What Is a Nonlinear Narrative?
All stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The author of a narrative, however, does not have to write these elements in exactly that order. In a nonlinear narrative, the author presents the events of a story to his or her readers out of chronological order to achieve a particular artistic effect.
Writers can create a nonlinear narrative by choosing a particular order in which to reveal the episodes of the plot, or by allowing readers to choose their own paths through the story. The latter kind of tale often has readers start on page one, but at the end of each section they will be given a choice between different possible actions. Each choice will have a corresponding page number to which the reader must flip to in order to continue the narrative along his or her chosen path. In this way, a single book can contain several possible stories. Web pages and electronic reading mediums expanded this style of storytelling with hypertext fiction, in which links make it easier to navigate through the story. The electronic format also allows for more possible content than could fit in a traditionally-sized book.
A nonlinear narrative that only has one storyline may use a number of techniques to present events from different points in time. A common one is the flashback, in which characters recall events from the past. Flashbacks usually present additional information that helps explain the character's current motivations and the direction of the story. These can take many forms, such as conversations, a character recalling an event from his or her past, or dreams. When authors withhold and then reveal information through flashbacks, they can change the way the readers perceive different characters and events within the story.
Flashbacks generally make it clear to the reader that they have left the story's previous time frame and are revealing a character's past. Authors of experimental forms of nonlinear narratives can employ more disjointed styles, in which the reader transitions into another part of the story's chronology without explicit warning. For instance, one section may end, and the reader may suddenly find himself reading about characters and events in the far past or distant future. Although this may be jarring at first, as the story progresses, the reader usually begins to more easily identify what part of the story they are reading after each transition.
Another common format for a nonlinear narrative is the frame story. These are circular in nature, with the reader starting at one point and then returning to it at the end of the tale. The beginning, which is called the frame, is frequently the chronological end of a story, from which the author takes the reader back in time. The bulk of this type of narrative is commonly centered on how the character got to where he or she was at the outset. This kind of story typically ends with a return to the frame, where the author usually uses the reader's full understanding of the character's past to create an emotional poignancy with the final words of the narrative.
@Mor - I guess that's the difference between someone remembering what order to tell a joke and someone suddenly stopping in the middle of telling a joke to say that they forgot to establish that the characters were in a bar.
I do think that flashbacks can be done well though. I mean, they are essentially just memories, which everyone does have. It's when they are overused or inserted into the story in a tacky way that they become a problem.
Sometimes there's just no other way to convey what happened in the past. Even Harry Potter books used flashbacks, they were just disguised as literal trips back into the past by characters using magic to see what happened there.
@irontoenail - Pulp Fiction is another good example, but I think this is usually done better in books than in movies. It tends towards cliche sometimes when it isn't done well, and you get flashbacks, which can be a very sloppy way of telling a story.
But then you get a novel like The Time Traveler's Wife, where the very nature of the story lends itself to a nonlinear narrative (even though, in some ways, the story is actually told in a linear fashion).
House of Leaves is another one where experimental fiction is done very well and a nonlinear narrative is explored through the story rather than as a trick to confuse the audience.
When I was at high school I remember my English teacher trying to explain this kind of story structure to us and using The Usual Suspects as an example of a movie where this was done well. I had never seen it before, but I got it out on his recommendation (although now that I think about it, I'm not sure my parents would have approved!) and thought it was the most amazing film I've ever seen.
Ever since then I've always loved that kind of nonlinear storytelling. There are so many wonderful movies that do it well and providing a twist when you're telling a story out of order is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Memento is another example of a movie where it is done with stunning precision.
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