Help out a writer with a severe case of writer's block!
June 23, 2014 8:43 AM   Subscribe

I am working on a story where a character recalls several intense "Rashomon" type events with multiple perspectives and interesting differences in how intense events play out to different witnesses. I've thought of a couple but I'd love the germ of a few more ideas...

For example, in one idea I've developed, terrorists take over a courtyard in a crowded shopping mall and hold several people hostage. Each witness is in a different store or cafe in the mall and experience the event in very different ways - i.e. a couple in a Starbucks sees a woman rush up to a guard and hand him her baby and then rush off. The couple remembers the event as a mother trying to keep her baby safe. In contrast, a second witness, a store owner on the other side of the mall sees the woman snatch the baby from another woman's stroller and then hand it to the guard. To the store owner, the woman seems like she must be part of the terrorist plot and has been employed to keep the guard distracted with a baby --thus allowing the gunmen to take hostages.

So... I am interested in two things: Does anyone have any rough ideas like the example above where different witnesses can get totally different "take-away" from the a super quick, intense event? I'm also interested to see how others have used this Rashomon effect idea in movies or television if you can can think of other examples where this idea has been done well...
posted by extrabox to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Here it is on TV Tropes. (Warning to those of us who are supposed to be working right now: that link goes to TV Tropes.)

Most long-running TV series will do a Rashomon episode. One I remember off the top of my head is an episode of CSI that I think was actually called Rashomon. The SImpsons and King of the Hill have both also done this. But there are countless others (see that link).
posted by phunniemee at 8:50 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

The TV show Leverage has an episode called 'The Rashomon Job', where all of the main characters recall a heist.
posted by mikurski at 8:50 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

The X-Files episode "Bad Blood" has Mulder and Scully recount their differing versions of an investigation in which Mulder seemingly kills an innocent bystander by accident (to humorous effect).
posted by AndrewInDC at 9:05 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Suggestion, folks: If you're going to post an example from movies or TV, check the TV tropes link posted by phunniemee, because it's probably already on there.

As for other "rough ideas," here's a witness angle story from real life: I was at a window seat at a restaurant and saw a young couple across the street tear a purse out of a middle-aged woman's hands while a bulky, bouncer-y guy held her back. The couple walked/ran around the corner, heads down, and got into a car and sped away while Bouncer Guy continued to hold the woman (who continued sobbing and struggling) in place.

It was a big mess. Someone called the cops. After talking to others who had witnessed more of the interaction, apparently the purse actually belonged to the younger woman, and the older woman grabbed it from her and started shouting at her; then the younger woman grabbed it back (which is when I started watching). Apparently Bouncer Guy was middle-aged woman's husband; middle-aged woman had early onset dementia, thought the purse belonged to her, and lunged for it.
posted by duffell at 9:29 AM on June 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

An example I saw many years ago was in a documentary about Loch Ness. The programme makers rigged a large tree branch to briefly emerge from the water while a Nessie-hunting tour group was at the shore. Interviews with people from the tour group had everything from "I saw a stick float to the surface" to confident reports of a large, lizard-like head that moved around, looked right at the group, opened its mouth, etc. So perhaps a half-seen movement that gets interpreted as a mythical animal/ghost/alien, etc?

Similarly, different perspectives of a psychic's performance. One in which the cold reading, missed guesses, etc are obvious, and one in which the psychic is nothing short of magic.

If you're interested in examples from TV, How I Met Your Mother has an explicitly unreliable narrator and plays with this form a lot, but the episodes that sprang to mind are already covered in the TVTropes article linked upthread.

Oh, and depending on your interpretation of "intense", it'd be criminal not to link Douglas Adams' story about the biscuits incident.
posted by metaBugs at 9:30 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ooh, duffell's example reminds me of something I saw once that I had completely forgotten about!

I was in London, and it was pretty late at night, and I was walking home from wherever I had been down a relatively empty street. Two guys went riding casually by on bikes and stopped at the intersection, and then a woman (on foot) came running around a corner towards them. The woman grabbed one of the guys by his collar, pulled him off the bike, threw him to the ground, grabbed the bike, and rode away. The other guy on the bike just sat there and watched.

Watching this was like wtf, did this woman just bike rob that guy?!

About 10 seconds later a police van drove up, the door slid open and a non-cop dude jumped up and grabbed the guy who was still on the bike, at which point the woman on the bike came cruising back around the corner. A cop then got out and they all started talking and shouting and pointing.

Turns out that the guys had stolen this couple's bikes and they chased them down to retrieve them.

It was pretty bizarre.
posted by phunniemee at 9:49 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I was in grade four or five my reader at school was trying to teach the concept "point of view" and had a story about a mugging in a public park. About six witnesses described the suspect. An eight-year-old kid described him as being old guy; a senior described him as a young man. A hippie (illustrated with long hair and a headband and a guitar) described the suspect as clean-cut and conventional; a soldier in uniform described him as being a long haired criminal type... I don't remember the last pair, sorry.

So one idea is to make the same character come across as completely different in appearance according to the perspective of who sees them. Many people see security guards as just like cops and would assume when the violence breaks out they would whip out a gun and start shooting, protected by their bullet proof vest, extensive training and close to hand back-up. Other people might regard the security guard as a guy in a low paid job who is given a uniform, told to look very present and has no additional training in how to deal with violence.

Another idea is to have a couple of objects in the scenario which can be mistaken for only one object, as with the two purses above, one of which belonged to the women with early-onset dementia and one of which belonged to the younger woman. Both objects can be present in your scenario but because they are in different locations and move around the witnesses can get muddled as to which is which or if there even are two of them. The objects could be two different security guards, mistaken for each other, or two different baby strollers, one of which contains a baby and one of which doesn't, or two different buttons, one of which is a store panic button that alerts the cops there is a hold up going on and the other one which calls a store clerk to unlock the changing room, or the duffle bag containing the mall shooters ammunition and a duffle bag containing a gym goers work-out gear. However you want to be careful with this kind of a device if you are aiming to write serious literary work, as it can easily turn your writing into a comedy routine.

Have you actually gone to a mall to check it out as a setting? You may find that going into a higher level and looking down gives you ideas. If you take a field trip to a mall you can get a lot of realistic detail - Would you actually be able to hear footsteps? How about sneakers squeaking on the hard tiles after someone runs through some water, or blood? Does sound travel at all or is there too much white noise? Is there any ironically cheery music playing in the background? Suppose you want to try to sneak away from the terrorists? How could you do it? Hide behind the counter in the sushi bar? Hide behind the cleaners cart? Is your mall sunny or entirely lit by artificial light? Are there any plants in the mall?

If you set yourself down in two different locations you can see how different the vantage points would be for the witnesses and that might give you some more ideas. Someone looking over the railing from above could easily see a person hiding where someone on the level wouldn't see them at all. Someone trapped on an escalator having a gun pointed at them would feel very different from someone who was standing behind the terrorists completely unseen.
posted by Jane the Brown at 11:17 AM on June 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Perspective is exactly right-- the events are viewed through the lens of the viewer's thoughts, current desires and motivations, and biases. Someone who's hungry is going to pay inordinate attention to food; someone who is sensitive to social status is going to pay attention to those things. These effects can also be amplified by the anxiety of being caught up in the events: people become caught up in irrelevant detail, or can't help but crack jokes, or say the same things over and over in search of comfort, all out of barely contained nervousness. Some people don't exhibit these things externally, but they do so internally-- beat themselves up for not doing more, or get angry at something, rational or irrational, for getting them there in the first place.

The most important thing in these scenes, at least for the TV elements, is what people unknowingly confabulate or avoid remembering-- people do a lot of self-serving memory revision when they retell the story to an investigator (because, search for the truth aside, the investigator is a human who judges you for your actions). Maybe you'll just be telling the reader (and so the witness isn't treating the reader as another person, but a passenger in their head), in which case the witnesses can be more honest. But people deny seeing things because of their fears and other associations. People also don't report things because of what we think should be obviously apparent.
posted by Sunburnt at 12:04 PM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all so much, these are great comments and links, ask meta brainstorm is the best thing ever. Really appreciate everyone's input! I'm raring to get writing!
posted by extrabox at 5:17 AM on June 24, 2014

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