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    • CommentAuthorjoshdahl
    • CommentTimeFeb 2nd 2011
    I have decided to use some new writing style or technique with each new script I produce this year.
    For the script I am working on right now I have decided to try my hand at non-linear story telling. I am a VERY linear thinker, so this is a bit of a challenge for me. I think I have learned a bit of how I can do it.
    I have chosen a starting point which is the emotional impetus for the story and then I move forward by answering whatever questions come up... regardless of when they lead.

    So, what are your thoughts on non-linear storytelling? When does it work and not work? What function does it serve? What are the tricks to doing it well? What are the pitfalls to avoid? Have you tried it?

    Just talk about it...


    • CommentTimeFeb 2nd 2011
    Is flashing back and forth in time between characters like say for instance Watchmen considered 'non-linear'?
  1.  (9494.3)
    Just make sure you have good tags so the reader can tell where they are in the story at any given moment. Usually where non-linear loses readers is because they lose track of where they are in the story.
    • CommentTimeFeb 3rd 2011
    I personally think that non-linear or experimental writing is fantastic, maybe it is just the way I'm wired up. However, a lot of bad writing masquerades as non-linear or experimental. I think mercurialblonde is right - you need good hooks and structure, and also you need to know why you're using this technique. If it's just for the sake of it rather than in service to the story or characters, it might not work too well.
      CommentAuthorHEY APATHY!
    • CommentTimeFeb 3rd 2011 edited
    I think the puzzle of a good non-linear story makes the journey that much better. The sensation of feeling one step behind the story, yet still totally with it, can be a really interesting one. ( film: Peirre Le fou comics Jimmy Corrigon Smartest Kid on Earth))

    Usually where non-linear loses readers is because they lose track of where they are in the story.

    I'm currently making a non-linear webcomic that attempts to tell one a story through a series of seemingly unrelated single page comics. I thought it would be cool if every page had a self contained parable or punch line so the reader (and new online readers) would never be lost, although they might not realize they are reading a whole comic at first. If anyone has the time, the first 10 pages are here let me know what you think of the weird narrative technique.
  2.  (9494.6)
    Best Non-linear story I can think of is Catch-22; I seem to recollect the movie reservoir dogs had some less than linear parts, as well; but it's been a bit since I've taken out the dvd. Offhand, I can't think of many comics that are in that style; beyond the obv. Watchmen.

    I think a lot of how 'readable' it was would also depend on the artist and how you indicate different times, perspectives, etc. visually.
  3.  (9494.7)
    Wait. Pierrot Le Fou is non-linear? Where? Belmondo and Karina hook up, go on the lamb, have adventures--the end. Bang! That's linear, no?

    Non-linear would be like 21 Grams.

    I think non-linear is a great device to get the reader to stop paying as much attention to the plot, and get more into the characters themselves--since the reader becomes disconnected from the safety net of the conveyor belt of plot, they have to focus in more, and look for hints as to where they are--and in the process can be brought more into the world of the characters and story.

    ...or they just throw the book across the room and read something else.
    • CommentAuthorjonah
    • CommentTimeFeb 3rd 2011
    For fun you might want to try cutting your story up randomly and then back editing it to make sense. I still think the cut up is worth using for it's own sake.

    As far as comics go Bill Sienkiewicz and Dave McKean have booth worked on a few. ;) But really the whole idea of a ret-con is non-linear story telling.

    Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks is a book I think does non-linear really well. I love how Phillip K Dick uses it to bend reality.

    It's easier to see how it effects the story with movies though. You can download Pulp Fiction - The Chronological Cut and Memento has an easter egg to watch it backwards to compare and contrast what effects it has. Hiroshima Mon Amour is another movie that works much better by being non-linear. The TV show Damages is almost comical in the extent it use non-linear story telling . I think it was Lost Highway that has a non-linear telephone conversation that scares the crap out of me. And Rashomon is the classic.

    I like being confused sometimes(well, often really).... I don't need markers necessarily. I just watched The Limey and it was interesting at least.
    • CommentTimeFeb 3rd 2011
    As I understand it, non-linear storytelling largely just messes with time progressing forward. It's still causal, the scenes fit coherently if you break them apart and reorganize them and of course there are tells to inform the reader/view of where a particular scene fits, such as coloration/descriptive terms, present setting, prop/macguffins and characters. If I have that right then Momento the major movie of this type. It tracked two time trajectories (I think, I only watched it the one time in the theatre) but its arc was something the viewers had to puzzle out so just as the action was reaching its climax the audience was ever more tense, knowing what was inevitably to come next.

    What Momento *didn't* mess with was the emotional and informational trajectory. Those followed the standard Aristotelian model. For a work of art that does mess with these please read The Invisibles. It was also causal, but that didn't mean each new scene could be placed by the reader and accessed with the same emotion and information where the scene had left off previously. Instead of an Aristotelian arch it resembled more like what a kitten does with a long piece of string.

    Oh yeah and Rashomon - or several other mystery/whodunit stories like Murder on the Orient Express - are also told in a non linear fashion, but more like repeated lines of the same melody played by different instruments until you find the perfect strain that tells you what really happened.

    I disagree with the note above that it forces you to look at the characters and tune out the plot. Because I'm left working so hard to figure out where I am and what's going on, the plot is all I can think of. I typically become alienated from the characters to one degree or another. I don't think we're supposed to get too close to the Momento characters, except the main guy, because what we are meant to experience is more the bewildering world of the protagonist and the importance of narrative to our perception of the world. Invisibles.... err well I heard it was all a big chaos magick spell on the part of Morrison, but the simple thing I have no fucking clue other than it incorporated some philosophical treaties in its denouement. Well, and I haven't read it in several years. I should fix that.

    David Lynch movies throw linear movement out and with it a lot of causality in favor of a through-line that is elsewise - subconscious or surreal or emotional, etc. You watch them, but the more important thing is to experience them.

    For my money, I liked Momento and 21 Grams ok but *love* Lynch. It's effects go deeper, even if the story resolution is typically unsatisfying. Keep in mind that Lynch has no shortage detractors, though.
  4.  (9494.10)
    I can't actually think of any books I may have read that were non-linear.

    Any obvious ones besides Catch-22 (which I still haven't read - shame on me)?

    I can't really imagine it working that well, but already a bunch of movies have been mentioned that pull it off, so obviously it must be possible in prose.

    I think it would be simpler in comics because you can use captions to explicitly tell the reader what time they are in, or use other effects like different art styles or different colour pallets to get the information across more subtly.
  5.  (9494.11)
    Speaking of Lynch, I just watched Mulholland Drive for the first time. I was very enthralled by the story early on, the characters kept me interested, even the odd subplots were good.
    David Lynch movies throw linear movement out and with it a lot of causality in favor of a through-line that is elsewise - subconscious or surreal or emotional, etc. You watch them, but the more important thing is to experience them.

    For my money, I liked Momento and 21 Grams ok but *love* Lynch. It's effects go deeper, even if the story resolution is typically unsatisfying. Keep in mind that Lynch has no shortage detractors, though.

    I found the resolution completely unsatisfying. I felt as though there was a non-linear confusing ending just to avoid having a linear ending. I don't mind the mystery; I don't go into a Lynch film expecting to be led along and have everything explained. I understand that Lynch did not make the film that he had originally intended to make; I feel that as veiwers, we suffered through a bad ending.

    If you're going to deliberately have non-linear storytelling, I feel that it is important to have your story defined (at least to yourself) and that the ending isn't just some tacked on odd filler just to add to the confusion instead of the story.
  6.  (9494.12)
    The thing is, if you've watched almost any movie or television program in the past twenty years, you've been exposed to nonlinear narrative either through flashbacks or flashforwards. Sure, it can be dramatic, like the staccato working-backwards of Memento or that Guy Ritchie thing where he shows a scene then takes us back and walks us up to it so paced we almost forget we've seen where it ends up, but it's also just an endemic tool these days.

    The idea of "chronological order" is often flawed, anyway, especially if the work is meant to be being recounted by someone. The fact that the speaking perspective is ahead of the story in time, such as with Nabokov's Ada, means that we are simultaneously in the time being told of and the time of the telling. The Iliad, after all, is told in a nonlinear fashion when it is told traditionally; that's what in media res is! Wuthering Heights, Trainspotting, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, much of Michael Moorcock's best works and Shelley Jackson's.

    My suggestion for using nonlinear techniques is to just relax and use them as you feel they're best used. If it doesn't work out in a draft, go back and do something different.
    • CommentAuthorEmperor
    • CommentTimeFeb 3rd 2011
    It might be worth looking at Iain Banks Transition in this regard, as it is told from the perspective of a number of characters with the timeline shifting around within each of their segments and, because some characters use pseudonyms, there is the possibility a couple of them might be the same person at different phases of their life. It rather suits a story with involves hoping between parallel universes in and out of different bodies which can bring sex changes or varying states of mental health.
    • CommentTimeFeb 3rd 2011
    Some non-linear books: Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut, Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk & Maldoror by the Comte de Lautreamont.
    I love non-linear books.
    • CommentAuthorjoshdahl
    • CommentTimeMar 5th 2011
    I am doing this as a two issue story, and I have completed the first issue.

    As I said, I tend to think VERY linearly, so when I tried to do non-linear my first response was to tell the story as normal, but then jump to anything that is referenced. For example, two characters are talking and one says "I am still mad about yesterday" and then we cut to that scene.

    Not great.

    So the more I worked at it, the more I loosened up and just let the story open on whatever scene seemed to be the next one to tell. And I did it. I completed that issue and now I have moved on to the second part.

    As this is the conclusion of the story, it would have been very easy to just zoom straight to the conclusion. But instead I am forcing myself to stick with non=linear. And it is working. I am getting better at it, and it is coming a bit more naturally.

    Now I fully accept that this is not a natural out-growth from the story. It is not that the story needed to be told this way... I just wanted to do this and so I forced it on the story... my fear is that it will come off as forced. My hope is that I will learn enough about how to do it that I will be able to seamlessly use it in later stories.
  7.  (9494.16)
    I sure hope non-linear works; it's the only way I know how to write. :)

    I think that forcing your mind to work in a new format is probably an excellent exercise, even it if you find it doesn't work this time around.
    I tend to write non-linearly even if the story (or piece of the story) will ultimately be told straight through start-middle-finish. I write a lot of middles outright, and build the beginnings from there, and the conclusions later, which allows me the freedom to assemble the pieces however which way feels natural.

    I am a huge fan of 21 Grams, Memento, 13 Conversations About One Thing, even The Boondock Saints presents stuff in a non-linear fashion when appropriate. Gaiman's SANDMAN also presents plenty of stories out of order, even though the narrative as a whole follows a traditional start-middle-finish arc. SIN CITY does that a bit with the intertwining storylines. PLANETARY does too, as Elijah Snow experiences his 'new' life while he tries to piece together his missing memories.
  8.  (9494.17)
    I find non-linear storytelling to be the most powerful and most effective for most of the stories that I wind up telling, so I've found a couple of ways to work with it. I have no clue as to their portability into other writer's space, but you know how that goes. There are two main methods that I use:

    1) Think of the story as a singular timeline and chart it out as such. Do the full thing of working out a full timeline for the story from the earliest moment to the latest. From there, do the standard thing of expanding the outline into beats to get a sense of the flow of the story. Once you have the total story mapped out, always treat beats as self-contained units and don't interrupt them. By going through an entire beat regardless of chronological placement without pause, you can pretty much guarantee that your readers will be able to follow at least that section and likely be able to place together a working timeline while reading. By having these contained beats, you can jump all around the timeline at will. You only really have to make sure that each beat is relatively self-contained to the point that a reader could divert attention for prolonged periods without losing running threads and, as stated before, establish quick, early, and directly the temporal location of the beat.

    2) Another method that I'll use is charting out several short stories that take place in several different periods of time but connect with each other in an atemporal way, like an event in the far future explaining a mystery in the past or an event in the past explaining something in the future. This method especially works well if the cast is relatively unique to each of the stories. From there, I'll chart out the beats in the short stories and then map them against each other in essentially a stack of horizontal lines, stacking them based on thematic dialogue between them. It takes a bit of prep work, but once all that is done, I can just sit and write by going from left to right in the columns, jumping between any of the vertically matched beats however I'd like to so long as the left to right motion is steady. I stole that one from part of the Writing for DC Comics book by Denny O'Neil that came out a while ago where he explains mapping out multiple arcs of varying lengths against a run on a book. It seemed like something that could be adapted well for fiction and has worked really well for me so far.

    I'd argue that non-linear storytelling also works not based around time or space but the differences of the smaller narrative arcs you are jumping between. If you jump into the past to explain something happening in the future, you are still essentially telling a story in a linear fashion, just using other events outside of a small bracket of time to answer questions. It's really non-linear when these arcs are separate from one another; there is dialogue, of course, or you wouldn't match them against each other in a single piece, but it also isn't exactly like one of them is the "main" arc and the others just serve as exposition on that. Something like The Illuminatus! Trilogy or The Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson are non-linear in that fashion, as are a great deal of things by Thomas Pynchon or James Joyce. In these instances, the use of non-linear storytelling is more about intertextual play and connections between parallel events displaced in time and/or space to tell a kind of metastory that sits outside of any of the individual threads. I love it. It hurts my head and I have a hunch I barely fully understand these things, but they sure are a hell of a lot of fun.

    (That's a substantially meaty first post for me, I suppose.)
  9.  (9494.18)
    @meaninglessnoise: Now that you mention Gaiman, both American Gods (flashbacks to the myths) and his 24 hour comic (a very conversational meandering away and back to the main topic) feature non-linear storytelling, off the top of my head.

    The Fountain is also non-linear (the graphic novel is clearer in my opinion).
    • CommentAuthorKriegssun
    • CommentTimeMar 7th 2011
    Personally, I think the only way I could do it was if I had the story totally mapped out in my head, from start to finish, before I could even consider deconstructing it and telling it from finish to start (or jumping around all over the damn place). Non-linear story-telling does have the benefit of packing an extra "ah ha!" punch for the reader once they figure out what the hell's going on, but done poorly, it ends up like Lost, with questions unanswered, and a pissed-off audience. Be wary of all the puzzle pieces not fitting together at the end (beginning?) of the story. Consider also the medium, where delayed publication between issues can turn an intriqued and curious audience into a confused and apathetic one. If the type of drink Character A has in a bar in the first issue is a defining reason for why Character B is serving ten years for beating up chimpanzees in the final issue, it's difficult for a reader to keep that in mind if the span of time between issue one and issue whatever is six hundred days. The story has to be TIGHT. I love the non-linear approach, and good luck and god bless if you can pull it off in a comic.