Nonlinear storytelling is a narrative technique used in storytelling where the story moves back and forth between different points in time to make the story more exciting or compelling.
You may think that nonlinear storytelling is only for writers or filmmakers, but it’s actually a useful tool for anyone who wants to create a compelling story.
In this article, I’ll show you how nonlinear storytelling works and how you can use it for your own story.
What’s a Non-Linear Narrative?
Nonlinear storytelling is a technique used in storytelling where the story jumps back and forth between different points in time. Either the events of the story are told out of chronological order, or the narrative doesn’t follow the events in a causal way.
A nonlinear narrative moves back and forth through time in a way that allows you to add depth to your story.
The most common type of nonlinear narrative is the flashback, where you shift the focus of the narrative to an earlier point in time. Or you may encounter flashforwards or imaginings in nonlinear storytelling that break out of the current time of the narrative.
Things like time travel and clairvoyance can also be used to jump back and forward in time, or even enter entirely new timelines (in a parallel universe, for example).
Or you can have a story within a story – or multiple stories – that serve to enhance the main story. This has many advantages because you can move scenes around and don’t have to put all your scenes in one order.
Ways to Tell a Nonlinear Story
One great way is to start the story in the middle of the action – a technique that’s been used for almost 3,000 years, ever since it was used in the epic poem Iliad by Homer.
Back then, it was called in media res in Latin – “in the middle of things.” A term that’s continued into modern times.
Flashbacks were used to tie the narrative to the nonlinear beginning.
When I was making documentaries, I called it a “dogleg.” Basically, you plunge the viewer into the middle of a compelling plot at the beginning of the film before jumping back in time to show the back story of the critical event you hinted at in the beginning.
So once you’ve outlined the chronology of your story on paper or in an app (Aeon Timeline is great for this, by the way), you can think about taking out a scene in the middle of the chronology and putting it at the beginning – to open up your story.
Another important way to tell nonlinear stories is to have multiple nonlinear storylines. Instead of having the story unfold chronologically, you can have a series of storylines and have some characters drift in and out of the stories depending on which storylines fit together.
Quentin Tarantino is a master of non-linear filmmaking, and a great example of the above ‘story (or stories) within a story is his film Pulp Fiction.
The key is to review how these nonlinear techniques help drive your story forward and make it more compelling and engaging. Don’t use nonlinear storytelling just for the sake of it!
Also, make sure you lay out the basic chronology of each storyline as it develops. Otherwise, you could end up with an unresolvable mess halfway through your first draft!
Why Nonlinear Storytelling Works Psychologically and Emotionally
Nonlinear storytelling can have a powerful effect on your readers or viewers because by moving back or forward in time, the story can surprise you with why something was done or how someone got to their current position.
Nonlinear storytelling can create a sense of mystery because readers or viewers don’t really know or understand what’s going on, and sometimes the disorientation is reflected by the characters’ thoughts and decisions.
Nonlinear storytelling works in the mind in several ways:
1. It creates a strong connection between your reader or viewer and your characters because you create a bridge between the past and the future. For example, you can draw your reader or viewer into the character’s feelings at the moment of decision – or the feelings at the point where something has changed.
2. It can be used to build suspense and thrill in your story. You can start a scene far in the future or past and then move backward or forward to fill in the backstory. The reader or viewer doesn’t know what’s going to happen, so they’re always interested in finding out.
3. You can use nonlinear narration to control and direct the audience’s attention. For example, you can start with an action and then go back to show how the event triggered the action… or you can start with thoughts and then show the action that triggered the thoughts.
What’re the Advantages of Using a Nonlinear Approach as a Storyteller?
Being able to “break” time can be tremendously liberating.
Suddenly it’s all about the key points in your narrative and the emotional juxtapositions that drive the conflict and tension.
You can focus more on what’s important and at the heart of your story, and you don’t have to worry as much about sustaining and building tension and maintaining plot consistency as you do in a linear narrative.
This isn’t to say that you can suddenly abandon your story to the winds of chaos!
It’s important to keep track of events, characters, and the main plot direction of the story as you bounce around the time spectrum. This means you’ll have to get organized across the different timelines, character arcs, and so on.
Related: A Complete Guide to Character Arcs
You need to have a handle on your chronology and then pay attention to the things that matter – the key moments, scenes, conversations, and turning points.
Apps like Aeon Timeline can be a big help in making sure you organize all your scenes and characters effectively. Especially if you’ve many different “stories” that are interwoven with your main story. It integrates tightly with popular writing programs like Scrivener and Ulysses.
Also note that Scrivener has its own built-in system for organizing storylines, found in the app’s “Corkboard,” which works like a swim lane. But it’s nowhere near as comprehensive as Aeon Timeline.
Authors often choose nonlinear structures for their stories because these types of plots allow them to explore more than one idea at a time. Nonlinear plots also make it easier for writers to create exciting scenes.
Use Cases for Nonlinear Storytelling
Often the best way to understand a character’s motivations is to go into their past and experience it with them. As a reader or movie viewer, you can actually simulate the character’s thought process.
As you move back and forth between different points in your character’s life, you see how she changes over time. The same character can be completely different in every other scene – and that can be both liberating and exciting for the reader.
You can give your characters more development and depth. For example, if your character has lost a child, you can move back and forth along the timeline to show different events in which that child lived.
By showing the character at different points in their life, you can really see how their life has changed. And how their story began. You can see how a character’s past affects their present actions and feelings.
Life is complex and sometimes it feels like we’ve to figure out the pieces of a puzzle little by little. This is true of history as well. A very important part of constructing a compelling story is to build in a sense of mystery. That, in turn, leads to the suspense.
Nonlinear narratives can help construct these mysteries.
The fact that a retelling of events can have a completely different feel than the original event that created it can give the reader much more emotional complexity. Nonlinear storytelling allows you to show both, at different points in your book or movie.
When you bring in secrets from the past that affect the present, it creates not only suspense but drama and excitement in your story. This is especially true when you layer stories within stories and they collide.
Of course, it’s important to make sure that your mysteries end up being solvable for the reader. You want the reader or viewer to be satisfied with the ending of your story and the solutions to the puzzles within it.
Sometimes the basic structure of your story is an overarching theme, with several subthemes. You may want the unfolding of these themes to be the story! The plot and characters can serve this unfolding thematic narrative, rather than the themes simply being present in the narrative.
In this case, nonlinear storytelling might allow you to tie the characters’ storylines into the thematic structure, giving it “legs.”
How can you tell that a story is nonlinear?
1) If multiple characters are involved, then they could’ve been present at different times during the same scene. For example, if it’s a murder case, the detective probably wouldn’t know everything that’s going on until he arrives at the scene.
2) The author may refer to past events as if they’d just happened. This is called a “flashback”.
3) Characters can talk about things that haven’t yet happened. 4) A character can say something like, “I remember…”
5) Events can get mixed up in order.
6) You may find yourself reading on because you want to know what happens next.
7) An important twist in the story may come up unexpectedly.
8) It may feel like the story jumps from chapter to chapter without any logical connection.
9) There is a parallel plot or a parallel narrative in the work.
Examples of Nonlinear Narrative in Film and Literature
There are many examples of nonlinear narratives in movies and books in modern times. Some of the best that are entertaining to experience are:
- Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is a wonderful example of nonlinear literature. It goes back and forth in time twice to tell the story of US Air Force officer John Yossarian’s attempt to avoid combat deployment during World War II. The book not only plays with time, but it tells the same events from different perspectives. Funny and tragic at the same time, it’s a pleasure to read.
- Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. The novel is told through a series of short stories glued together by the central character, drug addict Mark “Rent Boy” Renton. Characters are thrown into the narrative without context and developed later. Interestingly, the book originally originated as a short story published continuously in a literary magazine, and was later collected and developed into a novel consisting of seven parts.
- David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which, like Trainspotting, was also adapted into a highly successful film. Crossing genres, the novel follows multiple characters and storylines through different time periods and different parts of the world, such as 19th century Scotland or a post-apocalyptic world in the distant future. The book contains six nested stories that contain elements of the novel’s central narrative, which is the story of Timothy Cavendish, a publisher who must hide from a group of loan sharks.
Examples of Nonlinear Short Stories
- The Mark on the Wall by Virginia Woolf. Considered one of her best short stories, it offers a window into the mind of a Depression-era woman, bringing to light her delusions and possible psychosis. The story jumps back and forth between the present and her childhood memories. The story is about a woman’s consciousness and her stream of thought as she wonders about the sign on the wall, just that one little sign, and what it may mean.
- Story of Your Life by Ed Chiang. The story alternates between past and future as linguist Dr Louise Banks tries to communicate with alien visitors after a mysterious landing on Earth. What’s even more interesting is that Dr Banks is able to see the aliens reenacting events from their own lives that they observe – leading to a very complex story structure. You can see contradictions and paradoxes emerge as she switches between the past, present, and future. It’s a compelling character arc, helped by the non linear story.
- Moral Disorder from Margaret Atwood. This is a series of short stories that delve into various points in the life of the main character, Nell (her identity isn’t revealed in the first few chapters), as the book brings to life the pains of a Canadian family.
Nonlinear Narrative Films
- The classic example is Pulp Fiction, from Quentin Tarantino, a crime film about a mob boss Marsellus Wallace, his wife Mia, and Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, two hit men who betray him. The film alternates between scenes from the present and the past and is a non-linear narrative in which we don’t see events in chronological order. One of the most important time jumps is when we see Vincent and Jules miraculously survive a shootout, after seeing Vincent killed by the boxer Butch earlier in the film,
- Another classic film that uses a non-linear narrative structure is Terry Malick’s Thin Red Line. The plot takes place during the Guadalcanal campaign in 1942, during the World War II. The film follows the experiences of a number of soldiers and follows their journey over the course of several battles. The film uses variable speed flashbacks to an island idyll where two of the soldiers had gone AWOL.
- Our third film example is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, written by Charlie Kaufman, and directed by Michel Gondry. It tells the story of an ex-couple who erase each other from their memories. The boyfriend, Joel, records a tape just before his memories of their relationship are erased, and this-along with the narration of the medical procedure-serves as a non linear plot element to jump back and forth in time.
Many video games are nonlinear. Players can choose when, where, and how the story unfolds. Players control the direction of the plot, and it’s really they who choose the outcome of the game.
Games are designed with branching storylines that can intersect throughout the game.
It can also occur in more ‘linear’ games where the player can move back and forth between smaller ‘levels’ that were originally designed as self-contained stories. This back-and-forth movement of players can help create dramatic tension or keep the player engaged.
Another nonlinear device is the use of multiple endings that reflect the player’s choices during the game. Or different starting points depending on which character the player chooses.
Good examples of nonlinear games are:
- Fallout. The first Fallout game is set in a post-apocalyptic California. By eliminating characters in the game, the quests vary. Sometimes not until later in the game.
- Deus Ex. Deus Ex is a series of six games in which the player again faces an existential threat – in this case a nanovirus called Gray Death. There’s extensive use of branching in the game structure; for example, the choice made by one of the main characters (played by the player), JC Denton. Denton is given the choice of destroying technology, allying with the Illuminati, or merging with artificial intelligence to establish a benevolent dictatorship once he arrives at Area 51.
- The Witcher. Developed in 2007 by a Polish company, The Witcher is known for the moral choices that the player is faced with while the main character, the monster hunter Geralt of Rivia, travels through a medieval fantasy landscape.
How Games and Other Creative Forms of Nonlinear Storytelling Differ
The main difference between books or movies that use nonlinear narratives and video games is that using nonlinear storytelling for games sometimes means greatly increased costs since all paths must be coded. For this reason, game design has tended to revert to linear storytelling in recent years.
What’s the Purpose of Nonlinear Narrative?
The purpose of a nonlinear narrative is to change or enhance the emotional experience within the framework of the story by creating waves and resonances of emotion. By shifting time, space, and perspective, we’re able to change our perspective, enriching and transforming our emotional response to the story.
What’re Some Examples of Linear Narratives?
Some examples of a linear story – or at least works that have a linear narrative structure for long stretches – are Toy Story, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and Apollo 13. One of the clues to linearity is that the viewer/reader is immersed in the narrative in the present tense and follows things as they happen.
What’s a Linear Narrative Structure?
A linear narrative structure is when a story progresses from one situation to the next in a more or less orderly fashion. Time is represented as a line, as opposed to a tapestry. In a linear structure, there’s no foreshadowing of moments ahead within the story. The story is about what’s happening in the moment, what’s happening now.
What’s an Example of a Time Shift?
Obvious examples of a time shift are movies and books that involve time travel! For example, Back to the Future. Time shifts are when a narrative takes a step back to explain events that have passed in time. It can also happen when an author changes perspective when telling a character’s memories or thoughts. Often this time shift will have been foreshadowed by the author.
Or part of the action may take place in a different time and space.