Exploring Nonlinear Narratives: What they are & How to use them

Learn the power of nonlinear narratives, and how the best authors this tool to create themes and highlight character arcs!

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Did you know that you can send information backward in time? Scientists do this in something called the Delayed Choice Experiment. What is that? I don’t’ know. I barely passed high school physics, but I’ll link an article at the bottom of the page. 

The point is- time is relative, especially in storytelling. In fiction, time can flow forward and backward, and sometimes multiple timelines run parallel. This type of story is called a nonlinear narrative or nonlinear plot. Today we’re going to talk about what a nonlinear narrative is, look at examples of nonlinear plots and discuss the purpose of nonlinear narratives.

What is a nonlinear narrative?

What is a nonlinear narrative

Nonlinear narrative definition: 

A nonlinear narrative is a story that does not follow a traditional, linear plotline. Instead, the events of the story are presented out of sequence. The author writes the events in the story out of chronological order. The story may even include multiple timelines running parallel to one another. 

The natural way to tell a story is in chronological order. We recount the events of the story in the order in which they occurred. We track the cause and effect of each event in a natural progression until we reach the endpoint. 

However, there are times a storyteller or author will manipulate the timeline of a story and relay the events out of chronological order. There can be several reasons why a writer would want to tell a story out of order. Maybe you’re looking for a way to give your ending more of a punch. We’ll discuss the different uses of nonlinear plots further in the article. 

But, first, let’s talk about a specific type of nonlinear storyline. 

What are parallel storylines? 

Telling a story out of chronological order is not the only type of nonlinear narrative, though. There are also stories where the author uses parallel narratives or storylines. Like parallel lines, parallel plots are two storylines that never intersect or cross paths. This separation is because the narratives are set in different time frames. These stories may be linked by common characters, events, or themes. 

Why use a nonlinear narrative? 

Why use a nonlinear narrative? 

To highlight characterization and theme.

The nonlinear narrative can highlight character growth by drawing a contrast between multiple characters. This contrast is usually in the service of a broad theme. Let’s look at a few examples of nonlinear narratives and how they communicate characterization and theme. 

To create story questions. 

A story question is a plot point that raises a question in your reader’s mind and hopefully will keep them engaged with your story. Nonlinear narratives can create story questions by jumping around in time to show the effect of a cause that the audience hasn’t seen yet. 

To serve multiple character arcs. 

A nonlinear narrative is helpful if you’re telling a story with several characters or more than one protagonist. 

Naturally, your characters will be engaged in different scenes at the exact moment in time. In a story that is juggling multiple character arcs, you will inherently need to back up in a time when switching from one perspective character to another. 

To convey a character’s memories.

In many ways, our memories are like a nonlinear narrative. They are often fragmented and out of order, jumping around from different times and places. This fragmented nature can make memories challenging to communicate with others. 

However, nonlinear narratives can be very effective in conveying the complex nature of memory. By using flashbacks and dream sequences, writers can give readers a glimpse into a character’s past, allowing them to understand their motivations and actions in the present.

How do you write a nonlinear narrative?

How to Write a Nonlinear Narrative

Have a purpose for your nonlinear plot

As seen in the examples above, authors and filmmakers choose the nonlinear plot to emphasize specific aspects of their story. In Pulp Fiction, the nonlinear plot is used to contrast the character arcs of Jules and Vincent. 

In Memento, a nonlinear plot creates empathy between the audience and Lenny. And in The Sound and the Fury, the nonlinear plot demonstrates the theme of the entropic nature of time. 

Before mixing up the timeline, ask yourself what purpose a nonlinear narrative will serve? Will it build characterization, develop a theme, or create a story question? If you can’t find any reason for your nonlinear narrative then it’s probably best not to use it.

Using flashbacks and flashforwards 

Take the Christopher Nolan movie, with a nonlinear plot, The Prestige (honestly, I could have spent this entire article talking about Christopher Nolan movies). The film opens with the death of its main protagonist, played by Hugh Jackman. The secondary protagonist, played by Christian Bale, is accused of his murder. The scene is followed by another scene where Michael Cain explains the structure of a magic trick as we see the failed magic trick that results in Jackman’s death. 

The nonlinear structure is a flashforward to the end of the movie and a separate scene taking in which Cain explains the construction of a magic trick. The audience is not sure of the chronology of either of these two scenes. 

A few questions arise from this opening: 

  • Who are these two characters?
  • What went wrong to cause Jackman’s character’s death?
  • What does Bale’s character have to do with Jackman dying?
  • What significance does Cain’s monologue have to the plot of the movie? 

When done right, starting at the story’s endpoint will hook the audience early. The reader will want answers to these questions!

Create multiple character arcs 

A nonlinear narrative is helpful if you’re telling a story with several characters or more than one protagonist. 

Naturally, your characters will be engaged in different scenes at the exact moment in time. In a story that is juggling multiple character arcs, you will inherently need to back up in a time when switching from one perspective character to another. 

If you’re confused by all the talk about perspective and POV, you might want to check my section on POV. 

Build tension

The advantage of jumping around in your story’s timeline is that you can build dramatic tension. You can show the horrific consequences of an event that hasn’t occurred. This is a process called foreshadowing, and you can read more about it here.

Say your story opens with a murder. 

A woman shoots a man who is attacking her and throws him over the side of a boat. We flashback to a week earlier, and we see the same man and woman, only this time they’re booking a cruise together in a travel agency. 

They seem very happy, and when the travel agent asks why they’re taking a vacation, they tell her it’s their twentieth wedding anniversary. Now your reader will be dying to know what happened in that following week. 

Create a story question

A story question is a plot point that raises a question in your reader’s mind and hopefully will keep them engaged with your story. Nonlinear narratives can create story questions by jumping around in time to show the effect of a cause that the audience hasn’t seen yet. 

Examples of nonlinear narrative in film

Nonlinear narrative in Pulp Fiction 

nonlinear plot in pulp fiction

When the film premiered, critics praised Tarantino for his film’s nonlinear plot. But if you rearrange the story’s events into chronological order, is Pulp Fiction still a good movie?

Yeah, pretty much.

The story doesn’t change, and no plot points are revealed too early. So, why did Tarantino mess with his timeline? 

While there are many valid interpretations of the film, we should consider how the nonlinear plot highlights the morality of its three protagonists- Butch, Jules, and Vincent. We’ll start with Vincent’s arc.  

We’re introduced to Vincent at the beginning of the movie. The entire second act centers around him and his date with Mia. After he saves Mia from an overdose, the audience is pretty attached to him. However, Vincent is unceremoniously killed by Butch early in the third act. Which, for the audience, seems tragic. But, the film plays it as a non-event. Like we should have seen it coming.

Throughout the movie’s second half, we’re stuck with a powerful story question: Why did Vincent die, especially in such a meaningless way? And, if you’re paying attention, the film answers this question in the story arcs of Butch and Jules. 

Butch and Jules both experience events that free them from the grasp of the film’s antagonist Marsellus. Let’s only look at Jule’s arc, though. Jule’s story begins in the film’s final act after the audience has witnessed Vincent’s murder. Chronologically, this happens a day before his death occurs.

After a shootout, Jules believes that he and Vincent were saved from certain death by divine intervention. With this in mind, he chooses to spare the lives of two would-be robbers and can walk away from his life of crime unharmed. 

Vincent sees that same miracle as a freak accident. His attitude about life does not change the way that Jules’ does. He doesn’t value life, and he is killed by Butch the next day. Now, how does the nonlinear plot play into all this? 

The audience already knows Vincent’s fate, so we can immediately contextualize his decision to ignore Jule’s miracle. The message is clear- Jules is self-reflective and sees his brush with death as an opportunity to grow as a person. Vincent remains a static character and, we know, is murdered as a consequence. 

So, that’s one example of how characterization and theme can play out in a nonlinear plot. Let’s take a look at another one from the world of literature. 

Nonlinear narrative in Memento 

plot of memento

(Full disclosure- I thought it was spelled m-o-m-e-n-t-o.)

No article on nonlinear plots would be complete without mentioning Memento. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a film told in reverse. The climax is the opening scene of the movie. We spend the rest of the film retracing the protagonist, Lenny’s, steps.

The POV character, Lenny, has amnesia and no short-term memory. The plot follows Lenny as he seeks revenge for his wife’s murder. 

So, why is the plot told in reverse? Because the audience needs to be just as confused about the story as Lenny is. Each time Lenny wakes up, it’s a random moment in his life. The audience has little to no clue what happened before this scene. 

By forcing the audience to view his film backward, Nolan pulls the same trick that William Faulkner used with his stream of consciousness narration in The Sound and the Fury (which we’ll discuss further down). Nolan forcing us to live in Lenny’s disjointed and confusing world, and to experience the story the same way Lenny does. 

So, we can use a nonlinear narrative to highlight a theme or motif. We can also use nonlinear narratives to create empathy and rich characterization. But there are other ways to use nonlinear narratives. 

Example of Parallel Storylines: Nonlinear Narrative in Godfather II

parallel plot in the godfather II

Godfather II is an example of a story with parallel narratives. The audience sees the events of Vito Corleone’s rise to power within the mob. But, cut into that story, we also see the rise of Vito’s son Michael as he takes over the family for his ailing father years later. 

The two stories take place decades apart from each other, but the audience experiences them simultaneously. The character of Vito is present in both storylines, but in one, he is a young man, and in the other, he is near the end of his life. Themes of power and corruption are present in both narratives. 

By placing the two narratives together, the director juxtaposes Vito’s life and his son Michael’s. Vito began his career in the mafia to give his children a better life. However, Michael becomes corrupted by his father’s business, and Vito’s other sons are murdered. Even worse, Michael is responsible for his brother Fredo’s death.  

Examples of nonlinear narrative in literature

nonlinear narrative in the sound and the fury

Nonlinear Narrative in The Sound and the Fury

It would take a term paper to argue the theme of Faulkner’s work. And, since I’m not in college anymore, I’m not going to try here. However, I will argue that Faulkner used nostalgia and the fleetingness of time as motifs in his work. The book follows the children of a once-prominent southern family, the Compsons. The family has fallen on hard times, and we follow each of the children as they grow into young adults. 

Most of the book is from the POV of one of the family’s three sons, Benjy, Quentin, and Jason. Benjy is autistic and pays little regard to any notion of chronological order. As we read Benjy’s chapter, his thoughts jump from one moment to another across twenty years.

Quentin, the oldest brother, spins his chapter primarily lost in his memories. He’s obsessed with his sister, who he loved. However, she’s had a child out of wedlock, making her impure in his eyes. Jason is the only brother rooted in the present, yet, he spends his days mourning lost opportunities.

In The Sound and The Fury, Faulkner deploys a style of narration called stream of consciousness. The thoughts of the POV character are relayed directly to the reader with no additional comment. It’s like you’re reading the character’s mind. This perspective adds to the book’s nonlinear plot as characters cycle through memories in their mind and also address what is happening to them in the present. Putting the reader directly in the sense of a character establishes a strong empathy for that character. 

The story illustrates the decay of the Compson family through the memories of its children. It does this by jumping back and forth in the timeline via each boy’s memories. Faulkner demonstrates to the reader that all things, no matter how great, will decay and crumble. Time devours everything in the end. His story alludes to the words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth- 

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. Creeps in this petty pace from day to day… The way to dusty death.”

Time, for the Compsons, is the antagonist. With a nonlinear plot, Faulkner emphasizes time’s importance to the text.  

Wrapping Up: 

What is a nonlinear narrative? 

A story told out of order. It may start with the final moments of a character’s life and back up to a week earlier. It could be written in reverse order, like in the movie Memento. Or, you could have multiple story arcs happening in different periods but intercut with one another. 

Why use a nonlinear narrative? 

To create a theme or characterization. Comparing two characters across a significant time is best accomplished with a nonlinear plot. Also, by comparing, create a contrast that reveals your theme. Vito Corleone was driven to a life of crime to support his family. However, his son, Michael, continues that lifestyle to pursue power. There’s a theme in there about power and corruption. 

Also, nonlinear narratives create dramatic tension by giving readers a story question. If you start your story with its final scene, and that scene is very dramatic- Like, say, a murder- you will hook your reader. They will want to know who the murderer was, naturally.

How do you create a nonlinear narrative? 

Write your story in chronological order first and then rearrange the timeline after you’ve written a traditional first draft. Make sure that you keep major plot points like the inciting incident or the mid-plot point in the same order they would be despite the mixed-up chronology. I.e. your story should have an inciting incident somewhere near the beginning of the text regardless of where it happens chronologically. 

Use tools like flashbacks, flashforwards, and parallel narratives to create your nonlinear narrative. 

Pin it!

Nonlinear Narrative infographic

Continued reading on Nonlinear Narratives:

The Real Hidden Genius of Pulp Fiction

Faulkner’s Challenging Classic: The Sound and the Fury

How Memento Gave its Audience Short-term Memory Loss

Delayed-Choice Experiments

10 comments on “Exploring Nonlinear Narratives: What they are & How to use them”

      1. It’s great! I’d never seen it, but this article have me a chance to check it out. Glad I did!

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