(By the way, I get into the weeds on this one. So, if your short on time, or just not in the mood, scroll to the bottom for a TL;DR)
Did you know that you can send information backward in time?
No wait, don’t leave!
I’m not talking about some metaphysical, open-your-third-eye, stuff. Scientists have observed this phenomenon in something called the Delayed Choice Experiment. I can’t really explain the science. I mean, it’s quantum physics. I failed regular physics. In high school. I’ll link an article at the bottom of the page, though.
Here’s my point- If mother nature feels the need to bend the rules of time every once in a while, then a writer shouldn’t be afraid to try it!
Let’s talk about nonlinear narratives.
Or nonlinear plots, whatever you want to call them. All you need to know is that nonlinear plots let you throw your timeline into the blender, mix things up, and really excite your readers!
That’s not a sufficient explanation, though. So, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of nonlinear narratives. First up…
What is a Nonlinear Narrative?
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. Like maybe you’re looking for a way to give your ending more of a punch. Take this joke for instance:
A father came home from a long business trip to find his young son riding a brand new bike.
“Where did you get the money for that?” he asked.
“It must have cost over 300 dollars!”
“I earned it hiking,” replied the boy.
“Hiking? Come on son; tell your Dad the truth. Nobody can make that sort of money hiking. Where did you really get the cash from?”
“It’s like I say, Dad. Every night when you were gone, Mr. Jones from the bank would come over to see Mom. He’d give me a 20 dollar bill and tell me to take a hike”!
Ok, that’s a lame-ass joke, but it illustrates a point. The way you order events matters in story-telling. If you told that joke in chronological order the audience would know the punchline before the father got a chance to hear it. Instead of a cute anecdote, it would be a sad commentary on marriage.
So, the order of events of a story can greatly impact that story’s meaning. And, stories don’t have to be in chronological order. Got it? Good.
However, telling a story out of chronological order is not the only flavor of nonlinear narratives. There are also stories where the author uses parallel narratives. Just like parallel lines, parallel narratives never intersect or cross paths. This is because the narratives are set in different time frames.
Godfather II is an example of a story with parallel narratives. We’re shown 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. The two stories take place decades apart from each other, but the audience experiences them at the same time.
Okay, that explains a little about what they are, but…
Why use a nonlinear narrative?
Well, novelty is one reason. People love to explore unique, and new perspectives. Nonlinear narratives aren’t incredibly common in storytelling. When an audience can experience a well-executed nonlinear narrative it’s exciting!
Don’t abuse this tool, though. When any story device is overused, or there’s no apparent narrative purpose behind its use, your audience will lose interest.
Here’s the question, though- What’s a good purpose behind using a nonlinear narrative?
I’m happy you asked! Let’s discuss some ways to take advantage of the nonlinear form.
Use nonlinear narrative to highlight characterization and theme
The nonlinear narrative has been used to highlight character growth by drawing a contrast between multiple characters. This is usually in the service of a broad theme. Let’s take a look at a few examples of nonlinear narratives and how they communicate characterization and theme.
Tarantino’s was praised for his film’s nonlinear plot. But if you rearrange the events of the story 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 and 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, early in the third act, Vincent is unceremoniously killed by Butch. Which, for the audience, seems tragic. But, the film plays it as a non-event. Like we should have seen it coming.
Throughout the second half of the movie, you’re left 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, but chronologically 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 is able to 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 Jule’s does. He continues to devalue life and he is killed by Butch the next day. Now, how does the nonlinear plot play into all this?
Well, 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 uses the event of the shootout 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.
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 to young adults.
Most of the book is told from the point of view of one of the three sons of the family, 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 the span of twenty years.
Quentin, the oldest brother, spins his chapter mostly lost in his memories of the past. 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 who’s 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 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 mind 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 of the 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.
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 first scene of the movie. The audience spends the next two hours retracing the steps of the protagonist, Lenny. He has a unique form of amnesia leaving him without a 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 we’re dropped into a random scene having little to no clue of what has happened prior to this scene.
By forcing the audience to view his film backward, Nolan is pulling the same trick that Faulkner used with his stream of consciousness narration. He’s forcing us to empathize with Lenny. 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.
Use nonlinear narratives to create story questions
A story question is a plot point that raises a question and in the mind of your reader 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.
Using flashbacks and flashforwards
Take another Nolan movie with a nonlinear plot, The Prestige. The movie opens with the death of its main protagonist played by Hugh Jackman. The secondary protagonist played by Christain Bale is accused of his murder. The scene is overlapped by another scene of Michael Cain explaining 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 structure 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 played by Jackman and Bale?
- 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 endpoint of the story will hook the audience early. They will want answers to these questions!
But, there’s one last question that we still need answered.
How do you write a nonlinear narrative?
The best way is to start as a traditional narrative then rearrange to make it nonlinear.
Write the story as a traditional narrative first. Be clear on the beginning, middle, and end of your story before you start to jumble things up. Include all your major plot points like an inciting incident and satisfying ending.
You’ll need to hit all these beats in the same order even though you’re messing with the chronology. Take Memento for an example. The inciting incident of that film is when Lenny kills Teddy. This happens at the beginning of the movie, right where you’d expect an inciting incident to occur. Chronologically, it’s one of the last things Lenny does, though. And, technically it serves as the film’s climax. A nonlinear narrative let’s you do that.
Bottom line, mix up your timeline, but keep your plot points in the traditional order.
Have a purpose behind your nonlinear plot
As we’ve already 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 is used to create 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 you start to mix up the timeline ask yourself what purpose will a nonlinear narrative serve? Will it build characterization, or 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.
Use a nonlinear narrative to serve multiple character arcs
If you’re telling a story with several characters or more than one protagonist a nonlinear narrative is helpful.
Naturally, your characters will be engaged in different scenes at the same 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.
(By the way, if your confused by all the talk of perspective you might want to check my Guide to POV)
Use tools like Flashbacks and Flashforwards
A flashback or flashforward is the easiest way to dip your toe into the pool of nonlinear narratives without drowning. Remember that the examples I’ve used in this article of Memento, Pulp Fiction, and The Sound and the Fury are all extremes of nonlinear narrative. And they were all written by very talented people.
A flashback or flashforward is easy enough for a beginning writer to use. You can open your story with its final dramatic moments and then back up to show how your character got to that moment.
Use your nonlinear plot to 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 to an event that hasn’t occurred. 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 is going to be dying to know what happened in that following week.
Ok, that was a lot. Probably too much. That’s why you scrolled past all of it for the…
What is a nonlinear narrative?
A story that is 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 told in reverse order like in the movie Memento. Or, you could have multiple story arcs happening in different time periods but intercut with one another.
Why use a nonlinear narrative?
To create a theme or characterization. Comparing two characters across a great span of time is best accomplished with a nonlinear plot. Also, by comparing create a contrast that reveals your theme. If Vito Corleone was driven to a life of crime to support his family, but his son, Michael, continues that lifestyle to pursue power, then we can see a theme emerging.
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.