Out of Order: A Discussion of Nonlinear Narrative Structure
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Last time, we tried starting a story by writing the end first. You may eventually place the ending you wrote at the actual end of the story, or, as we discussed using an example from The Usual Suspects, you might use part of the last scene to open your story. Similar to starting a story at the end is starting the story en media res (Latin) or “in the middle of it.” Plotlines that start in the middle of the action and jump around in different spaces and times in a story are called nonlinear narratives.
A linear narrative starts at the beginning and reveals each detail as it each occurs in space and time.
A happened, then B, then C, and finally D.
Nonlinear narratives don’t follow rules of space and time. They can start and end at anytime in the trajectory of the plotline.
C is described first, followed by A, B, and then D.
D starts, followed by A, then jumps back to C, and ends with B.
Nonlinear narratives often use flashbacks or flash forwards in which past or future events are revealed through memory or other methods during exposition of a current event. However, there are other ways to use nonlinear narrative in which the narrative flow doubles back on itself while appearing to move forward. (There is an example coming up.)
The movie Memento and the television show Lost are great examples of nonlinear storytelling. Slaughterhouse Five and Time Traveler’s Wife are great literary examples of nonlinear narration. Jennifer Egan’s new novel A Visit from the Goon Squad is another perfect example of this method. The book pieces together a story using different characters, different narrative points of view (such as first-person, third-person, and even second-person), and presents non-consecutive events from different time periods and locations- each of which circles around the same core characters. For example, the turbulent childhood of one character, Sasha, is revealed as a flashback from her uncle who has been tasked with finding her in Italy where she has been living since running away from home. The episode in Italy, the reader knows, is already in the past because first chapter is about Sasha as a grown woman. All chapters are about people who either know Sasha, or know someone who knows her, and while telling their own individual stories, details of Sasha’s life and the lives of those around her are unfolded.
One of the best and most expertly crafted examples of nonlinear storytelling is “Continuity of Parks” by Julio Cortázar. Here, you can read it for yourself:
He had begun to read the novel a few days before. He had put it aside because of some urgent business conferences, opened it again on his way back to the estate by train; he permitted himself a slowly growing interest in the plot, in the characterizations. That afternoon, after writing a letter giving his power of attorney and discussing a matter of joint ownership with the manager of his estate, he returned to the book in the tranquility of his study which looked out upon the park with its oaks. Sprawled in his favorite armchair, its back toward the door--even the possibility of an intrusion would have irritated him, had he thought of it--he let his left hand caress repeatedly the green velvet upholstery and set to reading the final chapters. He remembered effortlessly the names and his mental image of the characters; the novel spread its glamour over him almost at once. He tasted the almost perverse pleasure of disengaging himself line by line from the things around him, and at the same time feeling his head rest comfortably on the green velvet of the chair with its high back, sensing that the cigarettes rested within reach of his hand, that beyond the great windows the air of afternoon danced under the oak trees in the park. Word by word, licked up the sordid dilemma of the hero and heroine, letting himself be absorbed to the point where the images settled down and took on color and movement, he was witness to the final encounter in the mountain cabin. The woman arrived first, apprehensive; now the lover came in, his face cut by the backlash of a branch. Admirably, she stanched the blood with her kisses, but he rebuffed her caresses, he had not come to perform again the ceremonies of a secret passion, protected by a world of dry leaves and furtive paths through the forest. The dagger warmed itself against his chest, and underneath liberty pounded, hidden close. A lustful, panting dialogue raced down the pages like a rivulet of snakes, and one felt it had all been decided from eternity. Even to those caresses which writhed about the lover's body, as though wishing to keep him there, to dissuade him from it; they sketched abominably the fame of that other body it was necessary to destroy. Nothing had been forgotten: alibis, unforeseen hazards, possible mistakes. From this hour on, each instant had its use minutely assigned. The cold-blooded, twice-gone-over re-examination of the details was barely broken off so that a hand could caress a cheek. It was beginning to get dark.
Not looking at each other now, rigidly fixed upon the task which awaited them, they separated at the cabin door. She was to follow the trail that led north. On the path leading in the opposite direction, he turned for a moment to watch her running, her hair loosened and flying. He ran in turn, crouching among the trees and hedges until, in the yellowish fog of dusk, he could distinguish the avenue of trees which led up to the house. The dogs were not supposed to bark, and they did not bark. The estate manager would not be there at this hour, and he was not there. He went up the three porch steps and entered. The woman's words reached him over a thudding of blood in his ears: first a blue chamber, then a hall, then a carpeted stairway. At the top, two doors. No one in the first room, no one in the second. The door of the salon, and then, the knife in his hand, the light from the great windows, the high back of an armchair covered in green velvet, the head of the man in the chair reading a novel.
(Download story HERE.)
“Parks” showcases the flexibility of nonlinear storytelling. From one vantage point, the man in the chair reads his book while facing the window, which looks out on an avenue of trees at the end of which is another man poised to murder the reading man who is, at that moment, reading the story of his own murder. While the narrative seems at first to move in a direct line forward, it actually doubles back on itself without even moving in time, only in space. If you ascribed a shape to the plotline, it’d be a circle. Other images that come to mind: Two mirrors turned toward each other; M.C. Escher’s hands drawing each other; John Malkovich crawling into his own mind. The creator and the created become one continuous, self-generating entity.
Ok, let’s practice. Using either your own plot or one borrowed from a well known story, revise the original telling using nonlinear narration. Try to preserve the important parts of the original plot, and exploit shifts in time and space to highlight particularly poignant images or important plot turns. Juxtaposing similar imagery or themes can add congruity where the timeline is uneven. (Egan’s book is a champion of this.)
As an example, I have re-written the common fable of Little Red Riding Hood as a nonlinear narrative.
When the woodsman saw the tracks in the mud, he knew something wasn’t right. The forest was too quiet and both sets were fresh, meaning the second set could only have been a moment or two behind the first. Shouldering his axe, he ran down the path just as a scream ripped the air.
Clancy loved her Grandma and tried to visit her whenever she could. It was spring, but it was not warm enough to leave home without her cloak, a red, hooded cape that her mother had made her. She prepared a basket of goodies for her grandma who hadn’t been feeling very well lately. She kissed her mother good-bye and set off into the forest, but not before her mother warned her to go directly to Grandma’s and not to dawdle or talk to strangers.
Wow. Grandma looks worse than ever, Clancy thought when she spotted her bonneted grandmother peeking out at her from under the bed covers. Strange, too, that Grandma had not opened the door for Clancy, but rather called out in a hoarse voice to enter. Usually her grandma left the front door locked, but because Clancy had been late (she’d been distracted during her journey) her grandmother had probably grown tired of waiting and unlocked the door before lying in bed.
The day was truly glorious, and after only a few minutes of walking, Clancy pulled her hood down. The sun peaked through the forest canopy and shafts of sunlight spotlighted little groups of wild flowers. Clancy yearned to pick some, but remembered her mother’s edict to go straight, so she walked on.
As Clancy approached the bed, she could see that her grandmother really wasn’t herself today. Her hands, wrinkly and small on any other day, were large—perhaps swollen—and covered in hair. “Gran, I brought you some flowers,” she ventured. Grandma just looked at her with wide eyes. Grandmother’s bonnet, too, looked stretched, and two lumps protruded on the sides. When Clancy reached the bedside, her grandmother suddenly smile a wide, toothy grin that Clancy had never seen on her nearly toothless old grandma; she exclaimed, “Grandma, what big teeth you have!”
As she neared her Grandmother’s house, Clancy paused for a moment to loosen her red cape. She was quite warm from the walk and needed to cool down. She put down her basket and started to undo the lace at the neck, when a thick, growling voice interrupted her. “Where are you off to this fine day?”
Grandma was setting the table when she heard a knock on the door. It wasn’t like Clancy to be early, but she figured her granddaughter had perhaps left early because it was so nice out. No sooner had she opened the door than she found herself surrounded by giant teeth.
“Oh!” said Clancy, “I’m off to see my grandmother.” She’d been taken off guard by the hairy creature that had silently emerged only a few feet from her. “I’d better get going though.” She grabbed the basket and started to walk on, but the creature said. “Oh really? How nice. I’m sure she’d love some of these flowers.”
“Well, yes, I had thought that, too, but I promised I’d…”
“Oh, it’ll just take a minute and no one would know. I bet your granny would love them.” At this, the creature wiped some drool from his lip and blinked hard.
“Maybe just a few then.”
When the cottage door burst open, Wolf was still trying to get the grandmothers tight nightgown over his bulging gut. He knew he was done for when he looked up to see the man and the axe coming straight towards him. He had one final thought as the blade split his belly, and little girl and her grandmother emerged from the gaping hole left by the axe:
I should have chewed my food...
Now it's your turn. Please post your nonlinear rewrites in the comments sections. Or if you'd rather not share publicly, email me at Taylor@litreactor.com.
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I would like to add some interesting information I learned about how Jennifer Egan came up with and executed the concept for her book, A Visit from the Goon Squad. I had the great pleasure of meeting Ms. Egan and hearing her read at Portland's recent Wordstock Festival. She said this story started as one story, an idea that occured to her after seeing a woman's open purse in a restroom (you'll have to the read the book to know what I mean). In other words, she wrote one chapter, the first, based on a real experience. Then she decided to explore another character in the chapter, so she wrote a chapter for that character. And so on. In this way she built the story one character at a time.
She also mentioned that she wanted each chapter to be different. She accomplished this using different narrative voices (1st, 3rd, even 2nd person) and different styles (epistolary, powerpoint, article, flashback, etc.) and time periods (past, present, future). While you never hear the same person twice, all the characters and pieces start to add up into a full, very detailed, world.
I think her explanations can help a writer figure out new ways to tell a story using the nonlinear narrative format. Knowing how she worked with her material and her thought process behind it really helped me see how it all came together and why.
Thought y'all would find that interesting. Happy writing!
Very cool. I gotta read that book.
A Visit From the Goon Squad was really good. The best part is the chapter comprised completely of Powerpoint slides.
I wrote my first novel out of order and it's actually a very interesting technique, because it allows you to place the climax in the middle of the story, chronologically, yet at the end of the narrative.
Really enjoyed this post. Twas awesome.
Thanks, Derekberry! At her talk during Wordstock, Jennifer Egan said the PowerPoint chapter almost didn't happen, but she wanted some new way to show what happened to Sasha's character, so she added it to the manuscript way after she sold it to the publisher. I personally think it was one of my most poignant chapter of them all. She also talked about how the pauses (which the son is obsessed with in songs) was part of the PowerPoint format in that you can get PPT to flow according to certain timings--you can purposely create breaks and pauses in how the the information is presented. I thought that was pretty cool. I can't imagine the book without that chapter.
How are you liking Geek Love? I read that book a few years ago. CRAZY. I can't hear the word "midway" without thinking about it.
Really great post, and it comes at a perfect time for me. Using this and your previous post on endings, I've managed to turn the corner on a story that I've been struggling with for a while now. Thanks for your insights!
Excellent, moleskine, I'm so glad that these tips helped you! Best of luck to you on all your writing!
late to the game on reading this - thanks for the column.
I read John Irving's Last Night in Twisted River and found that he meandered back and forth in time like a twisted river. It flowed beautifully, and I was left gobsmacked. My writing is never so fluid (I'll just call it my style and move on). Mind you, Irving's been at it for quite some time.
FOR NON LINEAR LITERATURE THERE IS A BOOK CALLED :
BEFORE THE DAY BY JORGE SANTA CRUZ
IT IS OUTSTANDING, AND VERY WELL SEWED. HIS WEBPAGE IS WWW.JSCRUZ.ME
Great article! I'll do a rewrite down below. But first, a few thoughts...
I feel like "Continuity of Parks" reads more like a meta-story, what with its Escheresque blending of two layers, rather than nonlinear. But I guess these two can be mutually non-exclusive.
Also, I read an article about Egan. The idea of Powerpoint slides on a book as a chapter cracked me up. For those of you interested in her work, I'd highly recommend "Black Box", a Twitter serialized short story.
I've seen neither Memento, nor this much infamous Lost (I hear there's a polar bear in a tropical island?), but Slaughterhouse-Five and The Time Traveler's Wife both have actual time travel. I wonder if there's any novel where flashbacks and flashforwards are effectively and seamlessly used without alienating or confusing the reader.
Rewrite of another fairy tale
Mike pointed the Makarov to Peter's temple. "Come on, just give me some of your hair, so I can make it a rope and save my friend from drowning. Then we can can all go home alive." Sweat was dribbling from Peter's double chin. "I can't. I need you to bring me a dozen of eggs from Rocky's farm. I need protein to grow my hair fast."
"Mike!" screamed John, and his voice traveled away. Mike looked back to see John gone. Instead of where he was, there was a big hole.
"No can do, sir" said Rocky the Rooster, "I got all my wives laying eggs for Kathy the cat on a tight deadline. Single egg less, and we're all done for. You got a waiver request, you put it up with Cathy, boy." Mike put his gun back and walked away.
"John, are you okay? Answer me, John," Mike screamed down the hole. His voice echoed.
"So why do you want the egg again?" purred Cathy. "For the hundredth time, my friend fell down a well, and I want to get your permission to get an egg from Rocky the Rooster, so that I can give it to Peter the pig, so he can give me his thick long hair, which I can make into a rope, and throw it down the hole my friend fell in and save him." "Such Samaritan you are," said Kathy and nodded.
"Mike, I think I broke my leg," echo came down from within. Mike was losing it. "OK, buddy. I'm gonna get you out of here. Stay put."
Mike and John walked around the meadow for two hours and found jackshit. There was a picnic by the human gods few hours ago. So they thought they could come back with a crumb or two. But it was all clean, alright. Pigeons had swooped all of them.
Okay, this was messed up. But maybe I'm reading too much Leonard Elmore. Not sure if the fairy tale rings a bell. It's about an ant that goes to get help from other animals in order to save his friend, the other ant.
Natso, you are awesome! I LOVE the re-write.
Thanks, Taylor. I noticed you had another article on meta-story as well. The reason I was confident on this was I started an NGO called MetaStory. (shameless plug)
Not sure if anyone mentioned this, but Italo Calvino's "The Non-Existent Knight" is a brilliant short story that plays with non-linear story telling. It is an amazing read.