Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Sometimes, it’s the way you tell a story that makes it special. That’s what turns a simple act of revenge into a labyrinthine murder mystery, or a comical misunderstanding into a grand farce. Because of this, it can be helpful to consider not just the events of your story, but the most effective way they can unfold. To do that, you need as many options on the table as possible – so let’s add the Rashomon scene to your toolkit.
What is a Rashomon scene?
The Rashomon scene is named for Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, itself based on the short story ‘In a Grove’ by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. The former is far more famous, and is the name that comes up when dealing with this device, but since we’re literary people, we’ll go right back to the source, for now.
‘In a Grove’ tells the story of a criminal’s attack on a married couple and the consequences that unfold. The narrative is related through a series of police interviews, in which witnesses to various facts (but not the attack) and then the husband, wife, and attacker give their accounts of what happened.
What makes the story special is that the wife, the husband, and the attacker all differ in their accounts of what happened. No story is the objective truth, and each warps events to represent themselves better while expressing their grudges against the other parties. The attacker describes how he killed the husband in a fair fight, the wife describes killing him in a murder/suicide pact that she survived, and the husband (speaking through a medium) claims to have killed himself after being betrayed by his wife.
Perhaps the thing that has most cemented this story’s longevity is that the truth is never revealed – the reader is left to decide who and what they believe but, more importantly, to reflect on the impossibility of any single person’s ability to communicate unbiased truth.
Rashomon tells a similar story, with the crucial structural similarity of multiple people giving differing accounts of the same events without arriving at a combined objective truth.
Over the years, this once-innovative device has entered common usage, a process that has softened it somewhat. In contemporary writing, it’s more usual for a Rashomon scene to have an objective truth. This is generally revealed in stages, each speaker expelling earlier fallacies until the final account can be trusted at face value. While perhaps less daring, this is just one variation on the classic Rashomon structure that might suit your story.
How to use a Rashomon scene
A classic Rashomon scene (or even story) doesn’t end with an objective truth. This is a powerful way of telling a story, but it’s also limiting. Without a conclusion, the judgements the reader can make are limited – Akutagawa uses this to comment on the nature of truth, memory, and communication, and that’s what it’s best suited for.
Despite this, the classic Rashomon scene is a great way to dive into character. The details that a character adds, notices, or leaves out can tell the reader a huge amount about who they are and where their priorities lie. The only issue here is what they’re being compared against. A sufficient number of characters allows the author to compare one to the other, but without an objective truth, it’s harder for the reader to make definite judgements – how can they assess bias when they’ll never know what happened?Can one person’s account be ‘true’? What does that mean for your plot?Click To Tweet
It’s for this reason that the modern use of the Rashomon scene tends towards uncovering the truth. Oddly, this type of scene is most common in murder mysteries and comedies, where the structure of contradiction and revelation works for two very different reader experiences.
The Rashomon episode tends to be a mainstay of the sit-com, and it’s here that we can find a good example of what a less classical Rashomon scene can do for your writing. In the How I Met Your Mother episode ‘The Ashtray’, the Rashomon story is achieved by having multiple characters in a state of intoxication while attending a gallery opening.
They’re invited to the event by an old acquaintance known as the Captain. Inebriated and wary, most of the group project their expectations onto their host. Ted, the central protagonist, tells a story in which he’s a witty guest eventually threatened over an old grudge. Robin, his friend, reveals that he was actually incredibly boorish, and completely mistook the situation, but believes their host was in fact trying to seduce her. In reality, Robin was drunkenly flirting with the Captain, who was actually looking for their friend Lily (who was sober, and is able to recount the facts).
In a knowing contradiction of the usual Rashomon structure, this story plays out while another friend, who didn’t attend, complains of feeling left out and tries to insert himself into each account, leading the friends to invent a deliberately fictional escapade to make him feel included.Differing accounts can reveal the hidden depths of your characters.Click To Tweet
Barring this final flourish, ‘The Ashtray’ presents the type of Rashomon story most common to humorous writing. Each of the characters reveals their personal quirks, both in how they present their own behavior and how they read the situation around them, with the next character taking them to task and then repeating the process. Lily’s more objective account provides a factual bedrock on which subjective, character-based accounts can be built.
This structure can also work for drama, but here it’s more important to keep the reader aware that there is a final truth. In comedy, the process itself can be satisfying, and finding the truth is less urgent, so the reader is usually happier to wait around and trust the author. In drama, however, the truth is likely to matter more, so it can help to give more of an impression of a journey.
It’s for this reason that dramatic Rashomon scenes and stories are often best experienced through an intermediary. Most obviously, this would take the form of a detective – someone who hears the different accounts, and uses them to discern the truth (or at least the facts salient to a conclusion).
This is the case in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, in which the detective, Hercule Poirot, interviews five characters whose accounts of the same event differ in various subtle ways. Here, there’s less of a sense that each story is more accurate – instead, it’s up to the protagonist to piece together equally unreliable accounts to discover the facts. Poirot is successful in uncovering the truth, but has little faith he can actually secure a legal victory – Christie stays true to the device’s roots, revealing the facts while still suggesting that a collection of biases are incapable of producing a pure truth.
Despite this, having Poirot outside the disputed events provides the reader with a guide through the Rashomon process. He’s there to interrogate each account, and even express frustration, subtly reassuring the reader that there is a conclusion in sight.
Again, it’s perhaps not as daring as ‘In a Grove’, but it’s a far more flexible model, and a great way to turn a relatively simple plot into a more complex drama. What’s great about this device is how it blurs the line between characterization and plot – the author is able to pack their drama with red herrings and revelations which a) can be excused by character, rather than needing a more grounded explanation and b) also tell the reader about the speaker.Differing accounts can turn a simple crime into a mystery.Click To Tweet
For example, it’s easy to insert red herrings like a noise in the night or a suspicious act as part of one character’s memory. If this was a set plot event, you’d need an innocent explanation, but in a Rashomon scene, it’s easy for a character to be mistaken. This can still be done believably and without cheating the reader, and with so many characters, there are more ways to hide the truth. In this way, you can turn even a basic set of events into a mystery.
Of course, these structures imagine stories that turn on their Rashomon scenes, but the device can actually be implemented in less intrusive ways.
Using Rashomon moments subtly
At its core, the Rashomon device is intended to show that any given character’s account is unreliable. Usually, this unreliability is important – it’s the key to a murder, or obscures a more realistic truth in the plot – but that doesn’t have to be the case.
The Bartimaeus Sequence is a series in which narration passes between various characters. This allows the author to send different characters off on their own adventures, but it also provides incongruous accounts of small moments. These are used for both drama and comedy, but primarily to deliver small character moments. For instance, in one scene, a character describes how good he looks in new clothing, but when the narration switches, other characters privately reflect that he looks like a fool. Likewise, the details of conversations change, with one character presenting themselves as wittier or more together than other characters remember.
Few of these moments matter to the plot as a whole, but they do make individual moments more effective. Not every author can switch characters for this effect, but they can use dialogue and perspective to create such moments.
It’s also possible to use Rashomon moments in the long term. This is a loose application of the device where different characters have a different reading of the situation. In the ‘Reunion’ episode of 30 Rock, for instance, protagonist Liz Lemon remembers her high-school self as a lonely nerd making unheard cracks about her tormentors. When she attends a reunion, however, she realizes that her former classmates remember her as a scathing bully, and kept their distance accordingly.
The moment is played for laughs, but it’s an example of how having characters remember the same events from different perspectives can add drama and even seed disagreements and discoveries later in the plot.
Find ways to include a Rashomon scene
As ever, this device will do the most for you if you find ways to use it, rather than waiting for the perfect moment to come along. Have two character who used to date? Have them remember the circumstances of their breakup differently. Want someone to do badly at work? Maybe it would be more impactful if they think they did a great job.
Oddly, it’s this minor use that most often allows the Rashomon scene to return to its roots, with no objective truth needed. If the focus is on the consequences, rather than the event itself, then it’s fine for the reader to get two biased accounts without finding out the real details.
A final tip it’s worth keeping in mind is that the Rashomon scene is usually at its best when no-one is lying, especially when there’s an objective truth to be reached. The Rashomon scene works so well because it speaks to a truth of human behaviour – we’re inherently unreliable narrators. The reader recognizes this truth, and takes satisfaction from identifying how and why each character’s bias has led them away from the facts. If they’re outright lying, though, the observation is lost.
Sometimes, it makes sense for a character to be lying – if they committed a murder, for example – but wherever possible, try to retain the truth of their account. The closer they hew to what really happened, the more fascinating the discrepancies: a scene where characters remember different words being spoken is interesting, but a scene where they remember the same words in a different tone of voice, and therefore ascribe them with a different meaning, is fascinating.A lie has a single motive, but bias reveals far more about a character.Click To Tweet
In the same vein, it’s often advisable to add minor details that only one character noticed, but which are nevertheless true. Received wisdom tells us that agreed facts are most likely to be true, but disproving this in a small way heightens the reader’s sense that no-one can be fully trusted. Similarly, consider beginning your deconstruction with an observation that has nothing to do with the pertinent facts. Someone remembers a vase of flowers that aren’t in season, or is sure they saw a book that was actually just mentioned in conversation. Again, this sets the reader on edge, drawing a distinction between looking for the lies in otherwise trustworthy accounts and trying to construct the truth out of inherently flawed testimony.
Studying the Rashomon process
Writing a compelling Rashomon scene is difficult because it involves approaching a moment from every available angle. If one character is lying, you just have to work out their lie, but if all the characters are unreliable, you need to work out myriad miscomprehensions for each, and how they fit together.
For this, it can be easiest to fix the real facts in your mind and then work out. Pay special attention to each character’s attitude and area of interest – these are the places where they’re most likely to notice details and most likely to embellish or create new memories.
If you want to go one step further, all you have to do is strike up a conversation with multiple people who were at the same event. Do it separately, so you get each individual’s personal account, and note how the stories differ. They’re unlikely to have radically different memories, and will probably agree how things went, but pay attention to the small details they bring up and anything unique about their account. These are building blocks of their personal experiences, and this is where your characters can most believably disagree.
For a practical application of the Rashomon scene, check out Are Your Characters Talking At Cross-Purposes? Why Not? Or, if you want to start thinking about the elements of character that go into these kind of disagreements, try Get To Know Your Characters Better With This Novel Device. Do you have a favorite Rashomon scene, or can you think of a plot moment that could be improved by using this device? Let me know in the comments.