If you’ve ever seen Pulp Fiction, then you were probably confused for the first hour and a half of the movie, but the sheer entertainment of Samuel L. Jackson running around screaming “muthaf***** ” kept you watching until the end. If you haven’t seen Pulp Fiction, then go watch it and come back.
I’m going to assume you’ve watched it now. Probably twice, due to the aforementioned confusion. I’m telling you, it gets better every time.
We’re going to address three things here:
1. What causes this confusion?
2. Why does the movie structure work despite this confusion?
3. How can this method apply to story writing?
If you skipped the step where I told you to go watch the movie, don’t worry. I’ll only be covering the loose structure and storytelling that it uses, so while I am disappointed in your life choices, you don’t actually need to know what happens in the movie in order to read this article.
Okay, here we go!
There are a lot of conflicting views on how much of film-making you can apply to story-writing, and vice-versa. I’m of the mindset that anything can work, if you do it properly. Sometimes that means taking a risk. Sometimes it means writing a tale that doesn’t come together until the end. This is what Pulp Fiction does.
In Pulp Fiction the movie actually starts at the beginning of the middle, moves into alternating between the beginning and the end, and ends with the end of the middle.
- Prologue — “The Diner” (i)
- Prelude to “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife”
- “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife”
- Prelude to “The Gold Watch” (a — flashback, b — present)
- “The Gold Watch”
- “The Bonnie Situation”
- Epilogue — “The Diner” (ii)
Chronologically, they would run: 4a, 2, 6, 1, 7, 4b, 3, 5. Sequences 1 and 7 partially overlap and are presented from different points of view, as do sequences 2 and 6.
Often times in both literature and film, the stories primarily follow a chronological sequence (excluding flashbacks), but there is no rule stating it has to be this way. Why can’t you start in the middle? Or even the end? I, personally, enjoy the change of pace it brings to a story.
However, because it’s so rarely used and throws the audience right into the middle of everything that is going on, it can cause confusion. Additionally, by starting in the middle of a story, there’s usually a large chunk of backstory that seems to be missing right from the start. It can also result in the audience feeling as though the plot is lacking direction or that the story may not be going anywhere. By wandering too far from the “story-line” or a directed plot, the creator risks losing viewers or readers to boredom, feeling as though the creator is wasting their time.
So, how did Pulp Fiction pull it off? Here I will discuss 5 aspects of storytelling that Pulp Fiction utilizes to successfully pull off a story that is not told in chronological order.
First of all, Pulp Fiction has a hook. Just because it starts in the middle doesn’t mean there isn’t a hook to draw the viewers in. The movie starts in the middle of a conversation, one that the viewer has absolutely no context for. And the people having the conversation are not the main characters, and the audience knows it. When the main characters come into play, the audience realizes rather quickly that this is the middle of the story for the main characters. This leads into the next point, which is curiosity and intrigue.
Curiosity and Intrigue
If the hook is done correctly, the viewer should be intrigued by the “mystery” presented and will be naturally curious to find out what happened. However, if there is nothing in the dialogue/setting/plot that up until this point has caught and kept the viewer’s intrigue, then they may not feel inclined to continue watching. There could be a sort of “mystery” presented, but if it’s not intriguing enough, then the viewers won’t care to find out what happened. For example, in the movie, the couple talking in the diner at the start first appear to be discussing an event. But as it progresses, the audience learns that they are talking about robberies and heists, and it escalates to the point where they decide to pull a robbery then and there.
A creator has to ensure that the audience remains invested in the work after starting in the middle of the story, which means that the main conflict may or may not have been introduced. This is one of the riskier downfalls of starting a story in the middle: if you don’t start the story in the middle of the main conflict (i.e. start right before or right after), then you risk not setting the stakes high enough, and in turn, not keeping the audience intrigued. Pulp Fiction does this by cut introducing the main characters and having one mention what an awful day they’d had so far. Now the audience is hooked again to the “mystery”.
This leads to the next point: follow up. I would honestly argue that this may be the most important part. The audience has to know that the creator is good on their money, that is to say that they will follow up on the questions they posed at the start of the film. By starting the story in the middle, the creator has to ensure that they go back around and pick up everything they left around for the audience to find. If the story starts in the middle, at some point the story has to go back to the beginning and fill in what happened. Otherwise, the audience will feel cheated, as if they didn’t get the whole story, because they didn’t. Pulp Fiction fulfills this nicely, looping back to the beginning about halfway through the movie.
The Crazy Factor
Never underestimate the power of full on absurdity. Even taking away the chronological mix-up, the story-line in Pulp Fiction has enough insanity to keep the audience invested. Not every story needs the crazy, but a good dose of insanity doesn’t hurt (so long as it fits). Pulp Fiction is interesting in this sense because the characters, the setting, and the events aren’t all that outrageous in and of themselves, but when you mash it all together, it’s madness.
Now everything I listed above was for Pulp Fiction, however, the same can go for any writing. I was careful to pick only the factors that applied to only novel writing and film-making. I didn’t mention actors or screenplay while talking about pulp fiction. I didn’t say anything about beats or visuals. The 5 things described above can be applied to writing as well. Keep in mind that these 5 things are not set in stone. There are always people who can break the mold and come out on top. The elements that I listed above are simply a guide based on what has been successful in the past.
If you are a mystery writer, the 5 things I listed probably look at least somewhat like any mystery book you’ve outlined. That is because by starting in the middle (or end) of a story, it’s almost like writing a mystery. You give the audience the result of the action and story, but you do not tell them immediately how that result came to be. You only give the audience a peek at what is going on, almost like backwards foreshadowing. But in the end, everything comes together and leaves the reader with a sense of What just happened? in a good way. This is the same thing that happens when writing a story that is not in chronological order. You give the readers a result or consequence of some series of events, and then you tell the story that led to that result.
So, to summarize, if you want to write a story that is not told in chronological order, keep these five things in mind: the hook, curiosity and intrigue, maintaining intrigue, follow up, and the crazy factor. You want to write a story that captures the reader’s attention even if they aren’t quite sure what is going on. In the end, make sure you bring it all together again. Hopefully, this article helps bring some clarity to the art of writing “out of order”. Happy writing!
Article by Ree