1. Eliza Rain
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    Eliza Rain Member

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    Non-linear story telling

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Eliza Rain, Oct 3, 2015.

    Now this is something I feel is going to be different per every case, but also needs to be heavily researched before being tackled- a non-linear story.

    I've been tossing around the idea of using this technique to generate a more dynamic feel of action, but to also create some mystery around certain characters. If done right I believe this could not only be refreshing and exciting, but also able to keep a reader's intrigue. However, I realize if done wrong it will do the exact opposite, making the story become drag, dull and intolerable to keep up with.

    So I ask for the forums for advice, opinions, and suggestions towards research! Any medium that has a nonlinear set up would be valuable. And if you've tackled such a project, tell me what you've found to be difficult and to watch for.

    Thank you all!
     
  2. Jeff Countryman
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    Jeff Countryman Living the dream Supporter

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    I recently read a lot of reviews about a book series that I was thinking of reading over the winter. The writer is experienced and known, however, the non-linear approach he took on the first book drew heavy criticism (done wrong, I guess?). I'll post the author and a link to the reviews as soon as I can find them (it's been a month or so and can't quite remember). The reviews were a real eye-opener as what 'not to do' as a new writer (me). As far as researching - hmmm.....not sure how you would go about that.
     
  3. Acidveins
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    Acidveins Member

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    Pulp Fiction immediately comes to mind. Its a great example of non-linear story telling.

    I hate telling stories in chronological order. It gives me no control of the pace or structure. However, I might be thinking a little differently than you. If a story starts at, let's say 2014, and you give brief flashbacks or memories to the character that happened in 2010. Would you consider the story in order, as in a timeline?

    To me, the biggest advantage of telling a story in a non-linear fashion is the absolute control that the author can have on the story's pace. You seem to be saying the complete opposite. Maybe we are coming from two opposite perspectives. Could you elaborate on your ideas?

    - Edit, sorry. The biggest thing to watch for is your verb tense. He had read, he read, he is reading. It gets more complicated depending on how you tackle the changing timelines.
     
  4. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I have an instinctive negative reaction to this idea. I do hate trying to follow a story's events and getting lost. However, I know other people do (sometimes) enjoy doing this sort of thing.

    My own preference is to always orient the reader when any non-linear transition gets made. If there is a time or location shift that doesn't follow directly from the previous chapter or scene, I always prefer to be told, in some fashion, what has just changed.

    If you can find a way to do that, so that the reader is in exactly the same place YOU are when you make the shift, then by all means go for it. However, just because you know where you are going does not mean that your readers will automatically follow. The trick is to let them know what you've just done. Somehow. Work out a way to make the transitions obvious.

    You don't have to tell them why, but make sure they know what. Otherwise, they'll end up floundering around, going back and re-reading, trying to figure out what the heck ...or worse yet, plowing ahead, thinking something is happening in the previous time frame when it's not. The confusion that follows that mistake can be irreparable. I know I have quit reading books that did that to my head. I got fed up with the artificial struggle. I want to engage with a story and discover its meaning, not put a puzzle together.
     
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  5. tonguetied
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    tonguetied Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would agree with jannert's assessment overall. I am not sure what you mean by " Any medium that has a nonlinear set up", but the movie "Memento" might be a reference. However I believe the intent of the movie's backwards tale was to put the viewer in the same state of mind as the main character, which I doubt is what you are going for. I don't really understand why a nonlinear story line would make a story more dynamic, but you obviously have some ideas in mind.
     
  6. aguywhotypes
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    aguywhotypes Active Member

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    This sounds interesting, but maddeningly confusing.
     
  7. rainy_summerday
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    rainy_summerday Active Member

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    Some movies with non-linear story telling.

    Stay (2005)
    Donnie Darko
    The Butterfly Effect

    They can be very confusing, though.

    Generally speaking, everything overloaded with flashbacks and flash-forwards is non-linear, too. Good luck with your project!
     
  8. Christine Ralston
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    Christine Ralston Active Member

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    My current project is non-linear because to write it chronologically would take away all the mystery. The biggest challenge in writing this way is continuity. I'm still working on the first draft, but I expect to write extensive notes on issues that need fixing in subsequent drafts.
     
  9. Christine Ralston
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    Christine Ralston Active Member

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    Let me add 12 Monkeys to that list.
     
  10. bumble bee
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    bumble bee Member

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    I like non linear stories, as they can play around with the readers' expectations/knowledge verses the characters'

    e.g.
    1) MC is on the run
    2) Enemy catches them
    3) We learn MC committed a terrible crime and Enemy is police officer

    That would likely be more interesting than:

    1) MC commits terrible crime
    2)MC runs from Enemy police officer
    3) Enemy catches MC

    [of course, you could also write
    1) MC on the run
    2) We learn about terrible crime
    3) Enemy police officer catches MC]

    I think F Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is The Night is an example of this- it's years since I read so please excuse me being fuzzy on the details but I believe there are two versions, which relate events in a different order.

    Off the top of my head: Ian McEwan's Atonement, Ian Banks The Wasp Factory, I think some William Faulkner has done this as well. I'll try and think of some others when I a bit less tired!

    It does lend itself to a mystery/story with a twist in which a flashback helps to make sense of events/characters' motivations so far.

    You could also add poignancy where the reader knows more than the characters e.g.

    1) MC joins army, gets to know fellow soldiers etc
    2) MC killed in war
    3) Childhood and marriage of MC before the war

    In my examples each section of the story is still following uniform rules of time and space, it's just that the whole piece is non chronological. Or were you thinking something more complex than that?

    e.g.
    1) MC very scared, in unspecified danger
    2) MC first day at school
    3) MC chatting to other people
    4) MC getting ready for wedding day
    5) MC dies
    6) we find out MC chatting to other people in 3) is when he joins army
    7) MC gets home from first day at school
    8) We realise MC is soldier on battlefield in 1) & 5)
    9) evening of MC's wedding day

    etc

    That would need careful handling to make sure that enough interesting things are happening in each section to make you want to read it but not so many that it just gets confusing.

    It might need an ongoing timeline to hold it together

    *1)MC scared on battlefield
    flashback 1) first day of school
    *2)MC injured on battlefield
    flashback 2) chatting to other people
    *3)MC dying on battlefield
    flashback 3) wedding day
    etc

    Does that help??

    I think it really depends what sort of story you're writing and how non linear you get!
     
  11. dreamca7cher
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    dreamca7cher New Member

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    The move "Crash" is a perfect example of just that.
     
  12. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    There are lots of ways to tell a story in a non-linear fashion. One way is in Octavia Butler's Clay's Ark, which is told in a way that cuts the story in half, flips one side over and tells that side in reverse order. Imagine the story consists of just 10 chapters, in the logical order of when things happen, the chapters play out like this: 10, 1, 9, 2, 8, 3, 7, 4, 6, 5.

    [​IMG]
     
  13. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    Good points have already been made here, so I'll just add this: as with anything else you decide to do with your story, make sure it's for the betterment of the story and not just to be different. Surely there are intriguing stories that would benefit from being told in a sequence different from the chronological timeline. Perhaps a story would only work when told that way. But I'd recommend against saying at the outset, "I want to tell a non-linear story" and then trying to force a story into that mold--instead, choose that method of storytelling because it's the one that makes the most sense for the story you have.
     
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  14. Acidveins
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    Acidveins Member

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    Ya, this is great advice. It's usually better to start a draft chronologically, and then decide if a non-liner path fits.
     
  15. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm writing something that's somewhat non-linear (main plot and flashback plot running concurrently) - and I don't know if I have any specific advice - but I will put in my two cents.

    1) Writing non-linear is hard, just like any other continuity-interruption is hard (multiple POVs, for instance, have the same issue). You're adding a degree of difficulty at the outset - which is fine - but accept at the beginning that this is not going to be easy and your readers are likely to give you a lot of pushback if your story structure isn't working.

    2) Even if the TIMELINE isn't linear - the STORY needs to be linear. There should be a consistent sense of forward momentum as you move from main timeline to flashback and back again. If, for instance, you cut back in time, whatever you cut to should build on whatever we learned in the previous chapters, reveal new angles, and pose new questions that heighten the tension in the main narrative.

    3) Nobody likes reading flashbacks that do nothing but establish backstory. Ever.

    4) Expect to have to do a lot of revision on the transition points between timelines - if you mess those up, your readers will tar and feather you for throwing them out of the story - and most of them you will mess up the first time you write them.

    5) Flashbacks work best for me when I "fade in" and "fade out" of the main timeline. You can't just hit the brakes on a racing plot and say "twenty years earlier". You have to do a few paragraphs of set up that slows the action and starts putting the reader into the other timeline - so they don't feel jarred. I'm not great at it yet, but I've been doing okay by setting up situations that mirror what's about to happen in the flashback and then having the character wax a bit nostalgic from the sense of deja vu. Then I fade back into the main timeline by opening the next scene with events that show the direct result of what happened in the flashback. (I also use flashbacks to paper over awkward time jumps in the main narrative, so you don't have to fade up in the same place you fade out).

    6) Don't let anyone persuade you to write linearly if you don't want to - keep plugging at it. But know that what you're doing is hard and that your first draft is going to mess with people - you'll have to develop new skills and that's not always going to be easy.
     
  16. Enyo
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    Enyo Member

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    I like triggered flashbacks. Part of the reason that I added it in is because MC's background is rather rough. As a child, she was horribly abused (beatings, burns, lack of food). I can only take reading those things in small bursts, so I write them as such. I never take up more than half a page (12 pt Times New Roman) with the flashbacks because I don't want the reader to get too far away from the current situation. Here is an example of a longer one.


    1. Supporting character (SC) gets burned in a fire and MC helps take care of his wound.
    2. SC asks how a child knows so much about burns.
    3. MC remembers how she was burned on purpose for a trivial offense (half page rule applies). Another slave helped her heal.
    4. SC (aware of her painful past) brings her out of the memory by touching her shoulder and stating she does not need to talk about.

    Sometimes the flashbacks are literally one sentence. One goes, "I remembered how many times Missy shoved me to the ground as a means of entertainment, and I just couldn't let the fight continue". I also use flashbacks as a good opportunity to show a bit of her character, too, not just backstory. For the burn conversation, she thinks about showing the SC the burn (on her upper leg, but she never wears clothes that reveal it), but doesn't want pity, so she just replies she learned it in her home country and leaves it at that. Her reactions to her memories are useful tools.
     
  17. Quixote's Biographer
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    Quixote's Biographer Member

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    So my 'original idea' wasn't so original after all then.. :D

    If you've read that book, how did it work for you as a reader? I've been planning a novel that uses this kind of structure similar to the book you're referring to so I'm very interested in some thoughts on how it was done and why the author chose to do it that way.
     
  18. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Well, it's Octavia Butler, so what can say? It's masterful. :-D I don't think I could have pulled the story off with the same impact given that the physical end of the book is the chronological middle of the story, so the second, fourth, and sixth chapters come chronologically after the climax, but are read before it. You would have to read it to judge for yourself. It's not a long book.
     
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  19. Quixote's Biographer
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    Quixote's Biographer Member

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    Thanks! I'll check it out :)
     

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