How to do Non-linear Storytelling Right
“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”
– Jean-Luc Godard
"The Time Travelers Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger, "House of Leaves" by Mark Danielewski and the movie "Memento" directed by Christopher Nolan all have one thing in common.
Have you figured it out yet?
You looked at the title of the blog didn't you...
Yes, they all have non-linear story-lines. On The Odyssey's blog, one entitled "Linear VS. Non-linear Storytelling" by Zackary Palmer, it states:
"Non-Linear is the more abstract method of storytelling. Instead of following the A to B method, non-linear stories possess a greater freedom of time travel: they can begin where they want and they can end where they want. Non-Linear stories are famous for incorporating numerous flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks, memory sequences, and many others."
Compared to a linear story-line―a story that starts at the beginning and ends at the end―it is much more complex. Non-linear storytelling has always left me flabbergasted, overwhelmed with wonderment. How did they do that? How. Did. They. Do. That? And then comes the self doubt and destruction because I will never in a thousand lifetimes write a novel that awesome. Oh, the never-ending internal struggle! But back to "How did they do that?" That is the question isn't it?
I'm excited to explore this mysterious kind of storytelling and dive into the bowels of it's workings. Let's find out how we can do this for ourselves. I've found several methods for making non-linear writing work; different methods for different brains. Which one would work best for you?
1. Create Multiple Timelines To Keep Track
In an interview with Audrey Niffenegger (author of "The Time-Travelers Wife") on the Bookslut blog by Veronica Bond this is what Audrey had to say about managing the non-linear timeline:
"I have it at home on my computer -- there's two of them. One is Clare's timeline. The other one is the order that things are happening in the book and where Henry's coming from so I can see what he would know at any given time. What I was mainly working with was who knew what when. So, if I needed a Henry who didn't have a lot of information I would a put a younger Henry in. I'll be interested in about ten years to read it and have a lot better ideas of how to do it. For now that was kind of the best I could do."
So humble! That method worked miracles for her. I can't even imagine a better book, if she does happen to figure out a better way to keep track of the timeline. As far as timelines are concerned, it does make sense to separate character timelines, if for anything to save your sanity. I've never attempted non-linear storytelling myself, but it seems incredibly tricky. Any method that would keep your story-line organized and easily understandable would be smart to incorporate into your planning/outline.
2. Write a Linear Story-line First
If you aren't much of an outliner, then writing your story linearly might work best for you. On a Stack Exchange website entitled Writers Beta, user sjohnston answers:
"If you don't want to outline up front, it probably pays to write the story linearly first, then go back and reorder things. This is going to take more editing, but that's usually the price you pay for not outlining up front (this isn't necessarily a bad thing - some people find this is the only way they can work)."
Yes, this method may take more time, but it would work well for those whose mind works in a more linear fashion. This is probably the way I would have to do it. I don't believe I quite have the mind for going back and forth so much between past and present, different characters, etc... If you're feeling the same way then give it a shot and see if you can pull it off.
3. Choose a Simpler Non-linear Story-line
Not all non-linear stories jump back and forth in time again and again. Sometimes it's just the first chapter of a novel that starts in the middle of the actual story or starts with a yummy taste of the conclusion to come. This simpler way of non-linear storytelling makes for an interesting perspective and/or gives the novel a mystery-factor right away. If you don't think you can handle an intense non-linear story-line, then give this method some thought. Even with so little non-linear-ness... yup, you read that right... it can make for a fantastic start to your story. Start your novel with a bang by starting at a point in your story with a little mystery or intensity. An added plus: you will be sure to hook your readers right off the bat.
"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."
-Mibba Creative Writing Article
4. Play With Your Timeline
Why not play as you go? It can't hurt. In fact, if you play while you write you will figure out pretty quickly what method will work best for you. Start with short stories and build up from there so that you are not having to go back through an entire novel to change things around, add in scenes, etc...
This method leads right into this weeks challenge which is...
WEEKLY CHALLENGE: Choose a short story that you have written in the past and rewrite it in a non-linear way. This website rewrote "Little Red Riding Hood" in a non-linear format and I quite enjoyed it. Just scroll down the page a bit. You'll see it! Send us your stories, before and after. We would love to see what you did with them!
Scrivener - Low cost writing software ($40)
YWriter - Free writing software with the option to "register" and donate
The Odyssey: Linear VS. Non-linear Storytelling by Zackary Palmer
Bookslut: An Interview With Aubrey Niffenegger by Veronica Bond
Lit Reactor: Out of Order: A Discussion of Non-linear Narrative Structure by Taylor Houston -"Little Red Riding Hood" Rewritten.
Stack Exchange website: Writers Beta forum -Answer by user sjohnston
Mibba: Creative Writing- Writing Nonlinear Stories