305 – Multitasking in Storytelling
Sometimes you want a story to do one thing, but you also want it to do another thing. Can it do both things? Should it do both things? That’s our topic for today: multitasking! This critical skill will help make your stories more efficient, allowing you to advance the mystery and the romance at the same time rather than one distracting from the other. We talk about what kinds of story tasks work well together, when this technique doesn’t work as well, and also erotic holo-novels about bug people, for some reason.
Generously transcribed by Ariel. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Chris: This is the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me is Oren and Wes. And just so you know, while we’re podcasting, I am also writing a blog post and playing with my kitties.
Oren: Ooh, very exciting. I’m only experiencing existential dread. So you got me beat.
Wes: I’m solely focused on this podcast. Nothing else will take my attention away from it.
Chris: Wes, that’s no good. You’ve got to consolidate.
Wes: No, never. One thing, one time.
Chris: So, yeah, we are talking about multitasking. Let’s talk about what that actually means in a storytelling sense, especially since if we don’t, I think West is going to go on a rant about how there is no such thing as multitasking.
Wes: I might explode. There is no such thing. You can all disagree with me all you want. But really if you’re saying that I can wash the dishes and talk to my friend on the phone and also, I don’t know, listen to the radio or do whatever you’re doing, you’re just doing all of those things less efficiently and taking more time overall. Okay, I’m done.
Chris: I do think that’s what studies have shown, but multitasking is real in a storytelling sense. It’s real. So what we’re talking about here is making it so that you can cover more story elements at the same time. So when we say story elements—and that’s a really broad term—but that could be characters, setting components like magic or creatures, plot arcs of any type, character arcs, external arcs, whatever, and figuring out how to cover the pieces of your story all simultaneously. So I have a post that’s not out yet—it might be out by the time this comes out—that’s on consolidating your story. And that just means reusing parts and making everything closer together, making everything tightly linked so your story is just more efficient. And multitasking is definitely a big part of that. And yeah, I can’t stop making up new storytelling terms. I’m sorry.
Oren: It’s impossible. Chris, I’m starting to think you have a problem.
Chris: At least I reuse words in the English language. I’m not so insufferable that I make up just random sounds.
Wes: On some level you just understood that multitasking as it has been used is a lie that’s not a real thing. And so you’ve stepped in to provide us with a new definition. I can applaud you for that.
Oren: Look, sometimes we need new terminology because there is not existing terminology for an important thing. Okay. It’s a real thing. It’s not like being like, “Oh, well I’ve decided that I want to be edgy, so I’m going to say that plotting now means all plotting that’s bad, and good plotting is now story inventing.”
Wes: The worldbuilding is now world conjuring.
Chris: We’re never gonna stop making fun of the world conjuring posts. It’s never going to happen.
Oren: I was trying so hard not to actually say world conjuring, but now it’s out.
Wes: I just have to say it at you. I think it’s too funny.
Chris: We’re all thinking it. For anybody who has not kept up enough that they know what in the world we’re talking about: there was one article out there with a very provocative title that worldbuilding was bad, and it turned out worldbuilding had been redefined to mean too much worldbuilding. And instead the writer had made up a new term for worldbuilding called world conjuring that was the right amount of worldbuilding. And we can’t stop making fun of that article.
Oren: Worldbuilding can’t catch a break. Every day, I’m running into new articles about how worldbuilding is bad and granted, most of them are old, but still anyway: multitasking.
Chris: Just think of it this way. Consolidation is making your story more efficient, and multitasking is one of the ways that you make your story more efficient.
Wes: So you’re saying that we shouldn’t have like seven POV characters in different places across the continent.
Chris: That would make it very hard to consolidate your story, because how are those characters going to be in a scene together if they’re all the way across the continent?
Oren: And how are their stories going to seem connected? It’s not impossible to make your characters in different locations feel like they’re part of the same story, but it is a lot harder. I’ve noticed a lot of stories that seem to add extra POV characters because they think it’s a way to explain something that would otherwise take work to explain.
Like, the story The Priory of the Orange Tree has a bunch of different POV characters and they’re all scattered around. And half of them are not part of the same story as the other half. And it seems like the only reason that half of the characters are in there is to explain why at the end of the story a big alliance, including ships from the country that those characters are from, shows up to the final fight against dragon Satan. Because otherwise that would seem really random. If you just cut out the eastern characters and only focused on the western ones, it would be kind of weird at the end for a giant eastern fleet to show up. I’d be like, where did that fleet come from? So instead the author was like, I’m just going to put in two completely unrelated characters, and they will explain why that fleet is there. And it’s like, that is such an inefficient way to do that.
Chris: So multitasking is a really important skill, but it’s also one that’s been a little hard to write about because usually it’s done by looking at the particulars of the story and thinking about how those particulars fit together, which makes it hard to create general guidelines that apply to all stories. I have some tips, but they’re still pretty broad. However, I will say that even though I am talking about multitasking a lot, in my opinion, the ultimate master of this is Oren in his role playing games.
Oren: What? Why would you say these things?
Chris: Yeah, just some examples. So every game that Oren runs, he looks at what each player is interested in. And then he finds a way to combine those various interests into a plot so that the plot will interest all of his players, because it has all of the things they like in it.
Oren: This is really building up the expectations of anyone who ever plays in one of my games. Okay. I just, if they’re disappointed, it’s your fault.
Chris: Nobody who plays in your games is disappointed, Oren. People compete for slots in Oren’s games.
Oren: Uh-oh. Ah dear!
Chris: Anyway, for an example, we had this Star Trek game where one player was only really interested in alien bugs in her alien bug collection. It’s just a really random thing. So then we go on to a mission, to a planet to sneak into the bad guy’s base. And it turns out those bad guys are hurting the native species, which are giant bugs.
Oren: Yeah. She was really into that.
Chris: We had another player in the same Star Trek campaign that was really into trashy erotic romance. Yeah, it gets better. Oren created a scene where they are creating a holo novel with a trashy erotic romance with a bug person so that both players could be involved in the scene.
Oren: The one in that campaign that I was really proud of was, I had one player who was a Bajoran who was just really into her Bajoran heritage, including the prophets and all of that stuff in Deep Space Nine. But this campaign wasn’t set on Bajor and it was set far enough back in the timeline that Bajor was still occupied by the Cardassians. And I was just like, okay, how am I going to make this thing that this player cares about relevant to the plot? And I was like, okay. So my plot is about these ancient precursor aliens who are doing some stuff cause I’ve never met a Mass Effect plot I don’t want to rip off. I was like, what if the prophets are those guys’ arch enemies? And they fight about stuff, and it was like, wow. And then suddenly that player was into the main plot, and it was beautiful. It was an amazing thing.
Chris: Yeah. That’s a great example of basically what multitasking is. Right? We bring things together. We consolidate them. We have one scene that now has both a prophet in it and their nemesis bad guys. So anybody who’s interested in either the prophet or the other bad guys of this plot has a reason to be invested in that scene. So it’s effective for basically exactly the same reasons that Oren does it in his games—he wants to get all of his players interested in his plot. But it also works when you, for instance, have your external arc and a romance arc and a character arc and several different characters, right? You have readers that are going to be more or less interested in those different things, and the more you can multitask and make it so that they’re relevant to each other and you cover them at the same time, the more entertained your readers or audience will be because all of those interesting things are together.
Wes: The roleplaying example really crystallizes this for me, because we’ve been in those games where the game master explores individual interests for individual players, and then it’s not your turn, so you check out and, you know, check out your phone or something else. And you’re just not involved in the story at all. So great example. Okay. I’m on board now.
Oren: Yeah. I always try to make it so that as many scenes as possible are as interesting to as many players as possible, and that’s not always doable. Sometimes you do just have to have some one-on-one time with a player, but the more you can combine things, the more efficient your game is, and the more people will enjoy it.
And in terms of pro storytelling, I think that romances are probably the one that benefit from this more than any other I’ve seen. Because for example, if you have a mystery and a romance going on, you will have some readers who care more about the mystery and some readers who care more about the romance, assuming you’ve done your job and made both of them compelling. If you take a long break from the mystery to go on a date, the mystery readers will be like, can we get over with this date, please, we really want to do the mystery. But vice versa, if mystery is completely romance free, your romance readers are going to be like, are they gonna smooch? When? Please make them smooth. You promised they were going to smooch. And it’s been a really long time.
You can have both. Instead of having your characters bond romantically on an unrelated date, you can have them bond romantically while exploring the spooky haunted mansion that the mystery is in. That’s a great place for romantic bonding. There’s scary ghosts and stuff. And then they have to jump in each other’s arms and then be like, “Oh, but I didn’t mean to do that. It’s not like I like you.” And there you go. It’s beautiful.
Chris: Yeah. When people ask me about this, a lot of times I send them to my Doctor Horrible’s Sing Along Blog breakdown. That is a really good example of multitasking. It has three through lines or big arcs: the most external one where Dr. Horrible is trying to get into the Evil League of Evil, and he has Captain Hammer as his antagonist trying to stop him from getting in and prevent that from happening, and that’s the external one. And then we have a relationship arc between him and Penny. And then he has a character arc basically about his disillusionment, which is what is driving him to be villainous.
And the key thing is that this relationship arc with Penny helps glue it all together, because first of all, they made it so that she is dating his antagonist of the external arc. Right? So just by spending time with Penny, it’s about the competition between him and Captain Hammer, but then that’s also relevant to whether he gets into the Evil League of Evil, and they also made it so that it’s clear that being closer to her would help him with his character arc problem, so that she is just very optimistic and he’s very jaded. And so she can help him be less jaded. So that helps with his character arc. So that’s kind of how Dr. Horrible connects all of those things together and makes it so that even when he’s at the laundromat with Penny, it matters to his character arc. And then like Captain Hammer will show up during those romance scenes, and it keeps everything happening at the same time.
They also have this one scene in particular where he runs into Penny while he’s trying to do a heist. And so they have a conversation that talks about their different worldviews, which is also relevant to the romance, and at the same time, he’s like, ah, drat, I’m supposed to be doing a heist now. And he has to choose between pursuing his love interest and pursuing getting into the Evil League of Evil. They really managed to keep that very tight. So it’s a really good example of multitasking in general.
Oren: On the character front, this is where you can get a lot out of having your characters be close together. So for example, if I was going to do a little bit of a fix-it on this Priory of the Orange Tree, instead of having the characters be completely unrelated to each other, I would start off with the most important character, who is the queen. And then I would have that queen send an ambassador to the East, and then we could follow that ambassador. And this is a big worldwide politics story, so it’s not unreasonable to have more than one point-of-view character in that sort of story, because you often need to have more than one viewpoint of what’s going on. But you want to have them automatically linked. So instead of just having a random POV where we start with one of the easterners, who’s off doing their own thing, we would meet them through the POV of this ambassador character. And that’s just a way of getting that done more efficiently.
Chris: Yeah, just having all of the characters be involved in the same, you know, whatever your through line is, goes a long way to making you able to do multitasking. And the characters can be on team good, or they can be on team evil, right? As long as they have some sort of stake in how this whole thing turns out, they have a reason to be in a lot of scenes and a reason to be involved. It is definitely much easier to multitask arcs that are on different levels on the internal versus external spectrum. It’s just way easier to combine somebody’s personal growth arc or character arc with a relationship arc of some kind, whether it’s a romance or, again, making up with their estranged sister, with some sort of external conflict that’s like facing the big bad, or solving a mystery or what have you.
Those things go together really well because they focus on different aspects of the story. Again, the more internal arcs give it emotional depth where the external ones give it excitement. And logistically just being there together helps with their relationship and can bring out their emotional issues. And you still have to do some work to make them line up perfectly. Ideally you have an external problem that requires a character to challenge themself, face their issues, and requires that relationship to make progress, like we have to work together in order to defeat this person or solve this mystery or what have you.
So you still want to look and see how you can make it so that by facing the big problem, we’re forcing these two people to work out their issues or forcing you to grow as a person. But those things kind of naturally line up really well. Whereas it’s a little tougher when you have, for instance, two big bads. At that point, you usually have them either team up or you have them fight each other.
Oren: It would be hard to do a scene where your character is both trying to disarm a bomb and trying to win a sword fighting competition. I’m not going to say it’s impossible, but it would be very difficult, right? Because those are two very different external problems. Whereas a scene where your character is trying to disarm a bomb and impress their estranged parent with how cool and competent they are at disarming this bomb—especially if their parent is a bomb specialist or something—then that’s very easy.
Chris: But you could have, for instance, them having a sword fight against another important character instead of a stranger.
Chris: Right. Or you can create a conflict where you just have more than one person who was involved in solving the problem—more than one protagonist—instead of having them solve the problem separately. So there’s different ways to do this, but generally we’re looking for ways that we can tackle more than one thing at the same time.
Wes: So in the execution of this, I’m just thinking about, if you have these different arcs going on and the writer approaches, puts pen to paper or fingers to keyboard or whatever, and then says, okay, we’ve got this conflict—Oren’s bomb thing. And so it’s like, okay, I know that this needs to happen. And then, do you think that the issue, maybe like this little block between someone actively multitasking, is that the view towards these types of conflicts tend to be more singular, like scene focus? Like I’m going to have a scene where the bomb is the conflict and that’s the focus. And then I’m going to have another scene where the character’s going to impress their parents by talking about the bomb that they disarmed previously? Do you think it’s separation, or is it something that requires more planning or it should be like a revision focus? Because it sounds great. Cause it sounds like if you know what you’re doing, then you can say, “Oh, I know that I want these two to have a romance arc, and this is the mystery. So I’ll just put them in this haunted house together.” Like, that sounds great. But this sounds like a lot more planning upfront to try to line all these things up.
Chris: Planning helps with everything. I wouldn’t say that you couldn’t discovery write this, as long as you’re paying attention to it as you go. But I would say that in the case of the sword fight versus the bomb going off, this becomes only a problem if there’s a side plot that is unrelated to your main plot. Your main plot is about, for instance, the bomb, and you’re having a sword fight that is just for a side plot or vice versa.
I would say that in some cases, once you even get to that point, you’ve already been planning in the wrong direction. Those individual events are there to represent an arc. Right? And so the question is looking at those arcs and seeing, can we make both arcs focus on the bomb? Or both arcs focus on the sword fight? Because that’s possible, like maybe you were planning on having a character, as part of a side plot to prove that they’re the best swords person, challenge somebody else to a duel. And then you have another plot somewhere, but maybe they challenge themselves to a duel to accomplish a greater goal. It’s like, hey, if I win the duel, you will stop planting bombs. But you get the idea, right. And if you win the duel, okay, I’ll let you plant your bombs. It’s not… Usually what matters is that both of those, that scene is making progress for both arcs and that kind of what you originally imagined the scene doing can be part of the issue where it’s like: I was thinking about this arc and I imagined this thing happening, and I was thinking about that arc and I imagined this other thing happening. And I never thought about how those two things could be brought together.
Wes: Right. So really the takeaway is don’t be afraid to ask more of your scenes, have them do a little bit more heavy lifting. They can handle it, you’re saying.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, absolutely.
Oren: You can come at this either from the planning or from the revisions direction. Both are fine. You can probably save yourself some work if you do it in the planning. Some people have an easier time with revisions than others, but I don’t know anyone who loves revising. So, if you want to do less of that, more planning means less revising. So that’s a process question you’ll have to ask yourself. I think what it comes down to is, if you are thinking about efficiency— because this is something that a lot of authors that I work with, they just don’t have any concept of their story needing to be efficient, because that’s not a thing that tends to get talked a lot about when we are analyzing our ye olde classic novels in high school English class. The concept of an efficient scene is kind of technical. It doesn’t fit the artistic and kind of romantic view a lot of people have of writing. So this just doesn’t occur to them.
And people often add things in as they think of them that sound cool. So that’s like, okay, so we have our sword fight and our protagonist is trying to win the sword championship and that’s the plot, and then it’s like, wouldn’t it be cool if they had a brother that they hate? And now that I say it this way, it sounds like the obvious solution is to make the brother someone they have to sword fight. But that isn’t how a lot of people think because they don’t think in terms of efficiency. So they’ll just add in a brother who is also there, that the main character hates, and they have some scenes where they hate each other. And now it’s back to the sword fight. So, if you train yourself to think in terms of efficiency, you can then plan and not have to revise, or you can go back and revise later. However you get to the final result, that’s up to you.
Chris: There is probably some improvements you can make, even as a discovery writer, just being aware of this, right? When you take the story to a certain direction, looking to, Oh, I had this other thing going here; maybe I can make this person that I previously had in the story work for this role instead of creating a new character.
Oren: Yeah. There’s a whole character consolidation thing we could go into, but it’s a little related in that having characters that do two things instead of introducing a new character to do that other thing is just generally a better idea. In general, your story should have as few characters as it can get by on as opposed to as many characters as you can think to add.
Chris: Or as many characters as you can get away with.
Oren: Right? Because you know, more characters is more stuff to remember, and each character you add means less time for the other characters. There are going to be characters that you need that add to the story and that cutting them would hurt the story. But that number is a lot lower than most authors think. Because we tend to get attached to our characters and very often we have them set in a certain way, and we don’t want to change it because that’s the way they appear to us and they can get kind of personal. So, you know, that’s just something that you have to be willing to do.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, I would say that in general, what consolidation does is it means that your story focuses on fewer things in more depth instead of lots of things superficially. But it doesn’t necessarily mean cutting any of those things. Because again, instead of having two minor characters, if they’re the same person, then there’s a character that’s slightly more significant that has a little bit more depth, but you technically didn’t cut them because they’re just the same person now.
Oren: Yeah. You can also do this with worldbuilding and setting elements. If you’re going to introduce weird setting elements in general, you want them to be plot related. Because every weird thing you introduce is something else the audience has to remember. So if, for example, you imagine a world where the stars are different colors—and I mean, like, you know, noticeably, cause technically now some of them are, but they mostly look white—but if you imagine a setting where like one third of the stars are red and one third are blue and the other third is green, that would be very different from what we see in the real world. And if you do that and it’s not plot relevant somehow, it’s going to feel kind of weird.
So if you can, make that part of the plot. Make it about how characters born under different colored stars have different kinds of magic. And that’s like, your character was born under a blue star, but their romance interest was born under a red star. Can these two two kids ever make it work? That sort of thing.
Wes: I like it, Oren. It’s a new take on star-crossed lovers.
Oren: Yeah. Yeah, it is. Oh God.
Wes: You did it though.
Oren: I didn’t mean for that to be the case. But you know, just be efficient with your worldbuilding elements. It’s again, like with characters, with worldbuilding, it’s very easy to just throw in everything you think of because it sounds cool. Especially if you are writing based on inspiration from other stories, many of which are different and aren’t really connected. So it’s like, man, in Lord of the Rings, I really like those ancient elves. That’s real cool. I’m putting that in there, but from the Temeraire series, I really like the British dragon officers, so I’m putting those in there. And it’s like, do those things really go together? I have concerns.
Chris: I mean, what if the elves were the dragon riders instead? And we could consolidate that a little bit.
Oren: Yeah, you could. That’s one of the things I would probably recommend. I recommend this more than any other recommendation. It’s like, what if these two things were one thing. I’ll never forget in Fahrenheit 9/11, where he has his love interest who teaches him about books. And she’s like, “I learned about this from my uncle who was just super cool and knows everything about books and is just the greatest.” And then, she talks about him quite a bit. And then she dies. Cause you know, the book’s kind of problematic. And he’s like, “Oh, who will I talk to about books now? I need to find someone else to talk to about books.” And I’m like, it’s going to be the uncle, right? That she kept mentioning. It’s like, “I know: it’ll be my old college professor that I’ve never thought of or mentioned before.” And then he goes and talks to his old college professor and it’s like, why is it not the uncle? Oh my god.
Wes: That’s Fahrenheit 451. Not Michael Moore’s documentary, Oren.
Oren: Oh goodness, yeah. All right, there you go. There you go.
Wes: But you are correct. That was weird to think back on that and be like, oh no, that was a great opportunity.
Oren: Yeah. It’s like, why is it not the same character?
Wes: I mean, it’s the struggles of renting a typewriter, I guess.
Oren: Yeah. If you gotta pay by the hour, there’s only so much revising you can afford, right?
Chris: Yeah. Multitasking is mostly important because that way you don’t bore the audience every time you have a side plot. And again, the more efficient your story is, the more stuff that you can have that you want in it, the less you have to cut. So that side plot that you might have to cut if you take a break from your main story every single time you want to focus on your side plot, you can probably keep if you just multitask it with your main plot. You can just fit in more stuff, which again, no writer likes to cut the things in their story. So learning techniques that will make it so that you don’t have to cut stuff you like is a good thing to do.
Oren: Right. And you can also give side characters a stake in the main plot, right? Make them care about the main plot, and that way they’re not just some guy the character knows. They’re involved, and you have reasons for them to show up. That’s just a good way to do it. With that, then I think we are at about time and we are going to have to consolidate this podcast into half an hour, if you know what I mean. We’re trying to be efficient.
So those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.