Folklore and Non-Linear Stories

In G2: The Kid from Kansas Jay meets Virgil Jango Skyy, an old monk with an odd disposition. Jango tells Jay he met Faith Featherway not just in Section C2 but also ten years prior to that, and under strange circumstances. Akayama DanJay has a non-linear story meant to drip-feed information to the reader.

Telling a linear story is difficult enough: a writer must choose which scenes to show, from whose perspective, and at what pace, in a whole parallel universe they made up. If you allow yourself non-linearity, the gloves come off. You’ve got the whole time-space continuum to edit, and you have to tease out some one-dimensional string of text. For inspiration let’s read some notes in American Indian Myths and Legends.

The introduction to Erdoes’ and Ortiz’s collection of American folk lore tells us,

To those used to the patterns of European fairy tales and folktales, Indian legends often seem chaotic, inconsistent, or incomplete. Plots seem to travel at their own speed, defying convention and at times doing away completely with recognizable beginnings and endings.

But this is a feature, not a bug. The efficient style is a product of the reason these people tell stories, and the manner in which they tell them:

Spinning out a single image or episode may be the salient feature of—indeed, the whole reason for—telling a tale, and tales are often told in chains, one word, character, or idea bringing to mind a related one, prompting another storyteller to offer a contribution… Rather then being self-contained units, they are often incomplete episodes in a progression that goes back deep into a tribe’s traditions.

I don’t want to post whole stories from the book, but take as an example this opening from the Maidu:


I imagine a group of people sharing stories over a fire, and one mentions a butterfly. Another person is reminded of Tolowim Woman and Butterfly Man and tells it afterward, like an ancient version of queuing songs in a playlist. To make these story-weaving sessions possible, ‘modern’ story structure is eschewed for a sense of timelessness. Each story stars an iconic cast like Coyote, Gray-Fox, Mole, Turkey, Deer Hunter, and other such immediately-identifiable names and animals whose personalities would be well-known to the audience. Protagonists are often said to be “out walking one day” when some inciting event presents itself, so the story can be imagined to have taken place at any time. The place of a story in the timeline of creation mythology may be unclear until the end, when characters are suddenly revealed to have been the Sun and Moon, or constellations, or famous landmarks, or plants. More often a concrete time-period is undisclosed, so the stories can be told in any order.

Akayama DanJay isn’t as non-linear as barely-connected stories told over a campfire. The character DanJay provides a near-continuous through-line for readers to follow. Sections lead fairly directly into one another, and Chapters represent contiguous story-arcs mostly in one setting.

But the breaks in between might bring Dan back in time and make him Jillian, or throw him into the afterlife as Jay. Time-travel and alternate universes are a lot for readers to swallow. Even with DanJay’s almost unbroken plot-thread, I need to make stylistic choices which help readers cope with the shape of my story. That’s why I’m taking notes from American Indian folklore; I hope the lessons in timelessness will help me soften the transitions from timeline to timeline.

I hope to teach readers to recognize my character’s names like American Indians recognize their folk heroes. Seeing the name Dan or Jay or Faith at the start of a section should immediately ground the reader in the world of the book, just like saying “Coyote was walking along” might prime an audience for a classic tale. Most of my character names are five letters or less, and longer names like Beatrice have meaning which might make them memorable.

Although I start each section by introducing the setting and relevant characters, I try to do so quickly with only a paragraph or two. Then I introduce tension. I hope this propels readers from section to section because they want to see what the next conflict will be, just like American Indians might begin with a single line of action before an inciting event, to get to the good stuff.

I also try to revisit the same images in new contexts, as discussed in the commentary to Section D2, to make events echo and reverberate across time. Jango tells Jay the story of finding a monk smoking in a mailbox, and Jango tells the monk he once smoked a cricket in the monastery furnace. These both echo Dan’s immolation. Even Lucille climbing into her giant robot is reminiscent of the furnace scene. No matter how strange Akayama DanJay might get, it consistently circles the same ideas.

When we make the choice to present a story in a non-linear way, we should do so with purpose. For the rebellious non-linearity of Akayama DanJay, doubly so. So why did the American Indians adopt this form of storytelling?

Tellingly, many tales tell of heroes braving the land of the dead and returning with boons. Stories with such elements assert control over the world around us. It unites families with their ancestors and their progeny. Death is permanent, but timeless stories will be applicable and strengthening for generations. They can never become dated and irrelevant.

In Akayama DanJay that sense of unity with the people who came before us, and the people who came after us, and the people alongside us, will manifest into a giant fighting space-robot. That’s not so different from Coyote turning wolves and bears into the Big Dipper, in a cosmic sense.

Thanks for reading. Keep eating your worms!

Next Section
Table of Contents

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s