Writing Nonlinear Stories
Sometimes, we want our stories to start with a bang! But the ‘bang’ of a story is rarely the first thing to happen. There are backstories and past events that guide our characters to climatic events. By utilizing a nonlinear writing style, we throw away the constraints of time and write our stories in a way that keeps readers guessing.
Writing with a nonlinear perspective can be difficult. When you do not write chronologically, you run the risk of confusing your readers and losing them somewhere along the timeline. By incorporating the following pointers into your nonlinear writing, you can avoid the pitfalls of throwing chronology to the wind.
When switching between the past, present and future, you usually must let your reader know, somehow, that the transition has occurred, and this can be accomplished in many ways.
The easiest and most straightforward way to let your reader know of a time change is to make the narrative times look physically different. A writer may choose to italicize an analepsis (flashback) or prolepsis (flashforward), or use page dividers to signal changes in time. Headings can also be used when the specific time is important (i.e., One Hour ago or 3 Months Prior).
This method has the benefit of eliminating the chance for confusion, because the reader can bluntly see a separation of time. However, this method does not provide subtlety that may be needed in some stories.
You can use objects, literally and figuratively, to signify changes in time. A well-known example of a literal object is the Pensieve in the Harry Potter series. A pensieve is an object that stores memories. Consequently, readers know when the pensieve is used, the events being told of happened in the past. Like structural cues, literal object cues are very direct and prevent reader confusion.
Objects can also be used figuratively to signal a time change. Before starting a flashback or flash-forward, have your protagonist observe, use or notice an object. For example, a character could look at a photograph of his mother, flashback to a childhood memory, and re-enter the current time by once again interacting with the photograph. In this instance, the photograph is the object cue that lets the reader know what time period we’re in. “Object” cues may not be objects at all, but also sensations such as sounds, smells and emotions.
Figurative object cues have the advantage of smooth, narrative transitions. The change in time is written out, rather than being structurally observed, and allows your story to flow freely in and out of time.
When a story has no time continuity, other types of continuity become important to hold the story together. When transitioning between time periods, something needs to remain the same to allow readers to accept and understand the transitions. Examples of continual devices include:
- The Character: This is the most common thing to carry from scene to scene. Though the character may experience different attitudes, emotions, or challenges across time, keeping the same character gives readers a path to follow.
- The Setting: The setting is often very different across time, but when a story has one setting, a non-linear narrative can spice up the story line. An example may be starting a story with a house burning down in a tremendous fire, and in the next scene, the house is still standing and perfect. Readers know the setting is the same, but something dramatic occurred in the time gap.
- The Theme: Though rare, some stories have no common time, no common character, and no common world. They seemingly take place in separate universes, yet can be united by one thing: theme. In Gonçalo M. Tavares’ short story “Six Tales,” six brief narratives are presented, each with different characters, times, settings and narrative worlds, yet the story is united on the theme of extremism and meaninglessness.
Though nonlinear narratives abandon chronology, time is still of the essence. When writing a nonlinear story, it can be helpful to map out how the story would play out if it were linear.
Linear Order: Event A, Event B, Event C, Event D etc.
Nonlinear: Order: Event C, Event A, Event D, Event B
Though an author may write in a nonlinear style, readers still comprehend stories linearly. As they read out-of-order scenes, they naturally rearrange them in their minds to fill in the blanks. The fun of reading a non-linear story is this re-piecing process, so as an author you must ensure the linear story ties up neatly. By having both a linear and nonlinear concept in your head, you can plan ahead for transitions and cues. You can also ensure that you’re arranging the events in an order that will benefit from a nonlinear structure. Ask yourself questions like:
- Which event would create the most suspense to start with?
- Which scene contains the catharsis, or climax of the story?
- Will this scene reveal too much at the beginning? Will it be confusing?
- Which scenes have similar settings/moods/tones? (Enabling easy transitions)
- Is there a certain theme you want emphasized? Is there an idea you want to show change across time?
By answering questions like these, you can find an order of events that best suits your writing purpose.
One of the best ways to improve your own nonlinear writing is to learn from the pros! The following are film and book examples of nonlinear stories:
- The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (Film and Book)
- Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (Book)
- Pulp Fiction, Directed by Quentin Tarantino (Film)
- Citizen Kane, Directed by Orson Wells (Film, and a great example of heavy, detailed flashbacks)
- The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (Book)
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Directed by Michael Gondry (Film, and an example of keeping the nonlinear structure a secret from your audience)