Essays on cinematic narrative. The focus is a set of dynamics collected under the concept of folding, a related system of techniques to model agency and causality.

Long Form

Published: 5 May 2012

For some reason, we easily differentiate between long form and short form narratives.

We do so in the written word; the demarcation between short stories and novels is clear enough to be universally accepted. My intuitions are that the difference involves different parts of our cognitive apparatus, so it is a hardwired distinction. Others have ways of describing the difference, but I would like to try here to work from scratch. There will be a few goals in this exercise of writing the essays:

  • the study is focused on long form narrative; therefore the more insight into its nature the better.
  • there are few ways to better find such insights than recognizing what it is not, and I expect we will do plenty of that.
  • very likely, some of the success of our cinematic vocabulary comes from how it can reinforce and expand long form while increasing effectiveness, so we should find those.
  • finally, the study has several associated projects, including the writing of a novel or two. If we use insights from the study (and some supporting modern technology) and the thing — our synthetic cinematic machine — works as designed, it shouldtell us something.

A goal with the filmsfolded essays is to aggregate relatively small insights into an integrated vision that uses new tools and abstractions. In essence, it also is a collection of small discrete bits (like this essay on the webpage) that with others will add to something like a long form. In other words, I am interested in long form films, so I can write a ‘long form’ perspective on the insights which in turn can support that long form ‘cinematic’ hypertext novel.

Causal Dynamics

I believe the difference between long and short form can be cleanly defined in terms of our new model. Both short and long form have agents that cause things to happen. Both can use many of same the writer's tricks. But only long form allows situations to have agency. A situation or attitude is a world, perspective or inner view of some kind.

A short form gives us a situation, often an intriguing situation, within which agents interact. It can engage; it can produce surprises, though big surprises are relatively rare. We can enter and experience, but the world surrounding and governing the situation is static. Within this short form, many things can occur including the delivery of useful art and effect on souls. I believe most of the narratives we encounter are of this ‘short’ form (though the actual length is irrelevant). Because it is so common, I suppose that people prefer it because most of it is easy to encounter and while the rewards are relatively trivial it costs little.

A long form is an entirely different beast, and while the delivery technologies are shared with short form they could not be more different. A visit to long form has at least one explicitly acknowledged platform for the viewer/reader that is outside of the situation of the story proper. (These outer platforms are one of our most commonly observed folds.)

The viewer can use (based on the enticements provided by the artist) this platform to see the dynamics of the world of the story as well as to visit its surrounding situation. This allows the viewer to hold two stances at the same time, experiencing the story itself with vicarious experience and at the same time knowing some things that only a god would know, for example why things are developing the way they are.


In fact, I think the historical precedent is stories told at least thousands of years ago (and perhaps much older) where there literally are two worlds: the world of humans where things just happen and the world of the gods which we see and where certain dynamics are revealed. Usually those are causal dynamics explaining why things happen the way they will in the human lives. (In a related study, I annotate the Gospel of Matthew which Ipresent as a turning point in this form.)

Over time, the interplay between these worlds has become quite rich; I capture these dynamics in the concept of folds, a word intended to denote that more than one narrative thread is at work. Sometimes, the narrative focuses on the second, outside world, leaving the causal dynamics ambiguous. Kubrick is a master of this with a simple example being The Shining, where Stephen King was disturbed when his simple short form story with clear, static dynamics, was turned into a long form where by the end we know only some of what has happened and only some of why.

The difference is striking when comparing most TeeVee with most films. TeeVee has certain conventions unique to the medium, the most constraining being the need to break the narrative so as to capture the viewer for advertisements. Even when the channel does not demand these breaks every few minutes, the narrative still conforms because that is how we have learned to relate to that screen. (There are other restrictions as well, having to do with how shots are blocked and edited. These come from the size of the screen and presumptions about how we manage our attention when watching.)

So most TeeVee is short form. At least that was the case until recently when market forces wanted to increase viewer loyalty by providing rewards for watching every episode. One device is to have story lines that continue and develop over many weeks. Almost always, these are just more short form narratives thrown into the mix with the (usually) two short form stories that are wholly contained in each episode. Try this: separate out the stories, whether they span broadcast days or not. See if there are any operative folds; though my investment in TeeVee is slight these days I think you will find that though these stories can be complex and sometimes convoluted, they never escape the confines of the world, the situation, in which they exist.

An interesting development in long form is long form composed of apparently short form components. Short Cuts and the later Magnolia are examples that work for me. I would say that some of the narrative threads enhance others and I would include this in a vocabulary of folding. Sometimes the folding dynamic is simple: 10 Short Films about Women has ten different stories about ten different women, but combined they encircle a larger notion of woman that is amazingly powerful.

Magnolia on the other hand has narratives that work against each other, creating ambiguities and tension.

Causal Agents and other Concepts

Some basic definitions we use.

Our work here and in redframer focuses on agents and how they change things. The tricky thing is that good writers employ agents that the reader is unaware of — or for that matter so is the writer. They work behind the scenes, often invisible.

The way we define these is the same way physicists understand elementary particles they cannot see: by their effects. If something is in motion, some assembly of agents made it so. We can see and feel change when we read; there are other changes having to do with the art of storytelling, writing and filmmaking that aren’t so explicit but that we can tease out.

Like the physicists, we have to work up a theory to model what these agents are and how they relate to one another. The same scientific rules apply:

  • we have to keep comparing the (agent) model to how people actually consume narrative, and these consumers have to be both casual and deep, analytical ones.
  • we want to understand it in a way that our models can be used in a computer. Now, physicists have it relatively easy in terms of the math they can use. We have it much harder and have to work in a non-logical world. It is rough and hard to describe, but the idea is the same: to build models that comprehend the world, models that can be put in computers.

We’ve already said that long form is required to support the agents we identify and their causal dynamics, and the other way around. Things have to change in the world for folds to affect other folds, each fold being at least one situation. So, changing situations is what this is all about.

If all that sounds elusive, don’t worry. The idea here is to pack the essays with lots of examples. The key concepts are:

  • long form, simply any work of narrative work that supports change of some elements within it, usually characters. It also possibly induces change in the reader/viewer.
  • change is understood broadly here, and includes effects that may not be visible except indirectly or in deferred encounters.
  • agents are what cause change. It is all about the change, so when we see change with no known agent, we have to invent one that works behind the scenes. But otherwise, characters and other elements can be agents, as well as structural features of the presentation.
  • situations. All our implementation in the machine is via situations. The term means what you suppose. A narrative is a situation with many situations within it. Many other situations from our lives are carried into the reading or viewing. Many from the story and most from our lives are not fully understood or even known. Situations are only partly logical, supposing that we know something about them. All agents exist in a situation and all situations can be agents in a sort of circular world.
  • governance is the condition of one situation dominating others, embossing interpretation on them. Except in the most poetic narratives, one situation governs at a time. Interesting narratives have shifting governance.
  • folds. This is a coined term that signifies when two or more situations are maintained in a narrative. There are several types we have observed. These are reported here.

Our cinematic machines have these moving parts.

In this planned novel, by the way, I have a design challenge beyond the usual. It takes me to the edge of what was once called hypertext, where traditionally narrative elements are discrete bits connected in unexpected and usually redundant ways. While the focus in traditional hypertext is on the dynamic of alternative reading paths, an undesirable side effect has been to make the discrete bits more ‘discreet’ in how they affect the whole. They tend to be less components of an integrated narrative and more like tiny stories that only make sense when placed in an array of siblings.

I'll be trying something different, and I suppose it will also be considered hypertext because it will involve links and chunks of text. But the idea is more holistic. The goal in the novel is to create a world where the value of the experience is in the strange structure and laws of that world. The stories are just ways to experience the world, and the reader can choose her own path depending on her own tastes, discovering whatever parts that work for her. This is just as it is in life.

A spatial analogy is that conventional hypertext narrative is like a sculture garden where a visitor can wander from one sculpture to another. Each will have a story. The sculptor will have arranged them in a certain way so some connections are easier than others, but the visitor gets to meander as she pleases. The way the stories aggregate will vary depending on her path.

Contrast that to a richly designed architectural interior that is intended for living. The inhabitant has a sense of the design early in the occupation; and basic navigation and functionality is obvious and convenient. But over time, he discovers more and more sense in the form of the place, the geometry of edges and planes. While most of his life will involve interacting with the space subconsciously, the intrinsic order of the place affects him. And from time to time he notices something that is unique from other spaces and that he understands in the context of the design.

So my interest in this FilmsFolded study is partly practical and extends to this collection of essays as well — I'd like them themselves to be thought of as long form.

I cannot yet link to that annotated version, though it will appear in the fabric of this site. So let me give a high level teaser.

We assume — with the large company of scholars — that none of the authors of the accounts of Jesus' life intended historical accuracy of the kind we understand today; truth in history is a modern notion. The accounts differ because different storytellers added, omitted and modified things to make a better story for specific audiences. That makes the decisions much more interesting.

To be devout in those days meant complying with some very strict rather arbitrary rules. Jesus shows up and is asked what the new rules (read 'the new logic') would be. His interlocutors clearly expected something more stringent. In response, Jesus said: 'Let me tell you a story.'

The stories we presume that are genuinely his (most outside of Matthew apparently are not), are full of ambiguous metaphor, dynamic reinterpretation and the kinds of things we later would call folded narrative.

Matthew is the only account we have that itself aspires to have this sort of structure, and therefore not only is the first example we have of this sort of narrative (in the Greek world), but comes with two complete layers.

It is the first milestone in a chain of significant stories we annotate.

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© copyright Ted Goranson, 2012