THE FICTION MULTIVERSE, or What Happens Next. Or next, or next… a craft essay by John Fried
THE FICTION MULTIVERSE, or What Happens Next. Or next, or next…
A Craft Essay
by John Fried
In the brilliant British playwright Caryl Churchill’s one-act play “Heart’s Desire,” a mother and father sit in their kitchen, awaiting the arrival of their grown daughter from a trip to Australia. “She’s taking her time,” the father says, as he pulls on a red crewneck sweater. The mother, setting out silverware for a meal, replies, “Not really.” The actors then freeze and the play stops, everyone returning to their starting stage positions. The characters then start over, saying the same lines, repeating the same actions, except that this time the dad is putting on a tweed jacket. The scene moves forward for a few lines, past where it had gotten before, but then abruptly stops once more. The action begins again, this time with one subtle shift: the father is putting on a cardigan.
Little by little, through a series of alterations small and large, the story progresses, characters moving through the scene slowly, through trial and error, like someone looking for a light switch in the dark and having to come back to their starting point over and over. Sometimes a character will launch into a long, seemingly random monologue, as the “daughter” character does when she speaks at length about the platypus she saw in Australia. And still, in other moments, random actions occur: Once, terrorists burst in the front door and shoot the whole family dead. In another iteration, an ostrich runs across the stage. In still another, hoards of small children pour out of kitchen cabinets, running past the parents. Each time, the story moves forward and then restarts, often cataloging the parents’ worries, while also trotting out a series of theatrical cliches that, as in so many of Churchill’s works, speak self-consciously to the form itself as much as the actual story unfolding.
I like to describe this play to my beginning fiction students a few weeks into the semester when they’re deep in the messiness of writing their first stories. They’ve gotten down a first scene or two, maybe even stretched out toward act two. It’s often at that moment when the “great idea” they had initially has lost some of its luster and now they’re feeling a bit lost. “I don’t know what happens next,” they tell me.
That’s when I tell them about the Churchill play.
I suspect my students see this as another example of me fulfilling every cliché of the addle-brained, middle-aged creative writing teacher. When I tell them about the play starting over again and an ostrich running on stage, I get a few looks that suggest they believe, yes, he’s officially lost it. I won’t lie: I kind of love that moment of uncertainty in the classroom, because, if nothing else, I’ve got them. The possibility that I might crack at the seams has their attention rapt. A collective WTF moment.
Of course, I do have a purpose. My referencing the Churchill play is less cleverness than pure utility on my part: Understanding “what happens next”—in basic terms, “the plot”—is often about teaching them to give in to experimentation and failure, trying and trying again to find one’s way: embracing the process and the inevitable uncertainty that comes up all along the journey for all of us treading through the first draft of anything.
I call this approach to plot—wait for it: entering the fiction multiverse.
I suspect my students see this as another example of me fulfilling every cliché of the addle-brained, middle-aged creative writing teacher. When I tell them about the play starting over again and an ostrich running on stage, I get a few looks that suggest they believe, yes, he’s officially lost it.
My students get the multiverse. Their eyes light up when I say the word. After all, it’s an idea that is everywhere these days. From films like Everything, Everywhere, All at Once to the latest chapter in the Doctor Strange franchise to the many Star Trek franchises that have been multiversing since the 60s, the idea—in very basic terms—that an infinite number of present moments and paths exist at any point in time has become a startingly familiar narrative trope.
It’s so familiar, in fact, that it has some folks bemoaning the death of narrative completely, while others salivate at the possibility of an endless rehash of every franchise, a feedback loop of storylines and characters that will keep the content machines churning forever and the coffers filling up. In The New Yorker, critic Stephanie Burt wrote an essay called “Is the Multiverse Where Originality Goes to Die?”, a thorough piece interrogating both the history of the multiverse as a narrative tool and the current fascination with it. I can’t do her article justice here, but in the end, I had a sense that perhaps Burt was trying to say to readers, The idea of the multiverse has been around a long time, people. Calm it down. It’s going to be okay.
Of course, my goal in bringing up the multiverse with my Introduction to Fiction Writing students is less history lesson than me trying to offer a practical tool. In the fiction writing workshop, I’m a mechanic, not a literary critic, there to help them understand how to write a story. In bringing up the multiverse, I’m simply trying to show them that while they may feel baffled by what’s going to come next in their story, they have more choices than they may even realize. (I stay away from the word “infinite” because that’s as likely to paralyze them as much as anything else.)
At this point in the process, I have students do small group workshops, where they exchange opening scenes, offering one another comments and suggestions. I’m careful to tell them to focus on what is working well rather than criticizing or questioning too much; I want to encourage the process, not grind it to a halt. And more often than not, the opening scenes we all read are already full of possibility: The spaceship has landed on the distant planet and the astronaut is about walk off the ship OR The rogue assassin has climbed up the wall to the evil warlord’s castle and is about to jump through a window OR The college student has invited their boyfriend to the mall to break up with him. “I’m in!” I write in the margins of their scenes, suggesting they have me hooked, that I do want to know what happens next. As a reader, you can’t ask for much more.
My students get the multiverse. Their eyes light up when I say the word. After all, it’s an idea that is everywhere these days.
Of course, this is also where the work begins. Writing a compelling opening scene, any screenwriter will tell you, is the fun part. Dare I say, the easy part. Understanding where to go from there? That’s the work. That’s the grind.
So, I ask my students to list three or five or even ten possible scenes that might come next. Not full scenes, just a list. What could happen? I’m very careful not to say should, but simply keep them in the realm of possibility: Where could this story go? I tell them to write a line or two, outlining the next step or two in the plot.
- The astronaut steps off the ship, only to discover that the air on the planet is breathable and there is light coming from a cave in the distance
- The astronaut steps off the ship, only to find a group of tiny alien soldiers with weapons pointed, fearful that they are being invaded
- The rogue assassin climbs in the castle window, which turns out to belong not to the warlord but to a young girl, daughter of the king
- The rogue assassin jumps through the window, only to be shot in the chest with an arrow
- The college student, about to break up with their boyfriend, sits at the table with him. He pulls out a small jewelry box and drops to one knee.
- The college student walks to the table where the boyfriend is sitting, eating French fries. He looks up, mid-bite, and asks, “Hon, could you get me some ketchup? Maybe a Diet Coke?”
I ask the students to do this not only for their own story, but also for the scenes they read from their fellow students, because it’s often easier to see options for something that isn’t one’s own work. I want the students to consider the moment in their story or the scenes they’ve read as a fork in the road with multiple potential pathways ahead. Some paths may bring the story to a quick conclusion. Other scenes will let the story spin out in ways that don’t lead anywhere successful. And some ideas, some paths, might head somewhere productive, even if that only means to the next scene, where a whole new range of possible “what happens next” choices will be at their disposal.
I encourage students to be as absurd as they would like. It’s as likely that the astronaut will get hit by a passing asteroid as it is that he will discover Matt Damon stretched out on a lawn chair, eating a potato. After all, I don’t think Caryl Churchill ever imagined that her play would end with all her characters killed off in a brutal terrorist attack, five minutes in. Still, sometimes it takes venturing into the absurd or unrealistic to unlock something in the writer that allows the freedom to experiment and fail, to try something and see if it works. When the act of discovery becomes less rigid and fraught, the pressure of not knowing “what happens next” becomes far less stressful. Discovery of a story’s fiction multiverse might even be joyous and liberating. When we release control to the fiction multiverse’s bevy of options, writers may in fact also cede control of the story to the characters who occupy it, rather than one’s own stubborn will to dictate what happens.
My method here isn’t groundbreaking or revolutionary. I’m not reinventing anything. It’s just another way to help the writer get out of their own way, something we all must do at some point, whether seasoned writers or novices. Churchill’s play is ultimately about a lot of things, not the least of which is what it means to create as an artist—to make choices, try different things, throw some away, keep others, and move forward toward an often-unknown goal. For fiction writers trying to find their way in a story or novel, that’s often a daunting task.
I encourage students to be as absurd as they would like. It’s as likely that the astronaut will get hit by a passing asteroid as it is that he will discover Matt Damon stretched out on a lawn chair, eating a potato.
At a reading a few years ago, I watched George Saunders discuss the process of writing his outrageous and brilliant story “Sea Oak” from the collection Pastoralia. Saunders talked about reaching a middle point in the story where he wasn’t completely sure what would happen next since (spoiler alert!) he had just killed off Aunt Bertie, the always cheerful maternal figure in the story’s impoverished dystopian world. He tried different storylines, none of which were satisfying. He put the story away for a while. Eventually, he decided to have Bertie come back to life as a foul-mouthed and deeply cynical zombie, the reversal of her earlier self. It’s an unexpected and thoroughly satisfying turn, which, without giving too much away, unlocks the story’s larger critique of class systems and consumerism. To get there, Saunders had to tread into his own story’s multiverse to discover this path to his glorious and heartbreaking ending.
Perhaps, this is just the trial-and-error that all fiction writers must engage in to find their way through a story. Perhaps it’s just how plots reveal themselves to the writer. Maybe the multiverse still has more to show us than we ever imagined. In my dreamy, fiction writer brain I like to believe that if we start to understand any moment in a story as a point of choice—a choice of direction, of choice of decisions, a choice of details—we might become more thoughtful about how such choices are offered (or denied) us in that other place we spend most of our time: our daily lives.
John Fried teaches creative writing at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and is a graduate of Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers. He’s the author of the novel The Martin Chronicles (Grand Central Publishing, 2019). His stories and craft essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Gettysburg Review, Minnesota Review, and North American Review. He can be found on Twitter, or visit his website here.