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?
First, let’s define a non-linear narrative.
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.
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.’
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…
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?
The floorboard by the bed creaks. Soft footfall moves away, growing quieter and quieter until… Another creak. This one is more of a groan. A throaty groan that means they are at the door. There’s a hole there, maybe. A big hole that has since been hidden by wood. That’s why the creak sounds like a groan. It’s the sound a person makes when they’re stepped on.
Now they’re at door, what comes next is closing it. It’s a quiet sound, a little whoosh and then a click. The whoosh barely ever heard. The click is. The click means it’s safe to open your eyes. The click means it’s safe to move. You have to be quick, though, because they might come back. Sometimes it’s safer not to move at all. Especially when they might be listening.
The click is taking a while. If you can imagine that person in their hidey-hole, imagine them holding their breath. Imagine them with the weight pressing down on them, becoming more unbearable with every passing second. They’re waiting for the click. Or rather, the moment just before the click when the weight eases away and the door is pulled shut.
A hiss of breath. A sigh of relief, maybe, for the weight is gone. Or just the sound of a silken dressing gown moving across the floor.
Don’t move yet. Don’t look. They might still be there. If they hear the wet sweep of eyelids lifting, they’ll be back. Go to sleep. It’s bedtime.
Wait just a few seconds until the light switch flicks. Now move. Slide further under the covers, into the warm dark, where no one can hurt you. Especially not the body under the floorboards, who scratches and moans.
When searching for writing tips, video games are rarely used as case studies. Which is sad. And disappointing. Fantastic stories are told through games, so let’s acknowledge what they can teach us about writing.
Happy New Year, everyone! At the start of 2019, I posted 5 New Year Resolutions for Writers. Since it has been 12 months (12 MONTHS?!) – here’s a refresher:
Writers should be the most enthusiastic readers, but let’s be honest, a lot of us either put it off or don’t make the time.
I’d been away from reading for a while when I wrote that, so it made sense to challenge myself to get back into something I used to love.
I didn’t exactly succeed.
Don’t get me wrong, things went pretty well for the first few months, but after abandoning a few books halfway through, I let my reading challenge slide, as anyone following my goodreads will tell you. Life happened. I started a new job. My writing stalled. Even this blog started to gather dust.
Reading, like any hobby, requires dedication. More than people think. As I navigate my twenties, I’m anxious that I’m not doing the the things I enjoy as much as I used to. I’ve never had a ton of hobbies, but I seem to have fewer now than I did when I was younger.
This worries me. I worry that my life is slipping away, that I don’t have good memories, or the ones I do have aren’t good enough. Which is, in all honesty, complete bogus. Doesn’t a twenty-something have enough to worry about than if they’re happy enough? What’s good is living in a state of dissatisfaction?
Still it’s easy to let things slide. It’s also easy to turn hobbies into chores and let them overwhelm us. As much as I want to make time for the things I care about, I want to still care and to enjoy them.
This year, instead of a list of resolutions, just remember to make time for the things you care about. Nurture your hobbies, have fun with them, and don’t let them overwhelm you.