A great example of a non-linear story is Christopher Nolan’s early film Memento, where the story is actually told in reverse order, starting at the end and moving to the beginning. My own Ex-Heroes series employs numerous flashbacks (although it’s worth mentioning that the flashbacks are all in linear order). There was also a brilliant Marvel Comics miniseries by Roger Stern and John Byrne called The Lost Generation, which involved a time traveler moving back through history to see a forgotten superhero team, get wiped out as they saved the world, then moving forward (for the traveler) to see how the group formed and the origins of the heroes. The issues were even numbered in reverse order.
September 19, 2013
…there was an aspiring writer. And he lived in a beautiful world of wild dreams and deep denial…
But let’s not talk about that guy.
Last week I talked about basic linear structure. This week I want to talk about narrative structure. Narrative structure relates to—big surprise—my narrative. It’s about how I’ve chosen to tell my particular story. While events unfold in a linear fashion for the characters, how I decide to relay these events to my audience can change how the story’s received and interpreted (more on that in a bit). So linear is how the characters experiences the story, narrative is how the reader experiences the story.
One quick note before I dive in. Within a story there might be a device or point of view, like a first person narrator, which gives the appearance of “telling” the story. For the purposes of our discussion here, though, if I talk about the narration I’m talking about the writer.
That being said… here we go.
In a large chunk of the stories any of us will encounter, the linear structure and narrative structure are going to be the same thing. The story starts with Wakko on Monday, follows him to Tuesday, through Wednesday and Thursday, and concludes on Friday. It’s simple and straightforward, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it. My own book, 14, fits in this category. It’s loaded with twists and reveals, but the linear structure parallels the narrative.
There are also a fair number of stories, though, where the narrative doesn’t follow the timeline of the story. Sometimes the writer does this with flashbacks, where a story is mostly linear with a few small divergences. Other times, the story may be broken up into several sections and the reader needs to follow clues as to where these sections line up. These are often called non-linear stories, or you may have heard it as non-linear storytelling (it was the hip new thing for a while there).
Now, there’s more to narrative structure than just wanting to switch around my story elements so I can look all cutting-edge. If I’ve chosen to jump around a bit (or a lot) in my narrative, there’s a few things I have to keep in mind. Be warned, we’re moving into an area that requires a little more skill and practice.
First off, putting things in a new narrative order can’t change the linear logic of my story. As I mentioned above, the week goes Monday through Friday, and this is true even if the first thing I do is tell you what happened on Thursday. Monday was still three days earlier, and the characters and events in my story have to reflect that. I can’t start my book with everyone on Thursday baffled who the murderer is, then roll the story back to Monday were everyone witnesses the killing and sees the murderer. If they knew then, why don’t they know now? There’s no logic to it (barring a case of mass amnesia). If I have Phoebe act surprised that she owns a cat on Friday and then have the narrative jump to her finding the cat in an alley on Tuesday, I’m going to look like an idiot while my linear structure collapses.
These are very broad, simplistic examples, yes, but it’s amazing how many times I’ve seen this problem crop up. Writers want to switch stuff up, but ignore the fact that the logic of their story collapses when the narrative elements are put in linear order. This is an easy one to fix, it just requires a little time and work. And sometimes a bit of rewriting.
The other big issue with having narrative and linear structures so far apart is that people need to be able to follow my plot. I can have tons of fancy word choices and beautiful language in my story, but readers are still going to put it down if they can’t figure out what’s going on.
Think about when a little kid tells you a story about Iron Man and Batman and Snuffleupagus and there’s a moon base and they had a spaceship that Iron Man made before they fought the werewolf and the werewolf hates only getting to go out on Halloween so he decided when he was a little kid because only Snuffleupagus liked him and the rest of the time he has to get shaved because it’s too hot so he decided to go to the Moon so he could be a werewolf all the time and no one would make fun of him cause he didn’t know there were aliens on the moon but Batman saw the wolfman spaceship and tried to stop it and asked Iron Man to help and they fought the werewolf and Batman knew the werewolf when they were kids before he was Batman so he decided to help him move to the moon because they broke his spaceship but Iron Man had another spaceship he built after the Avengers movie and it looks like a big Iron Man and the werewolf had promised Snuffleupagus when they were little that he could come and so they got him out of the broken ship and you kind of tune it out and start mentally skimming. I mean, you just skimmed a lot of that, right? It jumps around so much that after a point it just becomes noise.
Y’see, Timmy, the problem with chopping up my narrative too much is that people are automatically going to try to put it in linear order. As I mentioned last week, we all do this almost automatically because it’s how our brains are set up. The harder the narrative makes it for someone to reorganize the linear story, the less likely it is they’ll be able to follow it. Which means the more likely it is that they’ll put it down.
I talked about the idea of a detective at a crime scene last week. If you’ve read a few mystery stories—or watched a few crime shows—you know a standard part of the mystery formula is the hero going through the events of the story and putting them in linear order for the other characters and the audience. And how many are there? Eight or nine, usually? Call it ten elements that are out of order and the writer’s admitting it might be kind of tough to keep up at this point.
There was a movie that came out about eight or nine years ago (I’ll be polite and not name it) that was a non-linear mess. I don’t think there were two scenes in it that followed each other. So we’re talking about well over a hundred scenes that were all scrambled and out of order. Maybe as many as two hundred. The actors were fantastic, but the story was impossible to keep up with. It didn’t help that certain events repeated in the story. Again, to be polite and protect the innocent, let’s say one of the characters was in a serious car crash and then was in another serious car crash two years later. The audience was getting random scenes of burning cars, ambulances, emergency surgeries, recovery, and physical therapy… from two car crashes. So we’re left trying to figure out which car crash the character was experiencing/recovering from at various points–once it was clear there’d been two car crashes–and then figuring where this scene fit in relation to all the other scenes. The audience had to spend their time trying to decipher the movie rather than watching it.
So non-linear structure can be overdone and become a detriment if I’m not careful. This can be really hard to spot and fix, because it’s going to depend a lot on my ability to put myself in the reader’s shoes. Since I know the whole linear story from the moment I sit down, the narrative is always going to make a lot more sense to me, even though for someone coming in cold it might be an illogical pile. This is one of those times where I need to be harsh and honest with myself, because if I don’t my story’s going to be incomprehensible.
That’s narrative structure in a nutshell. Maybe more of a coconut-shell. However I decide to tell my story, it still needs to have a linear structure, it still needs to be logical, and it still needs to be understandable.
Next time, I want to explain how linear structure and narrative structure combine via dramatic structure to tell a good story.
Until then… go write.