Why straight isn’t always great: non-linear narratives

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

This is hackneyed advice for authors, which falls into the same category as ‘write what you know’ but is just as flawed. Obviously it’s simplest if a novel, short story or piece of non-fiction writing has a linear structure – A leads to B and C follows, all in a nice straight line – but a more adventurous approach to story-telling can be to start in the middle with an arresting scene, flash back to explain how things got that way, and then carry on to develop the narrative to its natural conclusion.

There are a number of excellent examples of non-linear narratives in books, TV and films. The West Wing, for one, did it a lot, setting up situations which seemed to come out of left field – one scenario that springs immediately to mind involved a nervous young intern, in the rain, delivering the Vice President’s resignation – and then flashing back a few days to explain how and why this happened. Putting a juicy lump of bait at the start of a story is a great way of hooking your audience and reeling them in; they know where you’re going to take them, of course, but they have no idea how you’re going to get them there. As a bonus this can sidestep the slow build-up many authors favour but which some readers find tedious – and should obviate the writer’s worst enemy, the ‘info dump’ in which too many facts are conveyed too quickly and indigestibly.

It could also be argued that a non-linear story doesn’t give up its secrets all at once, as anyone who has ever read a detective story with half-a-dozen perfectly plausible scenarios for the crime will agree – Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers, for example. A non-linear narrative can be read and re-read, and will yield some interesting new snippet of information every time, whereas sometimes a single reading of a plain linear narrative is really all it can stand.

It’s exciting to see an author experimenting with narrative structure, bouncing between time-lines and keeping the reader on their toes. Done well, it can be an unpredictable and challenging roller-coaster ride. However it does require massive self-control and solid planning in order to give the story strong internal consistency – spreadsheets and Post-It notes can come in very handy at this stage!

We’re often told that ‘keeping it simple’ is the way to go, and that we shouldn’t over-complicate things. While that’s good advice in some circumstances, it doesn’t always work for fiction; I wouldn’t advocate complicating a story without good reason, but I do also think that there can be an argument for embracing complexity, being experimental, throwing a simple linear time-line out of the window and seeing what evolves instead. After all, while in some cases straight can indeed be great, bendy can also be trendy!

2 thoughts on “TEAM GUEST BLOG NUMBER TWENTY THREE – Fiona Pickles”

  1. A very interesting post, which has made me ponder… As a writer, I default to linear narrative, and I can’t see that ever changing. I also have to admit that when I see those dread words ‘Three days earlier’ after a dramatic opening scene, just as you describe is often done in “The West Wing”, I groan, and feel resistant if not downright rebellious.

    However! On the other hand, I rewatched “The English Patient” this week, and that just wouldn’t have worked so well without the two stories unfolding in a dual timeline. It would be a completely different story, and to its detriment. Other films such as “Betrayal” and “Memento” unfold their stories backwards in time, and again that totally works for the story. With “Memento”, the structure throws us in the deep end of the main character’s situation. “Betrayal” cleverly matches various romance tropes and also turns them on their heads.

    So, it’s a timely reminder for me that my linear approach won’t always serve the story. Thank you for the mental nudge!

    1. I was listening to a radio adaptation of ‘The Camomile Lawn’ and the time-line in that was all over the place; coherent, but never fixed. (I haven’t read the book so I don’t know if it’s the same, but I presume so.) It reminded me that we don’t see very many non-linear narratives in our genre, and that’s a shame. It would be wonderful if writers took a chance and decided to experiment a bit.

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