Nonlinear Storytelling and How to Use It in Your Writing

A bunch of disjointed road signs

 

The Complexity of Nonlinear Narrative

This article is about nonlinear narratives. I’ll also explain why it can be essential to your writing process.

In short, nonlinear narrative is when events are presented in such a way that they do not follow any kind of linear pattern. This could mean that they do not follow a linear timeline or even a sequence of events. 

In some cases, there may be no real pattern at all; it seems like things just happen randomly. You have to decide if this fits your story and what kind of tone you want to achieve.

I realize this is an insanely long article; nonlinear storytelling is complex. That’s why I felt it deserved extra attention! Read on!…

Also, let me say: there are three ways to spell Nonlinear! Nonlinear, Non-Linear, and Non Linear! I chose the latter because it’s easier on the eye in a 6,000 word article! I have no doubt you will catch me out for lack of consistency at some point in this article!

Why Is Nonlinear Storytelling Important?

If you are going to write a nonlinear story, you need to know why. There are several reasons why. 

First, it helps to create suspense and keep the reader engaged.

If you know what you are doing, then you can achieve a great nonlinear story. You have complete control over how events unfold. There are no limits within reason, and that’s a lot of freedom for any writer. You do not have to follow traditional linear storytelling methods.

There are several structures you can fit your story into. The most common is the “nonlinear beginning, linear middle, nonlinear end” structure. This means that the beginning of your story does not follow a pattern, but it becomes more linear as it progresses. At the end of the story, it returns to its disjointed state.

What Is Linear and Nonlinear Narrative?

Many creative works, whether it is a television show, a movie, a book, or something else entirely, are structured to proceed in a particular order. This is called linear storytelling.

This type of storytelling has many advantages. For one, it can make it easier for the reader or viewer to understand and follow the story.

For example, let us say a murder mystery is taking place. It is much easier for the audience to follow and connect the clues because they are presented in a logical order.

However, authors often choose to deviate from this traditional structure and instead take a non-linear narrative or a non-traditional, non-linear approach to storytelling in general.

This can be done for a variety of reasons, from simplifying the plot and characters so that something meaningful can happen, to making the interpretation more exciting and open-ended.

A non-linear narrative can be achieved in a number of ways.

One of the most common is the flashback, which is exactly what it sounds like. A flashback (or flashforward) takes place outside of the established timeline and provides information relevant to current events. Sometimes the entire story is revealed in a flashback after something has happened in the current timeline.

What Is Nonlinear Plot Development?

Nonlinear plot development is an incredibly invigorating way to structure a story. You are not bound by the traditional three or five act structure, or any other rules that would limit the events of the story in any way. 

Instead, it’s about being creative and making sure the reader stays engaged.

At its core, nonlinear plot development means that events are not presented in a logical or chronological order. This can happen for a variety of reasons, but one of the most common is a break in the timeline. 

This can be something as silly as someone going back in time and being out of place, or something much more serious, like a character losing their memory.

Regardless of the cause, nonlinear progression can greatly enhance storytelling as long as the right elements are in place. 

The first step is to decide what is causing the break in the nonlinear timeline. Then you need to determine how that disruption affects the story and character arc.

Next, consider where you want the story to begin. Some people like to start in the middle of the plot because it’s more exciting, while others like to provide context first before getting to the good stuff.

What Is Nonlinear Time?

Nonlinear time is a narrative technique in which the passage of time is not in a precise order, such as beginning to end or past to future. The events of this story happen in no particular order. It is also known as “Ambiguous Time” or “Indeterminate Time”.

With this type of structure, it is possible that something that happens at the end is related to something that happened at the beginning, regardless of the order in which they appear.

In a way, nonlinear time can be compared to an adventure in a maze. 

As you explore the labyrinth’s twists and turns, you find rooms that contain clues to various events that took place there in the past. However, you do not know which room contains which clues. It is up to you to analyze each scene with the others and put them in the right order.

It is possible to write a nonlinear time without realizing it. Many movies are done this way, relying on scenes being seen “out of order” to make sense. 

It is also used in books, such as the book “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell (which was later made into a movie).

Time is an exciting concept in writing and can be used in many different ways.

What Is Linear and Nonlinear Structure?

The structure of a story is how the author decides to tell it. There are many ways to do this, but all stories fall into two categories: Linear and Nonlinear.

A linear story, also known as a “straight line story,” takes place in a specific order from the beginning of the story.

The beginning of a story introduces the main character and their world. The author elaborates on this setting and adds more characters and problems as the story progresses. The climax is when all the elements come together into one big problem that must be solved. After that, there is a falling plot in which all the remaining problems are solved. Finally, there is usually an ending where everything that remains unexplained is resolved.

Nonlinear stories are a bit different. 

Nonlinear stories can be called “web stories” because they branch out in many different directions like a spider web.

The most common type of nonlinear story is the “Rashomon” effect. 

The reader is told a story from different points of view, and only some of those views may be true, depending on who is telling the story. 

Another way is to have the main character experience the events of the story differently than others, such as in the novel “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway.

What Are the Advantages of a Nonlinear Narrative Structure?

A nonlinear plot requires the reader to pay attention to small details, as past and future events are described in detail, while the present is usually mentioned only briefly. 

This can be difficult and frustrating for some readers, as they do not want to make the effort to understand what they are reading.

What about when you are writing something with a lot of depth, like a fantasy novel? In this case, a nonlinear structure can easily leave the reader confused and unable to follow the story.

A nonlinear plot is harder to write because you have to keep track of endless details about past and future events. It’s relatively easy to “overwrite” and leave out important information from the past that you meant to mention later. 

Even masters of nonlinear writing sometimes have trouble keeping track of what’s going on as you write.

However, if you are creative and have a deft hand at writing descriptions, then a nonlinear style can be very rewarding. It allows you to delve into your characters’ minds and explore the past in more detail, something many linear stories neglect to do. Readers can connect with the characters on a deeper level.

It’s important to remember that a nonlinear story is more than a collection of events in a character’s life. It is also a study of the characters and their personal struggles.

How Can a Nonlinear Plot Build Tension?

Tension tends to build as the reader becomes more and more invested in the story. In a nonlinear narrative structure, suspense is often created by mysteries and unanswered questions.

The reader knows something is not right, and they become more and more curious about what’s going on.

This type of suspense is often called “frustration” because the reader is frustrated looking for answers to their questions.

However, this type of storytelling tends to annoy readers if not used properly. It’s important to remember that you are trying to build tension, not anger. If your reader is so angry that they want to stop reading, then you have written yourself into a corner and should reevaluate the structure of your story.

Tension can also be built in a linear fashion. For example, you can start with a character in a dangerous situation and then add more complications. This type of writing style can be seen in many horror movies, for example.

However, if it is not written properly, it can come off as cheesy and overdone. It’s important to remember that you want the reader to engage, but not to get angry and want to put the story down.

The key to writing a nonlinear story is to remember that the reader comes to the story with limited knowledge. It’s up to you as the writer to give him enough information, but not too much to spoil the intended effect of the story.

The Rashomon Effect

The Rashomon effect is taken from the movie of the same name. It is the story of a man and woman who are ambushed by a bandit while traveling through the woods.

While the man is questioned about his experience, the woman gives a completely different account of what happened. Only after the fact does the man learn her version of events when a bandit captures him and asks him the same question.

Another typical example of a nonlinear narrative is the use of a fantasy device such as a dream or something else that the character imagines. While the character is in this state, anything can happen. This type of state immediately takes the scene away from a traditional narrative.

There are many other ways writers can deviate from the traditional timeline: 

Writing in circles (where events repeat themselves over and over).

Jumping forward to future events (such as when a character is killed in a battle)

going back in time to witness an event before it actually happens, writing in the form of a letter.

There are no limits to an author’s creativity.

How Do You Write a Nonlinear Story?

Suppose you are writing a story set in three different time periods. The past, the present, and the future.

The easiest way to do this is to write each timeline as a separate story. Then combine these time periods later using a device, such as a character traveling through time, or other means.

Another option is to think of your three timelines as chapters. Each chapter focuses on one of the three periods.

The last option, which is less common and a bit more complicated, is to cleverly hide the past in the present and vice versa. This can be done in a number of ways.

Perhaps a television news broadcast in the background of one of your scenes mentions an event that will take place in the future. Or maybe a character makes reference to something that happened in the past without realizing it. These kinds of things are difficult to do without sounding awkward. Still, they can keep the reader guessing and create a thought-provoking effect if done right.

In summary, there are three basic ways to write a nonlinear story:

Use a plot device to jump between different periods.

Write each period as its own chapter with a dramatic ending for each period.

Hide references to the past in the present and vice versa.

How to Fix Timelines in Nonlinear Storytelling

It is in the nature of nonlinear narrative that you sometimes have to correct your timelines!

In some stories, the disruption is so severe that it can not be fixed, which means the timeline is permanently out of whack.

There are two writing tools I would recommend to straighten timelines:

Aeon Timeline is a brilliant app for creating timelines and chronologies.

The index card feature in Scrivener allows you to put cards on different timelines. This gives you a clear visual picture of how your different timelines develop in your story or even in a single scene/chapter.

Remember: use context clues to help you see the timeline.

What Are Some Good Nonlinear Narrative Novels?

Below are some non-linear novels that use this style of writing to great effect.

  • William Faulkner – “The Sound and the Fury” is a novel about the decline of a once prosperous Southern family. It focuses on different characters at different times in the past, present, and future. The reader is not told what time a chapter is set in until the beginning of the next chapter. This style of writing makes the book more exciting because the reader never knows what is going on.
  • William Golding – “Lord of the Flies” is about a group of schoolboys stranded on a deserted island. It tells the story of their time on the island and how it changes them. The events of the book do not happen in order, and the story does not start at the beginning, middle, or end. This style is used to add more suspense to the novel and leave the reader wondering what is going on.
  • William Faulkner – “A Rose for Emily” is a short story about a woman who lives alone after her whole family has died. No one in town knows why, but she refuses to leave her home. This story is very tragic and is told in a nonlinear way. The author uses this style of writing to add to the impact of the story and keep the reader interested and wondering what is going on like a mystery.
  • James Joyce – “Araby” is about a boy who falls into a moody and pensive state of mind while his friends talk about a girl he has a crush on. The story is dark, like a tragedy, and takes place in one night. The author uses this style of writing to make the story more suspenseful and adds to the overall effect.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald – “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a short story about a man who is born old and ages backwards. This story is intriguing because it is nonlinear and engages the reader.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald – “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”. A short story about a rich family that owns a huge diamond. The story is suspenseful and compelling because it is non-linear.
  • George Orwell – “Shooting an Elephant” is about the narrator’s experience as a police officer in Burma. It begins at the end of his experience and works its way back to the beginning. The author uses this style of writing to make the story more interesting, engaging, and thought-provoking.

The following are examples of nonlinear films.

  • “Pulp Fiction” is a movie about a man who takes a journey that can be described as epic and mundane at the same time. It is told in a non-linear way.
  • “Amelie” is a film about a woman who experiences life differently than most people. She has spectacular adventures every day that others do not notice. It is told in a nonlinear way.
  • “Reservoir Dogs” is a movie about a robbery that goes horribly wrong. Although it appears to be straightforward, it is actually told in a nonlinear fashion.
  • “Memento” is about a man who has lost his wife and is trying to figure out who murdered her. The story is told backwards.
  • “Inception” is a movie about a man who distracts people’s attention by making them live their dreams. The story is told backwards, and it confuses on purpose.
  • “Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind” is about a couple that breaks up. The girl has erased all memories of the man from her mind, but he has not erased them. The story is told in a non-linear way and reflects the ending.

And if you want to see more examples:

  • “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is about a man who involuntarily travels through time.
  • “Slaughterhouse Five” is about a man who is taken prisoner during the World War II and has to experience the horrors of war.
  • “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is about a boy with autism who finds his neighbor’s dog murdered.
  • “Infinite Jest” is about a man who tries to find out who is the mastermind behind the theft of a videotape.
  • “The Old Man and the Sea” is about an old man who goes fishing even though he has no luck.
  • “The Great Gatsby” is about a man who tries to win back his love by becoming rich.

How Do You Write a Novel Using Nonlinear Narrative Style?

The following are rules of thumb to consider when writing a book in a nonlinear style.

  • A central theme or problem explored in the novel.
  • At least three characters that exist throughout the novel.
  • At least four scenes, including the inciting event and climax of the story.
  • At least two times of day in the book, such as day and night.
  • Dreams or hallucinations.
  • Each scene should begin just before the divergence point and end just after.
  • Remember – these steps are not set in stone, but they can help you write a non-linear story.

How Can You Tell if a Story Is Nonlinear?

The following is a list of clues that indicate that a story is nonlinear:

  • The story is told backwards
  • The story withholds information from the reader
  • The story contains multiple plot lines that do not converge
  • The point of view shifts between different characters and scenes
  • Dreams or hallucinations occur in the book
  • There are more than three chapters about one character
  • Scenes are not limited to a single day or night.
  • The story contains multiple times of day in a single scene
  • The story has at least two different settings
  • There is a large amount of introspection by the characters
  • The reader learns significant information only after the fact
  • The story contains more than three scenes that take place in one room
  • Some scenes span more than one day or night
  • The story is written in the second person
  • The story contains entries from a diary
  • Each chapter has more than one scene
  • The story contains codes or riddles within the story

Why Is Quentin Tarantino’s Film Pulp Fiction Nonlinear?

Quentin Tarantino ‘s film Pulp Fiction is a classic example of a nonlinear narrative structure in film:

  • The script contains multiple storylines, withholds information from the viewer, and has multiple scenes at different times, including day and night.
  • The film chops up and changes the timeline to better develop character arcs.
  • Characters appear in several scenes and persist throughout the non-linear plot.
  • Codes and puzzles are found in various places throughout the film, including the suitcase, the briefcase, and the scene in the pawn shop.
  • The story arguably has a single central theme, honor and loyalty.
  • Several of the film characters have a great deal of introspection, including Butch, Fabrizzio, and Captain Koons.
  • Some of the events in the film take place in more than one location.
  • The filmmaker tells the storey from the point of view of an unspecified second person.

Is a Parallel Narrative Nonlinear?

A parallel narrative is a story told from different perspectives or in different timelines. It resembles a nonlinear narrative, except that it still remains linear in the sequence of events.

A common form of parallel narrative is alternating chapters. Each chapter begins with a number and then the chapter number. For example: chapter 1A, chapter 2B, chapter 3C, chapter 4A, etc.

“A” chapters follow one group of characters, “B” follows another group of characters, and so on.

A famous example of this type of storytelling is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Each chapter is named after a character and follows that person’s actions and perspectives throughout the story.

This style of writing does not confuse the reader as much as nonlinear writing, but it also does not give you as much freedom.

Also, it’s important to remember that this style should only be used for multiple perspectives of a smaller number of characters. If you do this with a large number of characters, you run the risk of confusing your reader as they try to remember who is who.

It’s also important to give each perspective a name to help the reader, such as “Jane’s Perspective” or “The Ripper’s Perspective.” Otherwise, you run the risk of confusing the reader, especially if there are many perspectives.

Recap

I hope you have enjoyed this foray into nonlinear narrative, how and why it is used, and the examples I have given.

My advice is that when you start using it in your writing, be sure to try the two tools I mentioned above. They will greatly help you structure your nonlinear narratives and correct them when they go astray!

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