Non-linear narratives can be super engaging and fun, but are prone to problems that kill their good qualities. So when should a story be told in a non-linear way?
Any advice given is based on observations from works I enjoy and is not intended to be taken as the end-all-be-all solution to everyone’s writing woes. I do not give advice that I myself don’t follow or haven’t found useful at some point. Please remember that writing is an ongoing learning experience and I’m not flawless.
First, let’s define a non-linear narrative.
Common Problems In Non-Linear Stories
No one Understands What The H*ll is Happening
Netflix’s adaptation of The Witcher jumps back and forth from past to present. One story follows the young princess Ciri as she searches for the witcher, Geralt. Another follows Geralt as he hunts for monsters. And another begins with a young mage, Yennefer, learning magic.
It isn’t apparent until episode 5 of this 8 episode series, that we’ve been watching this story jump between different time periods. This is when the story threads start to converge and become clear. Not only are we following characters in three separate timelines, these timelines span decades.
That’s 5 episodes of not knowing what’s happening. It’s distracting.
The problem with that, of course, is that we’re so busy asking ‘What’s going on?’ that we don’t care about why it’s happening or the character’s it’s happening to.
Stories that do this should provide some hint, marker, or some detail like a time stamp to let us know where we are. The Witcher doesn’t do this.
The Witcher also relies on ‘telling’ and not ‘showing’ us how character relationships have changed over the years, presumably to help ease some of the confusion, but only serves to make character motivation hazy and their arcs boring.
Your Timing Is Terrible
Stories can hurt. Some stories are meant to hurt, but sometimes writers goof it up and go too far. This is why timing is everything.
If a flashback or flashforward is poorly timed, it can be met with confusion, annoyance, and in some cases anger. Take the controversy around The Last of Us: II
This a beloved video game franchise follows surrogate father and daughter, Joel and Ellie, who meet in a zombie apocalypse and give each other a reason to keep living in a hopeless world.
Part 2 in the series has gotten…mixed responses to say the least. While it’s not really a non-linear narrative, it does demonstrate why the placement of specific plot points can have a huge impact.
*VAGUE SIMPLIFIED SPOILERS AHEAD*
Shortly into the sequel, Joel is killed off by a new character called Abby. Naturally, this has upset a lot of fans.
So…Abby getting any kind of sympathy was already going to be difficult. But on top of that, she is a violent, self-interested character who attacks and kills several innocents.
The story does try to get us to feel sympathy for her, by showing us her ‘tragic’ backstory. We discover through a flashback that Abby’s dad was murdered by Joel. This provides a understandable motivation that, in theory, would help us empathise with her.
Problem is, this backstory is so poorly placed it only convinces us to dislike her more. This kind of reaction is exactly what a writer doesn’t want.
Before we learn anything about Abby, she has already killed so many of Ellie’s friends and allies. Personally, I think it would have been more palatable if we met Abby and her dad first, establish a connection with them before her dad is killed. While this doesn’t change the upset a lot of people feel over Joel’s death, or Abby’s other kills, it might help elevate Abby from ‘most hated’ to ‘hated but understood.’
There’s No Rising Tension
Messing with a story’s chronology means messing with the scene-by-scene cause and effect. This isn’t a problem unless it also messes with the tension.
Story tension means conflict and stakes. It means suspense. It’s why we get invested.
Interesting stories are ones were the stakes and tension rise as the story moves along, eventually reaching its peak at the climax.
No matter what order your story is in, the tension still needs to build and build. If not, the story will fall flat and end up being pretty boring.
This brings me to a very important point…
The One Reason To Tell A Non-Linear Story
Most stories should be told in order. Beginning. Middle. End. Easy to follow, with a clear rise in tension and stakes… But there is one reason not to.
It’s when there is more suspense, more tension, when the story is non-linear.
Tension comes from whatever question the story asks. Non-linear narratives are about discovering something that has already happened or that happened in a way that isn’t expected.
Generally, the plot is more important than the characters.
In Station Eleven, the question is ‘Who survives the pandemic and will they discover their connection to each other?’ The story follows different characters as their lives intersect and none of them are aware they are connected, or how much they will influence each other. The climax is when the surviving characters are revealed and finally brought together. This wouldn’t have worked if told as a linear narrative, because it would have revealed the fate of certain characters too soon. The non-linear narrative also helps the reader draw the connections between past and future, between one life and another.
How do you know for sure when a story should be non-linear? It helps if the crux of the plot is based on some kind of reveal but that doesn’t guarantee a non-linear narrative will work, especially if it falls into these other traps.
The simple answer is, if your story is more exciting told out of order, then tell it out of order. If not, it’s best to stick with a chronological narrative.
Tell me your thoughts below! Are you telling a non-linear narrative? Were you aware of these pitfalls? What’s your favourite non-linear story?