It’s hard enough for writers to devise just one compelling narrative. For those that create stories that feature ensemble casts with conflicting points of view…whew. This mode of telling stories is called The Rashomon Effect. And when used well, it can offer stories with richer characters and more compelling narratives.
The Rashomon Effect takes its name from a mid-century movie called Rashomon about the death of a samurai. Each of the witnesses to the crime remembers it differently. Since no one can agree on one objective course of events, the audience is left with an ambiguous ending.
The Rashomon Effect reveals how faulty our memories are. It also reveals how we will bend our memory of the course of events to paint ourselves in a better light — sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.
But a Rashomon Effect does not a story make. The characters have to have emotional stakes in why they decide to tell their version of events differently. Which brings us to Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid.
In Daisy Jones & the Six, Jenkins Reid follows the cosmic rise of the fictional rock group to their sudden breakup. In 1979, the group had just produced a stellar first album and had fans pouring into stadiums to see them. And yet, after one show in Chicago, the group splits. Who just… gives that up? The book goes back to the beginning to figure out: Why did the group suddenly break up?
The story is fictional, but its presentation is that of a factual Rolling Stone interview. The entire story is told through interviews from all members of the band as well as from outsiders like rock journalists and sound engineers. The reader is given no description, just dialogue. By employing this format, Daisy Jones uses the Rashomon Effect to great effect.
Take lead singer Billy Dunne. He snarls and snaps at Daisy Jones when she first starts performing with the group. In the interviews, he insists he hates her: She does whatever she wants. She doesn’t listen to anyone else.
It’s worth looking closer at the reason Billy has constructed this version of events. This is where the format of an interview becomes critical. His bandmates were present for all his spats with Daisy. But what about the person he’s speaking to?
Jenkins Reid could have written this novel and let the interviewer be a nameless reporter; it likely would have still been enjoyable. Instead, she makes the interviewer someone Billy wants to impress: his daughter. With this choice, she adds another layer to the text that makes it a richer read on a second pass.
When the interviewer asks the other bandmates about Billy’s behavior, another side of the story emerges. Daisy refuses to cower to Billy. She is startlingly talented and willing to work her ass off. Perhaps, they intone, it’s not hate. He may be using hate to cover up a different, more conflict-ridden emotion. No wonder Billy seems to choose his words carefully when talking about his marriage or when talking about his growing attraction to Daisy. He’s got an emotional stake thanks to the person who’s listening.
By having multiple perspectives in these interviews, the reader gets to see where Billy leans into the idealized version of himself and when he doesn’t.
On the first page of the book, in an author’s note from the interviewer, she writes, “The truth often lies, unclaimed, in the middle.” Having multiple voices in a narrative gives a reader a closer version of the most accurate read of events. Dunne insists he lets everyone give their input when the group makes a record; he might even use the word “easygoing” to describe his behavior. But talk to the other members of the band and his version of events falls apart: he micromanages. He refuses to let go of creative control, producing the album behind their backs. Billy Dunne, it seems, is slightly full of shit.
This duality is also true of Daisy Jones. Ask her about her early years with the group and she would insist she was keeping it together. But other members of the group point out she was showing up high or drunk to recording sessions and popping pills like Tic Tacs.
Jenkins Reid doesn’t use this device to make either character a central antagonist. Instead, she uses it to peer at the stories these characters tell themselves. These stories can also stretch in another direction. Dunne struggles with addiction early in his career. He holds that to be a central truth about his personality — that he’s an addict. Yet, his brother, who is also part of the band, takes a more compassionate approach. If you’ve done the hard work, believe that you’ve changed.
One of the side effects of using the combination of Rashomon Effect and unreliable narrators is increased conflict. But it’s not conflict for conflict’s sake. Instead, this combination reveals more about the stories these characters share. It makes the sudden split on that night in 1979 feel as unstoppable as a wave.