Narrative Design: Why Layers

I had a friend who was obsessed with the movie Taken, starring Liam Neeson as the ex-CIA agent Bryan Mills. It’s a mindless action film about a badass dude whose daughter gets kidnapped and sold to human traffickers, and he kills a bunch of people and eventually saves her. My friend made me watch it with him in theaters twice, and whenever I mentioned going somewhere alone he’d start pestering me about how fat old men were gonna kidnap me and rape me, just like in the movie.

Thankfully, that never actually happened, but I still never liked Taken. Regardless, it’s a good way to demonstrate the concept of why layers (or more specifically, what happens when you don’t use why layers).

Introduction to Why Layers

My theory of why layers is that strong narratives are built off of the number of times you can ask “why” and receive a good answer. Characters, plot events, and settings should have good reasons for happening in order for the story to be an interconnected narrative rather than just a jumble of slightly related montages. If you can explain why something happens, that’s great, but if you can’t, you should either have a reason why you can’t do so, or you have a problem.

So let’s try taking the why layer theory and analyzing Taken. Bryan’s main goal in the movie is to rescue his daughter. Let’s start from there.

  1. Why is Bryan trying to rescue his daughter? Well, obviously because she got kidnapped, and that’s a bad thing. But there are plenty of other people who got kidnapped that Bryan doesn’t save, so why his daughter specifically? Because he has a broken family relationship and wants to show her his love.
  2. Why does Bryan love his daughter? Umm… well, she’s his daughter, and fathers love their daughters, right?

Well, that was a pretty short analysis.

I call a situation like that a “given.” It’s a given that Bryan loves his daughter. Fathers are supposed to love their daughters, right? That’s just the way the world works, so it’s (supposedly) okay to use that as a character’s motivation. And a lot of writers do use givens like that.

The problem is, a given is a stereotype. It’s a stereotype that fathers love their daughters. You might not think that’s as harmful a stereotype as something like “black people are stupid” or “women are physically weak,” but in the end it’s still the same thing. They’re all stereotypes.

As another example, let’s take a look at the movie Inception. In Inception, the protagonist Dominick Cobb accepts a dangerous job: to use his dream technology to infiltrate someone’s brain and incept an idea into their head.

  1. Why does Cobb take on the job? Because his employer, Saito, promised him that if Cobb successfully pulls it off, he’ll be allowed to see his children.
  2. Why does Cobb want to see his children again? Because he loves them? Yes, that’s one part of it, but unlike Taken there’s something beneath the surface. This is a pretty ambiguous question with multiple possible answers (which also makes for a nicer narrative), but I’ll just use my own interpretation. Cobb’s children are a way for him to ground his sense of reality.
  3. Why does Cobb need to ground his sense of reality? So many narratives would have just ended here, but thankfully Inception doesn’t. Because his late wife accused him of still dreaming. As much as he tries not to show how insecure he is about the reality of his world, he still mandates that everyone on his team use a totem. He still warns Ariadne about modeling dream worlds after reality. And he still refuses to construct dreams himself.
  4. Why did his late wife accuse him of still dreaming? Because Cobb incepted the idea that she was still dreaming into her mind. She didn’t see her actions as wrong: rather, she wanted to help Cobb escape from what she thought was his dream. For her, it was kind of a case of tough love: she only wanted Cobb to die because she thought that was best for him.
  5. Why did Cobb incept the idea that she was still dreaming into her mind? Because he reached his breaking point. He couldn’t continue living in the dream with Mal anymore, they had been doing that for decades and he knew it wasn’t real. She was fine staying in her dream world, but Cobb had had enough, and he just couldn’t take it anymore, so he used inception on his wife.
  6. Why did Cobb reach his breaking point? Uh… well, that’s what happens when you spend fifty years doing nothing, right? You break down eventually?

Inception got to six questions, while Taken only had two. But just through this little breakdown, you can probably see why I respect Inception‘s narrative more than I respect Taken‘s.

As we can see, Inception hit a given, just like Taken did. The given in Inception is “if you spend fifty years living in a dream, you get fed up with it.” Which is probably true, I wouldn’t know. I haven’t spent fifty years in a dream. But that’s still a stereotypical assumption about human nature. Not all people in that same situation would have acted the same way Cobb did. Maybe Inception would have been a better movie if there was a clearly defined event that caused Cobb to reach his breaking point.

But can you imagine how bad Inception would have been if it had been like Taken and ended the why layers at question 2? “Oh, Cobb wants to see his children again because he loves them, and he loves them because that’s what fathers do.” If they just left it at that, the whole movie would be pointless. Cobb’s character would have been too shallow for it to have meant anything significant, just like Bryan’s character in Taken.

Why Do Why Layers Matter?

The thing with linear classical narrative is that it’s deterministic. That means that for every possible action, there is exactly one outcome that will result. Rolling a dice is not deterministic: it has six possible outcomes that can occur as a result of one action. However, rolling a perfectly weighted dice would be deterministic, because it’s rigged to only land on one side.

Narratives happen because they’re deterministic. Take Lord of the Rings for example: if Frodo Baggins hadn’t been exactly the type of person he was, Middle Earth probably would’ve been ruled by Sauron. Frodo was motivated to complete his quest because of all the factors in his life. The fact that he was related to the legendary Bilbo Baggins motivated him to live up to Bilbo’s legacy. The fact that he was good friends with Gandalf gave him the moral strength to take action rather than sit at home. The fact that Frodo loved drinking meant that he would get drunk at the Bree inn, where Aragorn would notice him and join their quest.

All of the aspects of Frodo’s personality, lifestyle, and upbringing were pieces that set the story in motion. No one else would have volunteered to go on that kamikaze journey to Mount Doom. If Gandalf came up to me telling me I had to take some fancy little ring to the depths of North Korea, I’d call the cops on him. If Gandalf asked Sam, or Pippin, or Merry, or any hobbit other than Frodo to carry the One Ring, none of them would have done it. The whole story happened precisely because of Frodo Baggins and everything about him.

I believe that what makes narrative powerful is its ability to bring readers into the shoes of another person, who has a different perspective and a different way of thinking than they themselves have. Good stories are about characters doing things that you couldn’t possibly imagine yourself doing, and yet making you see how that character’s actions are completely rational and necessary within that person’s specific context. As humans, we grow by being able to understand each other’s points of view, regardless of (or rather, because of) how different they are from our own.

But in order for a story to actually accomplish that, it needs why layers. If there is no reason behind a character’s actions, it’s worthless. We can’t come to understand that character’s point of view, and we don’t learn anything from the experience. A character whose actions seem arbitrary and random hardly has a point of view of its own, so how is it supposed to enrich viewers with a new perspective? Ariadne from Inception had no clear motivations of her own, so it was never clear why she did the things she did, and the general consensus is that she exists to ask important questions so the audience can understand what’s going on. On the other hand, the Joker from the Batman franchise seems unpredictable and insane and indiscriminate, but you’re inevitably forced to understand the method to his madness through his interactions with the other characters.

Using why layers  is a way of working backwards to accomplish this effect. If you can have a satisfactory answer for why something happens in a story, then you have created a connection between the event and its cause. Successful, engaging stories are all about those connections and the effects they have on the world of the narrative. It’s just that using why layers starts from the event and derives the motivation from that, whereas if you worked the other way around, you would start with the motivation and derive what events happen as a result. Either way helps build the necessary connections in a story, but why layers are more accessible because they allow writers to start from large, grand events and work backwards from there. The parallel technique, because layers, would have to start from an extremely extraordinary personality in order to match the epic scale of stories constructed using why layers instead (on the other hand, that also means that using because layers could potentially be a better way to approach slice-of-life or ensemble cast stories).

Cobb in Inception is a dude who’s prototyping a new military technology with his wife that lets people jump into other’s dreams. Because he’s prototyping this new military technology, he and his wife get stuck in Limbo for 50 years. Because they’re stuck in Limbo for 50 years, Cobb uses inception on his wife to change the situation. Because Cobb used inception on his wife, she believed that everything was a dream. Because she believed that everything was a dream, she committed suicide and blamed it on Cobb so that he would commit suicide as well to escape what she thought was their dream. Because she blamed her suicide on Cobb, he was left with a feeling of insecurity, that maybe she really was right and his world was just a dream. Because Cobb was insecure about his reality, he had to see his kids. Because Cobb had to see his kids, he accepted Saito’s dangerous mission. Exact same story, exact same analysis, but working from the character up rather than the other way around.

Of course, this leads to a few other questions: what about the other people who prototyped the dream jumping technology? Cobb and his wife couldn’t possibly have been the only guinea pigs. Look at the first because layer we analyzed: “Because he’s prototyping this new military technology, he and his wife get stuck in Limbo for 50 years.” That’s not a safe “because” statement to make. Did everyone who prototyped the new military technology get stuck in Limbo for 50 years with their wives? That’s ridiculous and most likely untrue, but it’s the only outcome that the story presents to us. Instead, if they had specified exactly why it happened (coming back to the why layers theory), it would be specific enough to pinpoint Cobb and his wife rather than making a blanket statement. Maybe the technology went all weird when multiple people dived into a dream at the same time, and Cobb was the first person to ever try it. Then they could answer why Cobb was the first person to try it, or why it goes weird when multiple people dive in simultaneously, or any other why question, and the narrative would be improved for it.

That’s also the reason why using givens to answer a why question is bad practice. Since narratives are deterministic, using a given as a character’s motivation only serves to deepen the stereotype. In a story I was working on, a young child neglects his family because he’s a little kid who would rather go out and play with his friends than stay at home with his lame parents. That’s a stereotype, and because the story is deterministic, it effectively says that this the way that all young children behave. If I had gotten more specific about this child’s character, if I had gone down another why layer, I wouldn’t have to resort to a stereotypical given.

Of course, if your goal is to make a broad sweeping statement about humans as a whole, givens can be used to accomplish that. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the titular character does a lot of insane and psychopathic actions because he heard a prophecy and was fervently trying to fulfill the parts of it that benefitted him: a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s nothing in the story that portrays Macbeth as a particularly spiritual new-age type of character who would be especially vulnerable to prophecies, so the deterministic nature of the story essentially says that people go crazy when they know what happens in the future. That was the whole point of Macbeth, and if Macbeth had an actual reason why the prophecy affected him so deeply, it would have implied that prophecies of the future only affect people who are like Macbeth. The story effectively says that prophecies make people go crazy, and that’s a stereotype just like any other, but it’s the stereotype that Shakespeare intentionally wants to say about the world. But if the stereotype in a story is not an intentional piece of the theme, it better have some other reason for being there, because otherwise it’s just bad narrative design.

I’ve been focusing mostly on characters, but this theory extends to plot events and setting as well. An event that happens out of nowhere for no good reason is called a deus ex machina, and it breaks the connections that characters have to the plot. Settings and societies need reasons for why they are the way they are, because they’re still just groups of characters. A lot of science fiction puts effort into the social dynamics of alien races: Seeker by Jack McDevitt has a futuristic alien race that communicates telepathically, and the main character explores how their society works in a portion of the book.

The most important thing a narrative can have is connections. Things in a narrative must be connected to each other in order to create a cohesive, immersive world that lets readers understand a new way of seeing the world. Why layers are simply a way of creating and understanding these connections, thus creating stronger narratives.

Narrative In Video Games

But there’s something I haven’t addressed yet. Every example I’ve used so far was from a film, novel, or play. So… what about video games?

Having a connection between cause and event isn’t a new concept in games, from a mechanical point of view. One of the three prerequisites for flow to happen is that “the task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback,” and a lot of game mechanics actually do try to enforce this. Pulling a gun’s trigger in a FPS doesn’t cause the bullet to shoot out two minutes later, it happens immediately. There’s an established connection between cause and event, which is what why layers are all about, right?

That’s only connections in game mechanics, though. When it comes to narrative… well, games aren’t famous for having the best narratives. But maybe we can still take the why layer theory and break down what exactly the problem with narrative in games is.

A lot of games need framed exposition: that means the playable game is only the middle of the story, while the beginning and the end are handled with cutscenes or other non-interactive mediums. In the original Halo, you play as the Master Chief as he explores a mysterious artificial “planet.” But unless you read the prequel novel The Fall of Reach, you’ll never know why the Master Chief is who he is. The why layers certainly do exist, but there’s a disconnection. Let’s do an analysis.

  1. Why is Master Chief exploring the Ring? Because he crash lands there. This is close to the beginning of the game, and subsequent events during his exploration make up the rest.
  2. Why did the Master Chief crash land on the Ring? Because a bunch of Covenant attacked the Pillar of Autumn, the starship he was riding on. He had to bail as a last resort.
  3. Why did a bunch of Covenant attack them? Because they were close to the Ring, and the Covenant didn’t want those filthy humans to touch it. This is actually the beginning of the game, where you play as the Master Chief trying to fight Covenant on the Pillar of Autumn.
  4. Why were they close to the Ring? Oops, the game’s story ends here: to go any deeper, you need The Fall of Reach.

The problem isn’t with the why layers, because they’re there. But the problem is how the player experiences them. None of these events are within the player’s control, so nothing happens because of the player. Even though the player controls the Master Chief, the literary connection isn’t there because you don’t understand why he does the things he does.

If you can’t connect to Master Chief’s crisis on a personal level, the game becomes impersonal. It becomes something you play because it’s fun and exciting and engaging, which are all very good things, don’t get me wrong. But the games that are able to merge narrative and gameplay together to deliver a unified experience are the games that truly push the medium forward (1).

Contrast that to a video game like The Walking Dead, where everything happens as a result of the things you do. You’ll meet characters who die, characters who hate your guts, characters who die, characters who think you’re their best friend, and characters who die. The most important thing is that everything happens as a result of the things you do. At the end of the game, you’re able to do a why layer analysis of your own game, tracing everything back through the decisions you made and eventually reaching the ultimate question: why did you make those decisions?

It’s kind of unfair for me to use The Walking Dead, because that game is wholly dedicated to narrative. But even in other games, it’s important to keep why layers in mind. In Portal 2, why does GLaDOS hate your guts? Because you killed her in the first Portal. Why did you kill GLaDOS in the first Portal? Because she put you through hours of deadly experiments and tried to burn you in an incinerator and (most importantly) destroyed the Weighted Companion Cube. If you played the first Portal, all of those were things that you actually experienced, so you can’t help but understand GLaDOS’s hatred for you in the second game. The why layers are all in place. Everything has a reason for happening, and that reason is you.

Since video games are interactive, they’re not about introducing you to someone else’s point of view, as linear narrative is. Rather, they’re about allowing you to better understand your own point of view, by putting it into a different context than you’re usually used to. We don’t usually get zombie apocalypses in the real world, or locked up in test chambers with psychopathic robots, but in video games we’re able to understand the kinds of things we would do in such situations, and learn more about ourselves in the process.

That’s why it’s important to keep why layers in mind for all aspects of narrative design. Characters, plot events, settings. Films, books, video games. Action stories, drama stories, comedy stories. The elements of a narrative must be connected to each other before the reader can connect to the narrative. Keeping this philosophy in mind makes for better narratives, and the world could always use more of those.

ENDNOTES

(1) I write more on this subject in my essay “The Underlying Issue With Narratology/Ludology.”

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6 responses to “Narrative Design: Why Layers

  1. Reading your article it has made me care not even a bit for layers.
    I prefer contextualization to layers.
    Context means things makes sense no matter how simple they are.
    What you call “stereotypes” are just shortcuts.

    • Stereotypes and why layers both fulfill the need for contextualization, but they do so in different ways. A stereotype relies on the reader’s preconceived perceptions, which can be unreliable and lead to wishful self-projection. On the other hand, why layers can help develop a story world within its own sphere, so that the reader is the one drawn into the narrative rather than the other way around. If you have a story with a message that you want to tell, you don’t take shortcuts. You embed that message into every atom of your story world.

      Try contrasting the difference between stereotypes versus why layers. “Why does Voldemort do such horrible things?” “Because he’s a stereotype of a bad guy, and that’s what bad guys do.” Well, now there’s context, but you don’t actually get anything out of that context. There’s no meaning, no message, nothing to take away from the story. All you know is that bad guys do horrible things (which is a pretty harmful stereotype, but that’s another topic).

      Luckily, the Harry Potter story doesn’t go that way. The Harry Potter story goes through great lengths to dig deep into Voldemort’s history and answer why he does the things he does, not just because he’s a bad guy stereotype, but because of all the events that brought him there. By the end of the journey through Voldemort’s why layers, we’ve learned things that we can apply to ourselves (such as the dangers of being blinded by ambition). That is the true purpose of narrative, to teach us and help us grow through the experiences of others. Stereotypes and simple answers don’t fulfill that purpose.

  2. very interesting article and totally agree with you. But I’d caution you against using any sort of analysis on an action movie like Taken. It doesn’t have time for why layers. It’s main goal is to entertain, not really tell a meaningful story.

    Here is how I know if a movie is an action movie. Look at the trailer.

    • That’s very true about Taken. I mean, I feel that even action scenes benefit from fulfilling why layers. Every tragic Shakespeare finale is a culmination of character motives that were developed over the course of the play. But on the other hand, Taken is pretty far away from Shakespeare after all.

      With pure action, the why layers are still there, it’s just that the time frame condenses. During the Neo vs. Morpheus fight scene in the Matrix, why does Neo run up a wall? Because he wants to get a good angle against Morpheus. Why does he want to get a good angle against Morpheus? Because his current approach isn’t working and he’s losing. Why isn’t his current approach working? Because he still hasn’t wrapped his head around the concept of the Matrix. But that’s more of the cinematographer’s job than the writer’s.

      • A good (or maybe artistic is a better word) action movie is like a musical lol

        Replace sing with fight basically

        Why do characters sing?
        To reveal something internal or make a decision or a discovery

        The great action movies follow the same format. The best example being crossing tiger, hidden dragon there’s not a single fight scene where at least one character doesn’t have the realization or makes a decision based on the fight itself

        Spoilers set to stun for the rest of this comment

        Hero (made by the same people lol) is a more interesting example because fight scenes that don’t have an emotional arc are later revealed to be lies

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