I’ve been fascinated by nonlinear storytelling for a long time now, though I’ve barely skimmed the surface of it in my novels. It’s one of those writing techniques that can be used lightly or delved into at great depth, and examining it is something I think can be useful for a lot of writers in thinking about structure and plot. Also, it’s a heck of a lot of fun to play around with.
First, some definitions. Linear storytelling starts at A, then B happens, then C happens, in chronological order: A -> B -> C. Pretty much everyone agrees about this part.
Where people seem to have a much harder time is in describing nonlinear storytelling. Every one of the few books that talk about it flounders around for at least a couple of pages, presenting arguments about whether this or that sort of story structure should be included, before they finally come up with yet another almost-incomprehensible definition.
I come down in favor of simplicity: if linear storytelling is presenting A, B, and C in chronological order, then nonlinear storytelling is everything else. That means that nonlinear storytelling includes everything from really common techniques like flashbacks and in medias res openings to Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books to more complex structures like that of The Time Traveler’s Wife.
The thing about looking at nonlinear storytelling this way is that, for me at least, it makes it less intimidating. Instead of being this highly advanced type of storytelling that’s really hard and difficult to understand, it’s a continuum of techniques that I can work my way into.
There are a couple of things that I think are really important to remember about nonlinear storytelling, no matter where on the continuum one happens to be. The first one is that the story still has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and from the reader’s viewpoint, the beginning is on Page 1, no matter when in the internal story chronology Page 1 takes place. If the opening scene is in the middle of a battle, that’s the beginning of the story, and it has to work as a beginning as well as working as something that the characters have come to after all the flashbacks to pre-battle events that occupy chapters six through ten. This is part of what makes nonlinear stories so challenging to write.
Nonlinear stories also have to have a structure, and since chronology has been eliminated, the writer has to think about the structure rather than taking large chunks of it for granted. There are lots of ways to do this, from setting up a mostly-arbitrary pattern (as Roger Zelazny did in Roadmarks) to finding some non-time-based progression around which to group and order the scenes.
The second thing the writer needs to remember is that the protagonist and the characters are experiencing events chronologically, in a linear way, even if the writer is presenting them out of order. Even in a time-travel story, the protagonist’s subjective experience of events is linear – even if she’s born at C, lives til D, then goes back in time to A and lives through B, everything happens to her in order. It’s just that her order of events and the order of events for the external world isn’t the same.
This means that the viewpoint character in any scene may need to remember or refer to things that, for the reader, haven’t happened yet. Other times, characters may need to express views or beliefs that the reader already knows are false because of a chronologically “later” scene that’s already been shown. Keeping this kind of internal consistency is a good part of what makes nonlinear storytelling so difficult. (Part of what makes The Time Traveler’s Wife so interestingly complicated is that the two central characters aren’t experiencing events in the same order, and the story isn’t presented strictly according to either person’s internal chronology.)
The third thing is that process does not need to mimic the story. Some writers write their nonlinear stories in the order the reader reads the events, without more than a vague idea of how the straight-line chronological version would have happened. Other writers have a clear idea or outline of what happened in chronological order, even though they write the story nonlinearly, in the order the reader will read it. Still others write the story in chronological order, then shuffle the scenes around to get to the finished nonlinear product.
The final thing that I think more writers should be aware of is that all series are potentially nonlinear for some subset of readers. Even with a trilogy that’s published one-two-three over a short period, there will be some readers who pick up the second or third book first, and who do not go back to read the first volume until after they’ve finished whatever they ran across. I myself read The Lord of the Rings this way – The Two Towers was the only fantasy novel on the rack at the airport, so that was where I started reading. And it worked fine, even though I ended up reading the trilogy as 2-3-1 instead of in the normal order. So I suppose I’m saying that readers are likely to be very forgiving of this sort of inadvertent nonlinearity, especially if the book is clearly labeled as “Part 2” so they know what they’re getting into, but it’s still worth thinking about occasionally if you’re doing a long series.
There are also a lot of SF/F series where the author will write seven or eight books in chronological order, then jump back and write the “origin story” that’s been part of the implied backstory for the whole series, or do a prequel about the lives of some of the popular secondary characters before they met up with the main characters. Most people aren’t used to thinking of this as nonlinear writing, because we’re accustomed to looking at a novel or a short story as the basic unit of “story,” but it’s nonlinear for both the writer and all of the readers who’ve been following the series that far.
If all this tends to break your brain, don’t worry about it. The vast majority of novels are mostly linear, with maybe a few flashbacks thrown in and a medias res opening every once in a while. But if you’ve been looking for a place to stretch, or just have some interesting fun, it’s something to consider.