Friday, May 26, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 9: Keeping storytelling clarity in non-linear structure

Side 1: The Setting
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge
Side 3: Hannah Baker, from joy to despair
Side 4: Clay, an outsider who isn't an outcast
Side 5: Clay's tape leads to one of this year's most heartbreaking episodes
Side 6: Mr. Porter - Terrible Counselor or Worst Counselor?
Side 7: Do depictions of suicide provoke imitation?
Side 8: Generating tension that stokes viewer intensity

Today's writing tip from 13 Reasons Why is a simple one, but having seen a lot of amateur writers make this mistake, bears its own post.

The story unfolds in more than one timeframe. There's the present, the post-suicide timeline where the tapes are circulating and Clay is gradually understanding what happened to his friend. And there's the flashbacks which move forward mostly linearly (but not always) from the time that Hannah arrived in town. In screenplays I've seen writers keep things straight for the reader by adding things like FLASHBACK or the date to the slugline. Sometimes there's even a trick like writing the flashbacks in italics

That works when you read, but you also have to think about visual cues and transitions that the audience will need to orient themselves. In that regard, 13 Reasons Why is very smart. There was never a point where I was confused even for a minute about where we were in the scattered timeline. Since this isn't the kind of story where you put the characters in heavy old age makeup to signal the timeframes, that takes some wits.

Here are all the ways the past and present are delineated:

Flashbacks tended to be more colorful and warmer than the present. TRAFFIC used this kind of color tinting to keep its three concurrent stories clear, but with a much more aggressive tint on those scenes. 13 Reasons Why is more subtle, with the present feeling harsher and more blue-grey tinted. It also fits the emotions of the scenes - there's a more romantic feel to Hannah and Clay's life when she was alive and a colder sense to life after she's dead.

Early on in the present time frame, Clay gets into the first of many accidents on his bike and has a cut on his forehead going forward. It's a blunt way to instantly signal the audience which timeline we're in (at least when Clay's in the scene), but that makes it no less effective. If you're writing a script that bounces around in time, don't be afraid to be unsubtle. If you have an audience that's not giving their full attention to the screen, you don't want to risk them getting confused.

Obviously, Hannah's look evolves, the most obvious being when she chops off half the length of her hair once things have gotten really bad. In real life, drastic changes in appearance can be taken as a warning sign of depression, so it also works as a story point. It's worth noting that when Clay thinks back of happy times with Hannah, he always envisions her with longer hair. She herself does the same thing in her brief fantasy of them being happy together. I didn't think to watch this as closely as I should have, but it feels like the colors of her wardrobe become less vibrant.

Furthering that, take note of the difference between how Jess's wardrobe and makeup in the past scenes tend to show her as more done up and pretty than in the present where she's wearing less makeup and her hair is found more often in a pony tail than being let down and styled. The guys tend to look mostly the same in past and present, but the hard times are definitely reflected more in the ladies' looks. (Hannah's mother would be another example of this.)

Also, when you're writing this, think about transitions. Hannah's voiceover is often the device used to introduce the past each episode, but there always comes a point where the episode trusts we know what the specific storylines are that week and forgoes an in-your-face marker. Context matters - why would this specific moment in the present trigger us to go to the past? That's a question to be asking constantly when structuring a story like this.

Always be thinking visually. How is the audience going to get the information they need without becoming lost in the details? Yes, some of these elements are an issue of production design and post-production but always look for opportunities to underscore the differences in time frames in a non-linear story.

Side 10: Alex's storyline hides parallels in plain sight
Side 11: Fleshed out parents help deepen the other characters
Side 12: Episodic structure makes a comeback
Side 13: Thoughts on Season 2

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