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Storytelling in the Multiverse
February 16, 2023

Storytelling in the Multiverse

When I read about quantum entanglement and parallel universes growing up, those ideas seemed akin to mysticism. Let me just light some candles, Ouija with a ghost, read my horoscope to a crystal and talk about black holes. Mentioning the idea of a parallel universe to, say, my mom or an English professor felt taboo, like admitting that I believed I could read people’s minds or I’d lived a past life as a prohibition-era barkeep.


Imagine my surprise when a couple of decades later, the multiverse has become so mainstream as to be a B-plot in every Marvel movie. People munch on popcorn as Spiderman or Thor hop through dimensions to encounter alternate selves.

What I’ve been trying to understand, as a writer, marketer, and pop culture fan, is just what these new narratives mean for the practice of storytelling.

While storytelling can seem broad and divergent, it’s also an art governed by structuralism and a belief in universal frameworks. Spending a bit of time with Carl Jung’s archetypes or Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, you start to see the same plot arcs and characters in everything from ancient poetry to The Bachelor. Judd Apatow famously said he learned to make movies by watching The Graduate over and over and breaking it down into a simple formula.

Many writers grow up learning the ins and outs of structuralism, and it’s a basic trade in advertising. The first step to branding is often choosing a brand’s archetype and familiarizing a team with shortcuts to meaning.

It might be this groove of comfort I’ve fallen into that makes some of today’s most exciting storytelling feel so novel and frenetic in comparison.

Everything Everywhere All at Once, a multiverse kung-fu-slash-family-drama starring Michelle Yeoh, is a great example of this. The movie follows Evelyn Quan, whose straightforward life running a laundromat turns upside-down when she encounters the complexity of her daughter through the lens of parallel universes. The movie’s poster is as maximalist as it gets, just like the movie itself. It’s definitely deserving of the Best Picture award for how heart-wrenching, funny and inventive it is.

On the other end of the tonal spectrum is Dark, a German Netflix show directed by Baran bo Odar. (You might also know this director from 1899, a canceled Netflix show regarded as “a mindfuck” by almost everyone who watched and loved it.) In Dark, a Stranger Things-like cast of teenagers stumbles into a cave near a nuclear power plant, and unearths a knot-like universe of time travel. Incest is a major element of Dark, as it turns out that time travel can spread present seed into the past. It also references causal paradoxes, Oedipal complexes, and plenty of Nietzsche. Light, weeknight content in Germany?

Both Everything Everywhere All at Once and Dark were some of my favorite pieces of media in the last couple years. But the price of entry is higher, as they necessitate a greater level of attention to detail. If you don’t keep your own detective-like corkboard going in your head about who was doing what, you will soon fail to keep up.

Deciphering character transformation can also be more difficult in a plot that purposefully uses fragmentation. In On Directing Film, playwright David Mamet details a simple formula for writing: play out a character’s want, the obstacles that get between them and their objective, and the actions they take to overcome them. In the multiverse, this formula becomes split between endless iterations of one character, between multiple eras, timelines, sub universes, etc.

It takes more work to interlace a straightforward structure like this into a multiverse plot, both for the creator and the viewer or reader. I often find myself impressed, but with a slight headache, after such a story. And if you don’t put in the work, it is much more likely to rub you the wrong way, to feel incomplete and meaningless.

To make matters more complicated, stories now exist not just in a multiverse, but also a metaverse, where different media carry different parts of a story, creating a 360-degree interactive experience.


To make matters more complicated, stories now exist not just in a multiverse, but also a metaverse, where different media carry different parts of a story, creating a 360-degree interactive experience.


This definitely came into play with this year’s Super Bowl ads, which often felt like they were referencing a larger ecosystem of storytelling that lived elsewhere, be it in QR codes, commercials to come later, or PR stunts you might have missed. I watched a Maya Rudolph M&M’s commercial that left me feeling like I must have missed 3/4s of the whole melt-in-your-mouth-not-your-hand plot. While I do care to look up the characters in Dark on Netflix’s interactive companion website, I am not going to dive deeper for an M&M’s ad.

Intricacy in storytelling has pervaded even the most mundane parts of culture in 2023. Whether it’s something Ant Man is doing or a surprisingly meta commercial about a website builder, there are endless threads to pull should you be so motivated. And because we live in a constrained reality, these threads are sometimes just not worth pulling.

To break through, these stories still rely on the basic, psychological structures every other story does. If they don’t, they can feel like a series of non-sequiturs for the sake of style and misdirection. (A show appropriately titled Lost.)

A couple basic practices of stories that strike the balance of fragmentation and structure:

    • Center on one character’s transformation:

      Everything Everywhere did this perfectly, and you’ll leave wondering how a googly eye could make you cry so much.

    • Know when you’ve reached a conclusion:

      It’s tempting to add layer upon layer in complex stories, but oftentimes this feels indecisive. Would Westworld have been better as a miniseries?

    • Leave your audience signposts:

      A “you are here” marker on a map goes a long way in a story that needs a glossary.


For brands, these rules are just as relevant. Considering the core audience and lifestyle you’re speaking to, and building on a human insight, is still the first step. Designing a simple but engaging ecosystem, and giving people a compass through it, is also essential.

I won’t be surprised if we see a return to minimalism in the next few years. We might be primed for a pivot back to the simple and abstracted. But for now, it’s an interesting challenge to try to keep up.


Artwork by Andrew Beckman

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