Linear vs. Non-linear Narrative

I just started reading, The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, and it is a challenge. Why? Niffenegger uses a device called the non-linear narrative. Most novels follow a linear narrative; the story unfolds in a chronological order, from point A to point B and so on. Due to the nature of Niffenegger’s story (a man is born with a disorder that allows him to travel back and forth in time), the story is told in a non-linear fashion.

“The guiding principle of any nonlinear plot is that the story is not organized in terms of chronological time but according to some other logical progression,” wrote Donald Maass in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel. “For example, if the purpose of your story is to unfold the secrets at the center of your hero’s life, then there is no reason the key events or revelations need to be presented in the calendar order in which they occurred. What is more important is that there is a march toward understanding, a sense we are drawing ever closer to the truth wherever it may lie.”

Maass goes on to emphasize that it is still important in a non-sequential story for the tension to escalate. Regardless of whether a writer chooses a linear or a non-linear narrative, the story must still have a coherent structure. There must still be a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning might occur chronologically close to where the story ends, but the writer may choose that point because it offers the greatest dramatic potential. Alice McDermott’s excellent novel, Charming Billy, is a good example of a non-linear narrative. When the story begins, the main character is already dead. The narrator jumps around in time to weave the story of Billy’s life.

The non-linear narrative technique is more popular in cinema than in novels. The movie Pulp Fiction is an example. There are three storylines involving various Los Angeles criminals and low-life figures that intersect. Director Quentin Tarantino said he was aiming to make a trilogy taking elements of the old crime stories and mixing them together. “Part of the trick is to take these movie characters, these genre characters and these genre situations and actually apply them to some of real life’s rules and see how they unravel,” he said.

Personally, I had to see Pulp Fiction a second time to truly understand it and appreciate its brilliance.

The non-linear narrative is a challenge. It’s extremely difficult to pull off, which is why it is so rarely seen. Maass advises writers who are doing a non-linear narrative to use “markers,” touch points in time to which the writer returns. Another technique is to use dates as chapter titles or the name of the point-of-view character.

There are various reasons why authors select a non-linear narrative. One might be that the overarching theme is bigger than any single character. Another might be that there are multiple story lines that intersect at different times. In any case, it is helpful for the writer to start out by writing the story in sequence before scrambling the order. This allows the writer to track the chronological order of the major plot lines.

I have an idea for a novel that has a non-linear narrative. I’ll get to it someday, but for now I’m planning to stick to the trusty old linear narrative.

Have you ever attempted a non-linear narrative? What’s your favorite non-linear book or movie?


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15 responses to “Linear vs. Non-linear Narrative

  1. Memento is a great film told in reverse. As like The Time Traveler’s Wife, you are forced to think (which can be exhausting) but here, the distortion of linear time proves to be a powerful force for the storyline.

    • Nancy,
      Thanks. I will have to check out Memento. I’m really liking The Time Traveler’s Wife. I had a hard time getting into the story at first due to the confusing nature of the non-linear plot, but once I got acclimated to the structure I found I couldn’t put it down.


  2. Any others techniques maybe apart from linear and non linear? Really good though!

  3. Kamran

    I had read John Grisham’s ‘The Partner’ and I have derived that it follows the same tradition of non linear storyline done perfectly. He very intricately describes how his character faked his own death and committed a fraud in his firm and his character uses a voice of flashback for that. Those who are fond of non-linear stories would find that read compelling.

    • Kamran,
      Thanks for your comment. Sorry it took so long for me to respond. I have been traveling. I will have to check out The Partner. Nonlinear narrative is a very difficuklt trick to pull off successfully. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Rae

    You seem like a calm person and a good writer, overall. Thanks for this article, its helped me quite a bit.

  5. Pingback: Editing 2: Linear/Non-Linear | Katie Global Online Academy Filmmaking

  6. batmansbestfriend

    I didn’t realize I was writing a non-linear narrative (figured mine was just a narrator who went on a lot of digressions) until I realized I had ADHD and time-blindness and so the character did as well (because I just thought my relationship with time was normal). Anyway, it’s a long book told in 1st person about a character who has ADHD and gets stuck in his head thinking about things in the past that fill in gaps of time jumped over in the story. I don’t think of it as non-linear but deceptively linear. So, a character with a mental illness or a different neurological make up would tell the story as it would make sense to them but… enter non-linear plot.

  7. Brian Sommers

    can someone give me examples of linear novels? novels that stay with one group/mc’s etc

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