By Mark Alpert
Like many other basketball fans, I heartily enjoyed “The Last Dance,” the ten-part TV documentary about Michael Jordan that recently aired on ESPN. Yes, it was definitely a sports hagiography, but it included a bit of controversy too. For instance, it raised the question of whether MJ was a “toxic worker” because he was so relentlessly harsh with some of his Chicago Bulls teammates. (The documentary really makes you feel sorry for Scott Burrell. Mike gave him so much shit!)
But “The Last Dance” also offers some valuable lessons for fiction writers. The documentary flips back and forth between two narratives: the story of the Bulls’ 1997-1998 season (which was called “The Last Dance” because Chicago’s management had made it clear that it was going to dismantle the team no matter how well they performed that year) and the story of how Michael Jordan and his teammates got to that point (covering all of MJ’s preceding seasons with the Bulls, from 1984 to 1997). The show would initially focus on several weeks of the 1997-1998 season, telling the story for example of how Dennis Rodman disappeared for a few days in the middle of the season to go partying in Las Vegas, then the documentary would go back in time to describe MJ’s childhood or his college career or his glorious stint on the Dream Team, and then the show would fast-forward to the next crucial stage of the 1997-1998 season. The documentary makers signaled these back-and-forth shifts in perspective by displaying a timeline graphic that told viewers exactly which year they were about to see next.
This narrative strategy should be familiar to fiction readers, because it’s been used to great effect in many excellent novels. I’m thinking in particular of Pat Conroy’s “The Prince of Tides,” which tells a pair of great stories in alternating chapters. One story occurs in the narrator’s adult life and focuses on his struggle to save his suicidal twin sister; the other story focuses on their traumatic childhood in the marshlands of South Carolina. If done well, this strategy gives readers two strong reasons to keep reading, and each of the stories will shed light on the other.
Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to pull off this kind of dual narrative. Have you ever tried it? Let TKZ know!