jackson. Did he say it as a joke? Because… damn… He needs to take a look at his own work. I mean, I love his stuff, but they are quite pretentious.

    Second, I have not yet read Cloud Atlas, and I haven’t seen the movie, so I’d be interested in reading it, perhaps at the same time you do? I heard the movie really butchered the actual story, and people misinterpreted it times a thousand.

  2. ahahaha guess who had never used or heard the term “modular story” before reading this post

    worst English major, Y/Y?

    I used to think I wanted to write what I think I conceived of as ‘modular’ stories, though I never quite got there–I’ve definitely attempted long things made of vignettes strung together, but all featuring the same ensemble cast and in chronological order save for some clearly delineated flashbacks. Still interested in playing with that, but not for a while. I feel like I need to know what I’m doing more than I do now.

    I was gonna say, “Aw, Peter Jackson’s not that pretentious,” and then I remembered how seriously he took King Kong.

    Sarah said Cloud Atlas (the book) was fantastic, but she hasn’t seen the movie for comparison.

  3. Just stumbled across your post, wanting to read about modular stories. Really liked the point you made that if the reader doesn’t ‘get it’, then you’ve failed. I agree that you need a reason for everything – there’s no point using a modular structure for fashion’s sake alone.

    Anyhow, I read ‘Cloud Atlas’ last year. I haven’t yet seen the movie, and am not sure that I will. But I loved the book. I totally recommend reading it, and while its structure is innovative, it’s not modular in the way you describe above, not at all. I enjoyed it so much, I bought my dad a copy for Christmas. It’s clever yet accessible, and uses all the genre techniques but goes beyond them.

    I hope you read it and enjoy it as much as I did.

    1. Yeah, a lot of people have been telling me that I need to read Cloud Atlas now, so I’ve added it to my goodreads account. Unfortunately, the only copy Amazon has is the movie tie-in, and I sort of hate the cover…#FirstWorldProblems. Sure I’ll come across a not-hideous version in a bookshop soon, and then it’s off to the races. Hopefully it is better than the movie was! Thanks for your comment. :)

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