A Journey to the Narrative Design in Everything Everywhere All At Once

By Christy Dena and Yen Ooi

This article contains moderate spoilers, so please do watch the film before reading!

Yen: Everything Everywhere All At Once is a 2022 film by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. I watched it on a quiet weekday morning at a lush cinema with only two other people in the room. I laughed out loud and cried real tears, many times throughout. It’s a habit of mine to stay to the end of film credits to appreciate the number of people (who made it and those who didn’t) it took to make the film, and this time, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay in the cinema to try and hold on to my feelings a little longer.

The film was bumpy in places for me, but it felt like quality entertainment that was nutritional for my soul. I couldn’t articulate why that was the case, so I reached out to an East and Southeast Asian writers network that I belonged to in the UK, Bubble Tea Writers, and crowdsourced some thoughts:

“I loved how funny and wacky it was, whilst having a super simple mother-daughter relationship at its heart. It made me think of my mum…” Martin Ngwong

“In many ways the film was something that I’d both never seen before and yet it was uncannily familiar.” Arianne Maki

“I’ve seen it twice and loved it!! Thought it was a really original film that didn’t feel predictable.” Nozomi Tolworthy

Everything continued to nibble away at my thoughts, so much so that I couldn’t help but mention it to Christy. I knew that she would be able to help me analyse how the narrative structure plays into the success of the film and why I’m so taken by it. I was also curious as to how she (who’s not from an Asian diasporic background) would experience the film. A couple of weeks later, I received an email from Christy titled: Seen Everything! We quickly got together to chat and afterwards, it was clear that we both had a lot of thoughts about the film, and we wanted to share them. We continued our conversation on a shared document, and this is the result.

To start the journey, I find myself licking the ‘y’ key on my keyboard to jump into Christy’s world!

Multiverses & Multiplicity

Christy: Yen! Hey, I was listening to the Script Apart podcast, and the Daniels say It’s a Wonderful Life is a multiverse film.[1] One way it does this is through exploring an alternative universe, in which the protagonist was never born. I would add another way it is a multiverse: the movement of the protagonist from their assumption things will inevitably end up bad, to shifting perspective and chasing a different path. There is the verse of closed thinking, and the verse of ‘optional thinking’… or optional thinking creates another verse!

‘Optional thinking’ is a term I’m calling in from the work of film studies scholar Nitzan Ben Shaul’s Cinema of Choice.[2] Ben Shaul invokes this term to highlight how Hollywood movies are usually designed around expecting certain outcomes and closed thinking. That is: the pleasure is in reducing what could or should happen, not opening it up. Whereas designing for optional thinking involves devices such as providing alternate narrative tracks (what if I did things differently?), switching point of view (there is another way to see the situation?), and counterfactual histories (there is another way things could have gone?). These kinds of alternative structures are important. In the world right now, we need not just more different characters, storylines, and storyworlds, but also different possibility structures.[3]

Some think that depicting multiple universes and having choices in games automatically facilitates optional thinking. If there is more than one, it’s automatically multiplicity! But choices and existences within the same worldview are not the same as a pluriverse (à la Arturo Escobar’s Designs for the Pluriverse).[4] Escobar explains how the plurality of many worlds intervenes in the “one-world world” of homogenous modernity.[5] So, in other words, some movies appear to offer many different realities, but the differences are superficial. Really these movies are reinforcing the idea that some things never change. You can travel to any universe you like, but you can never leave the monoverse.

Everything goes that extra step and depicts radically different worlds: a raccoon verse, hotdog finger verse, a rock verse, and so on. Indeed, the Daniels talk about how they intentionally didn’t just have people with different jobs in each verse, they instead worked it so each verse introduces a new existential question. The marriage of alternate paths, multiplicity, and changing your mind to encompass different truths, is what, I believe, gives love a chance.

Multiverse, Reincarnation, and Balance

Yen: The plurality of the multiverse shown in Everything also invokes comparison with ideas of reincarnation, where it might be possible for reincarnation to be perceived across different universes rather than lifetimes. Where our soul might remain the same, each life we inhabit allows us to be completely different, to improve ourselves or pay for karma debt perhaps. In reincarnation, we could come back as a lesser creature (even a stone!), or in an indebted circumstance, or as a predator, or extremely privileged, for example. It is often assumed that reincarnation is experienced linearly in time, but that doesn’t need to be the case, as Buddhism also teaches that finite time isn’t absolute but instead, is an imposed characteristic of eternal time. In the Everything pluriverse, it is suggested that all the various forms we inhabit are played out at the same time. Both concepts seek to find a balance in life (whether it is karma, truth, love or more) while disregarding linear time.

Through Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh)’s character, we are given the chance to ‘fast jump’ and sample a variety of possible lives. And as she wades through them, she learns through her interactions in the different universes, and slowly changes her worldview. Most notable is her interaction with Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) in a universe where they do not get married and she becomes super successful. She starts to be more open to accepting, understanding, and ultimately engaging with all that seems trivial or unnecessary. 

Christy: Yes, I too thought about multiple lifetimes while watching. I don’t view reincarnation as necessarily linear, hierarchical, or even as an experience specific to Earth. Changes happen in multiple forms across times and spaces. I remember when I was living in Sydney and feeling stressed and overwhelmed. I would walk through busy tunnels of people, and the only thing that consistently brought me peace was imagining every person rushing by was me in another lifetime. It wasn’t an ego fest. It wasn’t about me being everywhere, but the part of me that is everything. My heart would immediately blossom to envelop everyone. I didn’t feel alone, challenged, or that different. They were just lives with different environments, families, bodies, and changes. I like that the multiverse approach of the Daniels in a way normalises this. I want to show you something, Yen. See the dandelions on the ground? Let’s put the stems in each others’ noses. 

Antagonist Design

Christy: I’ll admit that the idea that after experiencing lots of different verses Joy/Jobu (Stephanie Hsu) would become nihilistic didn’t ring true for me. Knowing there is more, and that we’re connected in multiple existences and ways of being, is calming to me and not a dilemma. I checked, and in the podcast, the Daniels talk about their thinking behind this construction. They wanted to give this multiverse power an Achilles heel, an existential crisis. A counter to the multiverse power narratives of other works. The existential crisis builds and the last act, it seems, becomes about convincing themselves as writers, the characters, and the audience that there is a way to thrive despite the crisis. So, the nihilistic approach is a product of their design and, it seems, their own thoughts and feelings about perceived meaninglessness. One thing they added that resonated with me: they said the villain is a daughter who is looking for a version of her mother that understands her. That is heartbreaking and lovely. I do not relate to the nihilistic path but I do relate to wanting to be understood and trying to find care and love in the world. Indeed, this antagonist design enacts the approach I work with on my own projects. It is where antagonists aren’t malicious, they’re misunderstood. Being misunderstood doesn’t absolve responsibility, but it widens the reading beyond one dimension.

Yen: Being misunderstood is so hard. I also think that the antagonist design of Joy’s character becoming nihilist also draws on the diaspora story in the Asian-American setting. David Mura, in his book A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing premises that ‘implicit in the lives of most — if not all – people of color in America is a constant and real existential threat.’[6] In Everything, Joy feels alienated not only by her own family, but also by society around her. Though that is not explicit in the storytelling, it is an underlying threat – a constant negotiation for people of colour in America that would implicitly inform Joy’s character development. This doesn’t justify the nihilist development, but it makes it a more plausible route.

Christy: Ah, right. Yes, there is the inevitable internalising of negative views of ourselves and each other. The Daniels talk about the tiny moments at the beginning of the film – the careless racism, ageism, sexism. They say these come about because people don’t have the time to look at each other and say, “you contain multitudes.” The broken socio-economic systems of the world result in many of us losing sight of each other, and causes the many faces of antagonism. This is what I love: when writers shape their narrative design from a philosophy of living. See that painting on the wall? We need to try and hang on the nail behind it for a second to get another angle on this.

Crisis & Community

Christy: A design element that stood out for me was how community and kindness operates. Not only are the characters centred around a family (albeit with disrupted relationships), but there are also different versions of themselves and others in other realities that are rallying to be there for them. The emphasis in storytelling norms is usually about antagonists, but there are works like this that amplify the allies. In Lana and Lilly Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski’s Sense 8, for instance, people from different times and spaces find ways to be there in battles and care, and likewise does the devoted husband, Waymond, in Everything. Importantly for me, too, the key crisis design does not become about lots of antagonistic forces trying to destroy each other. Covered in multiple machines, the father, Gong Gong (James Hong) steps up, and when Evelyn and Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis) fight, it doesn’t become about overpowering another. Instead, it is about people coming together, seeing the other person for all they can be, and saying ‘I love you.’ Tic-tac-foe, Yen.

Learning the System

Christy:

Games have the benefit of interactions being an added way for a player to figure out what the system is and how it works. In creative works like movies, systems are learnt solely through audiences observing the actions and interactions between characters and their environment. This is something Adam Gantz talks about regarding Groundhog Day:about how the screenplay helps the audience learn what the same day happening again means.[7] The screenplay trains audiences to determine what is going on and what to do by providing a clear mental model, feedback, consistency and so on. Likewise in Everything, I loved seeing how the mechanics of verse travel operated, and the nifty places they took it. The whole concept of doing something truly random – like paper cuts or eating lip balm – to open up a verse works for me at a psychological and philosophical level, as well at an action comedy level. It makes a mental and social dynamic overt: that to break out of what is known in your world you have to do something incredibly different. On top of this, the whole mechanic of merging unusual actions and objects is inspired and entertaining.

Yen: I know what you mean, in the example where Evelyn needs to say ‘I love you’ to Deirdre to make the jump, I felt that this took the idea of empathy to a different level. It is rare for Asian parents to show unrestrained affection, or to even engage in emotional language. And here, Evelyn is forced into an extremely uncomfortable position, needing to say something passionate to someone who’s not only unrelated to her, but is also seen as a nemesis – being the IRS investigating officer. When she’s finally successful, she ends up in the ‘hotdog fingers’ universe – a place that is ridiculous and gross at times. This is where we see the most tender interactions between Evelyn and Deirdre who are partners and lovers here. We could argue that in order for the original Evelyn to be able to get past the embarrassment of saying the romantic phrase directly to Deirdre, it needed to be such an extreme universe. But at the same time, we could also perceive this to show the breadth of love and empathy in being human, where, to empathise isn’t about putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes – rather, it is about imagining we were their closest ally, their family. If we compared the triggers and the distance of the jumps in Everything we might say that the bigger, weirder (and more difficult) the gesture, the more impact it has on the distance of the jump. For example, Evelyn’s first jump was to a universe very similar to that of her own, and all she had to do was wear her shoes on the wrong feet. Whereas ‘hotdog fingers’ world seems unrecognisable in comparison. Hmm, let’s braid our hair together, I wonder where it’ll take us.

The trivial and nostalgia

Yen:

Evelyn’s world and moved around like a ninja, something that I and I’m sure many kids have tried doing after watching kung fu films, or when Joy inserted her vertical closed palms through just a gap between her third and fourth fingers, into her mother’s horizontal palms in the same way, and got her mother to open the base of her palms to peer in – and seeing them again helped legitimise my own history. Going back to David Mura’s thoughts on diaspora communities and existential threat through representation, though these gestures and jokes are commonplace around the world, being able to watch them on the big screen, played out by actors of colour, somehow gives me permission to consider my own past as real. I had not realised that my practice of self-censorship had gone beyond my writing and bled into my personal memories and history too. This ‘literary tokenism’ that Nicole Chung explores so tenderly in her work[8] has become so embedded in my own work that I seem to have started to ‘edit’ my life subconsciously – either ignoring non-cultural specific memories to avoid thinking of myself as being in league with my colonisers, or self-censoring Asian and East Asian parts to avoid being tokenised, depending on the situation. Chung tells us that at a writing event, she’s expected to talk about racism while white writers talk about their craft. In Everywhere, people of colour are allowed to talk about their craft and whatever else they want! The everyday moments of our lives that are not (Asian) cultural-specific, not socio-politically important … or in fact, are just regular, become totems of assurance in Everywhere, giving us spaces to breath and pause. It reminded me to view tokenism as just that, and embrace all of life (trivial or otherwise) as truth.

Christy: I have Koala ears, Yen, and I’m staring at the sunset. 

Yen: I’m going for a Chop Suey swim, Christy. Catch you in another verse! 

Notes

[1] Horner, Al (2022) ‘Episode 42: Everything Everywhere All At Once with Daniels,’ Script Apart, 12th May, https://www.scriptapart.com/episodes/episode-42-everything-everywhere-daniels-interview.

[2] Shaul, Nitzan Ben (2015 [2012]) Cinema of Choice: Optional Thinking and Narrative Movies, New York & Oxford: Berghahn Books.

[3] Dena, Christy (2020) ‘Expanding Our Sense of the Possible in Narrative Design,’ Medium, 19th Aug, https://christydena.medium.com/expanding-our-sense-of-the-possible-in-narrative-design-cef1af8dc38.

[4] Escobar, Arturo (2018) Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds, Durham & London: Duke University Press.

[5] Escobar cites the ‘One-World World’ term from Law, John (2011) ‘What’s Wrong with a One-World World,’ Heterogeneities, September 25, http://www.heterogeneities.net/publications/Law2011WhatsWrongWithAOneWorld World.pdf.

[6] David Mura (2018), A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing, University of Georgia Press, p.43

[7] Ganz, Adam (2011) “Let the Audience Add Up Two Plus Two. They’ll Love You Forever’: The Screenplay As A Self-Teaching System,” in Analysing the Screenplay. Nelmes, J (ed.). Routledge, p. 127-141: 137.

[8] Chung, Nicole (2022) ‘Writing While Asian and the Burden of Education’, I Have Notes, The Atlantic, 5th May https://newsletters.theatlantic.com/i-have-notes/6272f75999d36800215ff453/asian-american-author-tokenization


Christy Dena is a storyteller, educator, and researcher who focuses on prefiguring a more kind, just, and creative world in all her work. She works part-time as a Professor of Cross-Media and Interactive Narratives at The Norwegian Film School, and resides in Melb, Australia, with the land of the Kulin Nation.

Yen Ooi is a writer-researcher whose works explore East and Southeast Asian culture, identity and values. A PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Rén: The Ancient Chinese Art of Finding Peace and Fulfilment, Yen writes fiction, non-fiction, poetry and computer games. Yen also co-edits Ab Terra, Brain Mill Press’s science fiction imprint. www.yenooi.com


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